Exclusion in Berkeley course comes under fire

by Kaitlin Bell | 5/22/02 5:00am

At the University of California-Berkeley, an institution known for its history of social activism and liberal political views, a course description for an English course on Palestinian political poetry has sparked a heated debate on the role of freedom of expression in academia.

The original course description for "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance" included a caveat to students warning that "conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections." The instructor, fifth-year graduate student Snehal Shingavi, has since removed the line, due in part to the large public outcry it generated.

In response to the controversy, Berkeley has issued a public statement acknowledging "a failure of oversight on the part of the English Department in reviewing course proposal descriptions."

The University website said that the department chair will "provide oversight" for the class, ensuring that it accords with the Faculty Code of Conduct. This code stipulates that courses not exclude or discourage qualified students on grounds other than lack of preparation.

But Shingavi said that the English Department's concerns are unfounded, and criticized its response to the controversy.

"The issue here has nothing to do with academic freedom of students -- it has everything to do with critiquing and limiting the freedom of the instructors," he said.

Nevertheless, in addition to striking the controversial line from the course description, Shingavi formally apologized for the mistake. He said he used the word 'conservative' in the sense of "limited or narrow" and insisted that he is open to civilized academic debate.

"I didn't want this course to turn into a speaking match with verbal and physical intimidation," Shingavi said, noting that this has been the case with other Berkeley classes dealing with Middle Eastern subject material.

Still, he acknowledged that the line's phrasing "was probably not the best way to get that point across."

Shingavi said that the over 200 pieces of hate mail and 10 death threats he has received in the past month were not responses to the content of the line itself but rather expressions of the cultural bias against presenting pro-Palestinian views in an academic setting."The real controversy is something people refuse to talk about in this country -- that it is impossible to present a class that might educate people about Palestinian literature and politics in a serious way," he said.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the New Hampshire ACLU condemned Shingavi's course description for limiting the range of academic debate.

"It's only when you have those whose opinion differs, only then do you have true discourse, true debate, true learning," said Claire Ebel, director of the N.H. ACLU. Excluding students who disagree fosters bigotry and is "offensive to the basic premise of any institution of higher learning," Ebel said.

At the same time, Ebel expressed concern about the English Department's plan to install a faculty member to monitor Shingavi's class.

"I don't think having a watchful big brother in the classroom is going to do anything but stifle the debate," she said.

Chair of the Dartmouth English Department Peter Travis cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

"I think it's dangerous to judge a complex educational and social and political situation from a distance," Travis said. "I would be wary of making a kind of blanket and absolute judgement on any of these elements."

Given Berkeley's dependence on state funding, the response of that university's English department was probably a "very practical political thing to do," Travis said, adding that it is hard to predict whether or not Shingavi truly intends to allow free academic debate in his class.