The Slings and Errors of a Political LectureSep 30th, 2013 | By rwinn | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic, Web Exclusive
This past August, Michigan State University (MSU) professor William S. Penn became the latest victim of his own politically charged tirades when a secretly recorded video captured him lecturing to his students that Republicans “don’t want to pay taxes because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could.” Needless to say, the video went viral on the conservative website campusreform.org. The footage also captured Penn making personal, non-political attacks on Ann Romney’s comeliness, singling out a student who disagreed with him, and telling his students that the GOP is implementing a plan aimed at “getting black people not to vote.” The uproar over what Penn said received national attention, as political pundits such as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly played excerpts of the video and discussed the failings of modern academia. Due to the video’s propagation, MSU reassigned Penn’s teaching duties for the remainder of the semester. My fear is that the indirect consequence of Penn’s actions is that professors around the country will avoid discussing politics in their classrooms at a time when we need them to do just the opposite.
To be clear, what Penn said was unfitting of a professor. Personal attacks have no place in a college classroom, let alone those coming from the mouth of a man hired to impart knowledge. Adding injury to Penn’s insults is that throughout his monologue he never once cited a reference source to give credence to his assertions. Penn never even used specifics beyond geographical or state boundaries, and he defined a nation of diverse people using demographics alone. What’s worse is that Penn had the opportunity to make a logical, educated, fact-based argument, that would likely have benefited his students’ critical thinking skills despite their political standings. But in relying entirely on his personal beliefs, he inadvertently made a case for politics grounded in opinion-based conclusions.
If Penn’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the Nez Perce author of seven books who has won the American Book Award, the North American Indian Prose Award, and the Stephen Crane Prize for fiction twice. Penn is also a founding member of the Native American Writer’s Circle, and his essay collection, Feathering Custer, can inspire discussion about Indian identity and how Indigenous people critique and discuss their own literature. As one may assume, Feathering Custer is provocative. Throughout the text Penn seems to enjoy challenging his audience on an array of issues confronting Indigenous academics, often creating characters to quasi-debate and diminish as he makes his point. To be fair, Penn is unapologetic about his own opinions, but unlike his bombastic lecture at MSU, the book concludes with a reference list, an apology for not being politically correct towards “white” people, and an assertion explaining the rationale for some of his claims. Penn the professor could learn a lot from Penn the author. Luckily we can too.
We professors at tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), like professors everywhere, need to educate students in our respective disciplines, while also helping them become what the Aspen Institute calls “engaged citizens.” We live in a country where our citizens and our leaders are sharply divided over issues that are perpetually threatening to cause our government to shut down and default on its loans. Both political parties readily point fingers at their opponents and portray themselves as the party to stand behind, yet it’s rare that the amplified voices on either side of the political aisle present their case based on facts. I believe that Americans need to make political decisions based on reality, not rhetoric, and that questioning our students about the truth of their beliefs is the best way to help them become critical consumers of information. To put it another way, I find that empowering our students with a healthy zeal for inquisitive skepticism is necessary to inspire them to become lifelong learners.
Our students need their professors to model how to discuss the issues at hand, using a skillset that includes critical thinking and fact-checking. When they leave our respective campuses they need to know that the reasoning they honed with our tutelage can be applied across all aspects of life. With an education comes a responsibility to build bridges that allow minds to come together in a place where reasoning can prevail. Only 40 percent of all American Indians are registered to vote in national elections, and so we TCU professors have an especially prodigious obligation to create respectful classroom environments that encourage discussions, that will extend beyond our walls and into the voting booths.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Penn is that the proliferation of smartphones in our classrooms means that someone could always be capturing both the brilliance and shortcomings of our instruction. It may seem daunting to teach in a world where our every move could be dissected on an international stage, yet if it takes the threat of national embarrassment to help all of our course meetings remain academic and discrimination-free, then I, for one, say, “bring it on.” Our country desperately needs educated minds to come together to move us forward—rationally and respectfully. If we educators aren’t doing our part to help this cause, then we deserve a lion’s share of the blame for our problems.
Abbey-Lambertz, K. (2013, September 5). William Penn, MSU professor, pulled from classroom after reported attacks on Republicans. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/05/william-penn-msu-michigan-state-professor-republicans-video_n_3876306.html?utm_hp_ref=college&ir=College
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Blades, M. (2012, July 2). American Indians organize largest Get Out the Vote campaign in history. Daily Kos. Retrieved from http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/07/02/1102913/-American-Indians-organize-largest-get-out-the-vote-campaign-in-history-You-can-help-make-it-happen#
Bucqueroux, B. (2013, September 9). Was MSU’s William Penn a target? (And does it matter?). Mlive.com. Retrieved from http://www.mlive.com/lansing-news/index.ssf/2013/09/bonnie_bucqueroux_was_msus_wil.html
Michigan State University, College of Arts and Letters, Department of English. (2013). Faculty—William Penn. Retrieved from http://www.english.msu.edu/people/faculty/william-penn/
Marklein, M.B. (2013, April 6). What is a B.A. in English worth anymore? USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/04/06/liberal-arts-college-value-jobs-economy/2057031/
Penn, W.S. (2001). Feathering Custer. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Ryan, J. (2013, September 5). Michigan State removes prof who went on anti-Republican tirade, continues to pay him $146k salary. Campusreform.org. Retrieved from http://www.campusreform.org/blog/?ID=5040
Ryan, J., & Bonham, C. (2013, September 3). Old ‘cheap’ Republicans ‘raped’ America: Video captures award-winning professor’s anti-Republican rant. Campusreform.org. Retrieved from http://www.campusreform.org/blog/?ID=5033
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation (CMN, Keshina, WI), where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair. In the past 8 years he has presented several papers, chaired a few panels, and directed and/or acted in stage readings at both national and regional conferences on the topic of American Indian theater. Similarly, he has directed 12 plays for CMN, coached their AIHEC speech team, and has been recognized as an American Indian College Fund Faculty Member of the Year. He is currently serving as the acting editor of the Oneida Nation Arts Program’s literary journal, Yukhika-latuhse.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.