Shifting from Neutral

Give someone an award, and listen to them speak.

Last winter, after Professor of Political Science William Corlett won the College’s Kroepsch Award for Excellence in Teaching, he visited with me to discuss it. As a tape rolled, Corlett began, in proper academic fashion, by tackling the award’s definition.

Professor of Political Science William Corlett in his “The Household and Political Theory” classroom. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen

For one, he’d rather not refer to it as a best-teacher award. That admonition has less to do with ingrained Bates modesty — Corlett has been on the faculty since 1981 — and more with politics. Corlett’s are far left, a spot on the spectrum easily guessed at by reviewing his course titles, such as Reading Marx, Rethinking Marxisms.”

So what’s the aversion to being labeled Bates’ best? “I have a critique of meritocracy,” he explains. You see, meritocracy — advancement by ability or achievement — presupposes social agreement of what and who have the merit. Problem is, the power elite get to define merit, says Corlett, and probably also get to ignore sticky issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender. “The myth of merit presumes that we share a common ground,” he says, “which neatly sidesteps the need for cross-cultural negotiation.”

So there. With Corlett, the gentle introduction –of political belief in the first sentence of an interview — and soft-spoken, too, the words wisping from the tape playback — matches well with how he teaches political theory. He reveals where he stands.

“I don’t believe in being politically neutral in the classroom,” he says, a reference to the spate of recent criticisms, led by David Horowitz, that American college professors at best oppress conservative voices in the classroom, at worse punish students for holding right-wing views.

“Those who call for neutrality [in the classroom] are actually calling for a time-out from critical thinking,” he says. “If you go into any classroom that I know of, you find so much complexity as students try to unpack their own arguments. And they want you to unpack yours. So I teach my students to be critical, never cynical, and to get into the complexity of their own political arguments,” he says.

Corlett in the classroom is not an edutainer, a word that alludes to a 1999 essay by Cornell’s Glenn Altschuler, who observed that “too many students now choose the pleasurable over the valuable” in how they evaluate professors. Instead, Corlett adopts a “humble” demeanor, says Katherine Batchelder ’05, now an academic adviser for Denmark’s International Studies Program. “He fosters community rather than competitive fratricide.”

Corlett’s skill at ennobling his students — he calls it “building a classroom community marked by mutual support and defense” — captivated the Kroepsch selection committee, said member Denis Sweet, professor of German. “He treats his students as scholars,” Sweet says. “Rather than passive receptors, students were to consider themselves equal to the great minds of Western civilization. This brought out their best.”

High ideals in place, Corlett’s classroom becomes the right room for political argument (yes, he sometimes quotes the Monty Python line), where he avoids “playing to the chilling effect of conservatism or political correctness or whatever term people are using at the time. I let students know what my own argument is, why I hold the views that I have, why I have changed my mind, and why I haven’t.”

Like many of his fellow Baby Boomers, Corlett changed his mind during the Vietnam War years. He grew up in Pennsylvania, was student government president at Cedar Cliff High School, Class of ’68, pledged a fraternity at Allegheny College, and interned with conservative Republican senator Hugh Scott Jr. “That was a very uncritical time in my political life,” Corlett says. “In my conservative views, I was simply imitating my father.”

Then came 1970 and Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings. Corlett discovered political theory and began experimenting with language. “The combination produced a commitment to anarchism in my senior year, on which I wrote my thesis,” he says. “That’s my experience of moving from uncritical to critical.” Corlett earned his master’s and Ph.D. at Pittsburgh, and has published Community without Unity: A Politics of Derridian Extravagance (Duke University Press, 1989, 1993) and Class Action: Reading Labor, Theory, and Value (Cornell University Press, 1998).

His intellectual awakening complete, Corlett rejected his father’s politics and renounced his values. Well, not really. Becoming critically aware isn’t so tidy. “My father voted for Nixon twice, and remains a rather conservative person. We still have very interesting political and religious conversations,” says Corlett. Now 84, the elder William Corlett is a retired forester for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. “He also served on the town council, was very committed to shade-tree initiatives and urban forestry, and is one of the most generous people I know.”

A few years ago, campus libertarian Whitman Holt ’02 broached a paper topic for Corlett’s course “Contemporary Liberalism and Democratic Action.” “Whitman was interested in the idea of conservative people being at least as generous in their personal lives as people who have liberal politics. And I thought of my father — he tithes, he gives blood, and he is very active in his church and lodge and community. I have sometimes wondered if I’m more progressive, in my mind, politically, and less generous with my personal life than my own father.”

Holt’s paper ultimately described a society in which a libertarian sense of “supererogatory duty” would yield enough private charitable support for society’s less fortunate. “Although Bill and I hold very different beliefs, he encouraged me to fully develop and articulate my position,” says Holt, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate who earned his J.D. from Harvard and is now an attorney with the Los Angeles firm Stutman, Treister & Glatt. “The focus was on developing my analytic abilities.”

So, if we’ve now defined good teaching in the words of his students, and defined critical thinking through Corlett’s own story, how does Corlett himself ultimately define the award?

“I like to think of it as a gift,” he says. “Teaching is always about community-building, and I think effective community building teaches both students and teachers about gift-giving and generosity of spirit. I always enjoy the students and enjoy giving extra time to them. But I am only now becoming comfortable with the idea that they have passed a gift back to me. The spirit of this award, I think, is about teachers receiving gifts back from their students.”