Teaching and Protests in 2003

I reflected recently on my first solo teaching gig: a mid-level course (with 170+ students) I offered as a grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003, now 15 years ago.  The course was called “American Politics and Government,” and it was basically an Intro to American Government class for upperclassmen, mostly non-majors.  The syllabus is here.  I was plucky enough to avoid using a textbook, though I now use one whenever I teach Intro.

The course was fun to teach.  But I also learned a valuable lesson in the intersection of real world politics and campus activism.  I was quoted in the Washington Post in March 2003 in an article about campus protests around the start of the Iraq War.  The quote was:

Those who missed Michael Franz’s political science class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison were told they would fail a scheduled midterm. As many as 2,000 people — including hundreds of high school students — attended the antiwar rally there. Provost Peter Spear said it was the largest rally since the Vietnam War. But Franz said failing the test was a lesson for those who skipped. “I think I was doing them a favor, because I gave them consequences for their actions,” he said. “I said I absolutely would respect their decision to miss class, but I didn’t think it was my place to comment about the issue in a class on American politics.”

Uggh.  Two problems:

“I think I was doing them a favor.”  Nope, I don’t think that.  What I meant was that students were faced with an important life lesson around trade-0ffs.  Some students asked that I move the midterm.  But the anti-war protest was a billed as a walkout of class.  So if students really want to stage a walkout, they should consider the consequences of missing a class.  In my case, the exam was scheduled for that day, and so missing the class means missing the exam.  I’m not doing them any favors in taking that stand.  But I am making the choice consequential.

“I didn’t think it was my place to comment about the issue in a class on American politics.”  Umm, just replace “comment about” with “take a stand on,” and I think it’s more appropriate.  I don’t think it’s right for me to be anti-war or pro-war in class.  I do think it’s important to comment on the issue.

I’ve learned a lot about thinking before speaking, and this was a crash course for sure.  All told, it was a fun semester, certainly a lively one given the start of the war.  It was also the kick-off to my career as a teacher!!

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