Professor George Ehrhardt writes for the Martin Center about a recent UNC System controversy involving one of his classes.
It has been a very strange year.
Three weeks ago I opened my email to find an unsolicited email from a lawyer, asking if I needed help. Odd, I thought, since I couldn’t remember getting any traffic citations recently. When I opened it, I discovered it was from lawyers at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), asking if they could help with the controversy at Appalachian State, where I teach.
What controversy? And why me? As much as I respect the work that FIRE does, in my experience, letters from lawyers are never a good thing.
A few frantic emails later, I managed to piece together what had happened.
Over the weekend, a student in my team-taught course had objected—actually, his friend’s mother had objected—to a survey he had taken for class that seemingly advocated killing Republicans, and she reported it to a Townhall.com writer.
He produced this story about a survey conducted at Appalachian State, which briefly went viral. Several days after it was posted, a friend even forwarded it to me with an angry call to defund the UNC system, totally unaware that it had happened in my class. The controversy reached the UNC Board of Governors and our chancellor.
The problem was, the story was wrong in just about every way imaginable.
So what did happen? The story starts with an opportunity provided by the current online teaching environment. Without physical classrooms, we can explore new ways of team-teaching and be in multiple places at the same time. A co-teacher and I designed a Current Political Issues course where we would each teach our own sections, but base them on shared content.
The idea was that she (a progressive Democrat) and I (a conservative Republican) would engage each other in conversations about political issues and present them online to both sections. This, we thought, would both model civil discourse for our students and let them hear sincere arguments from each side.