Response to Colleagues: Degrees of AF, and Student Autonomy

I promised that today would would start working out what academic freedom grad students have.

But I think I want to postpone that to tomorrow [*sad trombone*] so that I can address two discussions I had on social media about yesterday’s post:

  1. Degree or kind?

I’ve been making the case that there are different degrees of academic freedom associated with different academic roles. One colleague asked me whether it mightn’t be more accurate to think of it in terms of different types of academic freedom. I replied as follows:

I am kind of imagining both degree and kind in the final picture. Way back when, I documented all of the different freedoms that are clustered under “academic freedom.” What I’m kind of imagining is that each of those freedoms is a “volume bar” with different volume settings. So, like, maybe undergraduates have moderate volume on freedom to learn, low to moderate volume on freedom of expression, low to moderate volume on criticizing the university, low volume on freedom to teach, etc., etc. Tenured faculty have high volume on all of the freedoms. Etc., etc. I am actually contemplating a grand synthesizing post with images of volume bars for the various freedoms for each broad category of university member.

So, stay tuned for that.

2. What about student-centred curricula? 

Another colleague worried (among other things) that in yesterday’s post I represented curricular and course constraints as more fixed and professor-centred than they are or should be. This colleague pointed to my own rad pedagogy, which very often involves having students help to design the syllabus, including writing intended learning outcomes for the syllabus, choosing readings and learning activities, and designing course assessments. The colleague also pointed to flexible, student-centred programs, like my own university’s late Independent Studies program (which was deactivated a year or two ago) in support of the point that students often *do* get to make choices about courses and curricula.

It’s true. My description yesterday doesn’t quite capture my own pedagogy. Nor does it capture some wonderful student-centred pedagogy that exists in the post secondary sector.

Here’s the thing. Universities are weird, and lots of roles in universities are weird and complicated and inconsistent. Undergraduate students occupy varying kinds of roles with respect to their programs. The same is true of graduate students and of all types of academic staff. At universities, one size definitely doesn’t fit all — even within a particular category of university member.

What I tried to do in yesterday’s account of undergraduate students’ academic freedom was to offer a kind of thumbnail sketch of a “typical” undergraduate student. Of course, no actual undergraduate student is a typical undergraduate student. The very idea of a typical undergraduate student is a kind of idealization or a composite photograph of sorts. I think that the role and the freedoms I described yesterday more or less approximate what is mostly true for most undergraduate students.

But yeah, lots of students are going to have more or less freedom than I described. A student at some religious universities will be limited in terms of what kinds of scholarship they can do and what kind of opinions they can express. A student in an innovative boutique program with tons of built in flexibility and student autonomy will have much more freedom than I described yesterday.

Still, roughly and readily, I think that (if we return to the volume bar metaphor from 1) undergraduate students in general have lower volume settings — and ought to have lower volume settings — on a lot of the freedoms clustered under the umbrella of academic freedom than tenured faculty members typically do.


Both of the above notes will be helpful when we get to graduate students. We’ll start to look at them tomorrow.

A weeping Vivian Leigh (in the part of Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind) looks upward. At the bottom of the frame text reads "After all, tomorrow is another day!"
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