A Faculty’s Right to Teach: Does Academic Freedom Protect a Teacher’s Techniques in the Classroom?

The story of the UPenn grad student, her twitter account, and her teaching techniques started like many of these stories.  The snowball started to roll when The Daily Caller, a popular conservative news site, ran a story entitled: “Ivy League Teaching Assistant Says She Calls on Black Women First, White Men Last.” Earlier in the day, The Chronicle of Higher Education article on the story read: “Grad Student Sounds Alarm Over Penn’s Response to Online Attacks.”  The following day, the article’s title at Campusreform.org read “UPenn TA Boasts of Calling on White Male Students Last.”  The next day, Reason.com wrote an article entitled: “This UPenn Teacher Justifies Her Refusal to Call on White Male Students: It’s ‘Progressive Stacking.’”

As far as some of these stories have gone lately, this one has not exploded—at least, not yet—like some of others, those which continue to surround Drexel professor George Ciccariello-Maher come to mind.  However, for those who have weighed in, the grad student’s chosen teaching technique has been polarizing.  Since the story broke, the University of Pennsylvania has pulled the grad student from the classroom pending an investigation, cancelling their classes last week.  So what is so controversial? And could their behavior be protected by academic freedom?

The crux of the issue is that a grad student, Stephanie McKellop, who uses they/them pronouns, wrote a series of Twitter posts about their teaching techniques.  Most controversially, McKellop wrote: “I will always call on my black women students first. Other POC [people of color] get second tier priority. WW [white women] come next.  And, if I have to, white men.”  After pulling McKellop from the classroom, the Dean of the Penn School of Arts and Sciences wrote that the university is committed to providing “respectful work and learning environments for all members of our community,” adding “We are looking into the current matter involving a graduate-student teaching assistant to ensure that our students were not subjected to discriminatory practices in the classroom and that all of our students feel heard and equally engaged.”

The teaching method in question is “progressive stacking.” The technique, which was first used during the Occupy movement though some say it goes back to the 1990’s, is not widely employed in academia.  Described as a “leveling process,” advocates argue that the method ensures that voices that are often submerged, discounted, or excluded from traditional classroom discussion get a chance to be heard.  It works like this: the professor asks a question; a number of students’ hands go up (the stack); the professor calls on students that they deem to be from historically marginalized groups first.  Nolan L. Cabrera, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, spoke to The Chronicle to explain that the technique is simply “an acknowledgment that traditional pedagogical techniques have silenced marginal voices.”  He added that it is not much different from what many professors do when calling on students who have not yet contributed to classroom discussions.

While the investigation progresses, it is important to ask whether the “progressive stacking” teaching technique is covered by academic freedom.  The answer is, like it so often is in these questions, “maybe.”

In the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP addressed classroom teaching.  The AAUP writes in its Second Principle: “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.”  The UPenn Academic Freedom and Responsibility Policy mirrors that language.  The AAUP passage has been interpreted to mean that teachers have a great deal of freedom to run their classroom as they see fit.  This freedom includes how a professor chooses to teach their class, the coursework the professor assigns, and the manner in which the professor presents their material.

However, that freedom is limited.  The introduction of irrelevant and controversial material would not be protected by academic freedom, such as the introduction of blatantly political mathematical word problems.  Courts, and college disciplinary boards, have required that teachers deliver a class consistent with the applicable course description contained in the college catalog.  Providing clarinet lessons half-way through the semester of a Sociology 101 course would not be protected and neither would teaching undergraduate chemistry students basketball in the laboratory.  Even the most radical advocates would agree that abusive language, assaultive speech, or bullying in the classroom, toward a student, by a professor would not be protected by academic freedom.

In addition, ineffective or disruptive teaching methods can lead to discipline as well.  Repeatedly reading aloud from the textbook for entire class periods, excessive class time spent on non-content activities, and consistently showing YouTube videos instead of teaching are all examples of situations that could lead to administrative discipline that would not violate academic freedom principles.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of flexibility in what would be protected by academic freedom in the content presented to students.  Teaching the American Revolution through the lens of communism might be odious to some, but the professor’s material and presentation would most certainly be protected.  Teaching about the, supposed, economic efficiency of slavery would be covered by academic freedom as well, even if some of the students might be offended.  The extent of this flexibility, however, is unclear: would it prevent a Christian professor from teaching Biblical creation instead of Darwinian evolution in a biology course? Or a contemporary historian who teaches that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job”?  The truth is that this area of the law is underdeveloped, making definitive statements unwise. In cases like the ones mentioned here, the determination likely would come down to context.  If the teacher is using academic techniques, consistent with the standards of their discipline, it would be difficult to conclude that these professors should be disciplined for the content they deliver in their classrooms.

Similar flexibility applies to teaching techniques.  Choosing to lecture to a psychology class would absolutely be protected, so would deciding to teach certain subjects in the course through group project work.  If the method is widely accepted or is a traditional teaching method, arguing whether its incorporation into a classrooms merits discipline is a difficult position to prove.  Whether or not the technique is the most effective teaching method is immaterial.  Realistically, if professors were left to only the administration-approved, most effective teaching methods, the creativity that professors bring to their work would be unjustly stifled, making college courses significantly more boring.

Which brings the inquiry back to McKellop and their use of the “progressive stacking” method. McKellop is under investigation for violating UPenn’s nondiscrimination statement.  As the facts stand, it is hard to see how their use of “progressive stacking” is, in fact, discriminatory, especially since McKellop did not say that they refuse to call upon certain students or denies any student the opportunity to speak in class based on their gender, race, etc.  It is possible that the original complaint that brought McKellop to the attention of the administration contains more evidence of discriminatory behavior.  If that is the case, academic freedom cannot be said to protect such discriminatory behavior and her teaching techniques may need to be modified.  But pending more damning evidence, McKellop’s “progressive stacking” technique, even if offensive to some, is likely covered by the AAUP’s definition of academic and UPenn’s own academic freedom policy.

McKellop’s story does contain a lesson for other colleges.  Academic freedom is a messy, disorganized, and muddled privilege.  In addition, academic freedom protections are widely misinterpreted, misapplied, and misunderstood by college administrators, faculty, and the public.  On campus, some of that confusion can be remedied by better education and training of both faculty and administrators—something that the attorneys at HMBR can provide.  Regarding the public, however, institutions that defend and define academic freedom are critical in a time where colleges and their faculties are routinely and harshly criticized by individuals from across the political spectrum.  Colleges and universities need to be equipped to defend their institutional principles, like academic freedom, when under attack from outsiders, while also being prepared to protect them from unwarranted and expansive faculty interpretations.  This is a difficult situation to be in, but academic freedom, as a principle, is worthy of a robust defense.