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Friday, February 10, 2012

University of PA responds about Amy Kaplan's politicizing of her courses

I asked the chair of the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania, Nancy Bentley, to comment on my post earlier today about a Q&A at last week's PennBDS conference.

Here was her answer:
I can say I didn't agree with the way the blog characterized Professor Kaplan's comments on the recording. The blog stated the following:

"At the Q&A session, another teacher asked Kaplan how to incorporate the BDS memes of demonizing Israel into college courses, even when the course has nothing to do with "Palestine." And Professor Kaplan answered him. Here we have a professor at an Ivy League university explicitly calling on like-minded educators to shoehorn hate of Israel into every one of their classes."

This characterization is not accurate. Contrary to the claim that Professor Kaplan believes that political views on Israel-Palestine should be forced into college courses that have nothing to do with that subject, Kaplan explicitly said she didn't think that was feasible: "I don't know how you can address the issue if you're not dealing with a course that has no content or relationship to it."

She took the position instead that certain kinds of thematic courses, such as prison literature or prison history, would have an inherent relation to the topic of Israel-Palestine (as one case among others). Prison writing is a well established area in literary studies, as is the history of prisons. Any search of data bases will reveal this neutral fact of academic history. And I fail to see how the case of the Israeli-Palistinian [sic] conflict would be inherently inappropriate as a case study for a thematic course of that sort, just as with courses like war literature or the literature of mourning and violence. If you can explain how this is not the case, I'd be happy to comment.

"For these academics, college is not about teaching but it is merely a platform for them to spout their political views at their captive audience." This assertion on the blog does not seem accurate to me either, since Professor Kaplan expressed the idea that only courses in which Israel and Palestine were relevant to the advertised course theme would be logical candidates for discussing these questions. Such courses (prison writing, war and literature, etc.) are not required of English majors or SAS students, so discussions of the politics of the Israeli-Palestine conflict would never be forced on a "captive audience."

Professor Kaplan didn't say that one shouldn't try to figure out a way to fit one's politics into a course that should have nothing to do with politics - just that she doesn't know exactly how one would do it in a practical way.

The basic issue, which Professor Bentley avoids, is that the university should not be a place where professors a priori craft their classes to push a political viewpoint, as Kaplan says she wants teachers to do and indicates she does herself. If the best example of prison studies includes Palestinian Arab events, or if the best example of poetry includes Darwish, there is nothing wrong with including that in the course. But if a professor specifically includes it for the express purpose of pushing an anti-Israel agenda there is something very wrong with that.

I'm not saying it is inherently inappropriate. I am saying it is inappropriate when the teacher decides to include it for reasons that have nothing to do with academics. Kaplan is not only doing that proudly, but she is telling like-minded people how to do it - to "make courses" that have the desired political content.

That is an problem, and to see Penn sweep it under the rug this way indicates that it is a much bigger problem than just the actions of one professor.

Here again is the Q&A:

AUDIENCE MEMBER (PROFESSOR) ASKS QUESTION:
My question falls on Professor Norton's statement that Boycott may not be the most important part of BDS, and is kind of the closest to where we live as academics and also with Professor Kaplan's call to think about a positive program on BDS, a positive aspect of the Boycott [of Israel]....And that's um about teaching in the classroom about BDS and how, not just in our life as professional producers of knowledge, and scholars, but as teachers, how can that be formed in this pedagogy, especially I guess when the course is not dealing directly with material that has to do with Palestine"

AMY KAPLAN RESPONDS:
Well I don't know how you can, how you can address the issue if you're not dealing with a course that has no content or relationship to it.... But I know that, I mean, you can make courses that have content. I mean, for example, I happen to know that you're interested in prisons, and the literature and culture about, you know, prisons, so you can teach a course on which you included prison as a really, really big thing, not only in the political life of Palestinians, but also in their literature and in their poetry, so that will be kind of an ideal way -- you take a thematic course, and you bring in themes from this issue, and literature is really a great way to teach students about what's going on -- students they think, they know they have an ideological line, a political line, and then they read, you know, they read darwish, they read, you know, The Pennoptimist and it opens up a whole new world -- so that's my answer to that.