Now that most of the faculty teaching in the U.S. do not have tenure, it is important to think about how the current political climate might affect these vulnerable teachers. One important thing to keep in mind is that many of these faculty members rely on getting high student evaluations in order to keep their jobs or earn a pay increase. This emphasis on pleasing students not only can result in grade inflation and defensive teaching, but it also places the teacher in an impossible situation when dealing with political issues in a polarized environment. In fact, during the election, I was teaching a course on Writing and Public Discourse, and by chance, I had student leaders from both political parties in my class. Although I tried to not reveal any of my political views in class, students could go online and research my outside activities.
In talking to some of my conservative students, they told me that they feel like they are the real minorities on campus, and even though Trump won, they still think that they cannot express their true opinions. On the other side, some of my self-identified progressive student activists believe that political correctness makes it hard to have an open discussion: from their perspective, since anything can be perceived as a micro-aggression, people tend to silence themselves.
What I am describing is an educational environment where almost everyone is afraid to speak. The non-tenure-track faculty are fearful of losing their jobs, the conservative students see themselves as a censored minority, and the progressive students are afraid of being called out for their privilege or lack of political correctness. Making matters worse is that students are often socialized by their large lecture classes to simply remain passive and silent.
It appears that we are facing a perfect storm where free speech and real debate is no longer possible. One way of countering this culture is to stop relying on student evaluations to assess contingent faculty. If we want teachers to promote open dialogue in their classes, they should not have to be afraid that they will lose their jobs for promoting the free exchange of ideas. We need to rely more on the peer review of instruction, and we have to stop using the easy way out. In short, we have to change how non-tenure-track are evaluated as we push to include all faculty in departmental and institutional governance. If we do not work together to fight back against the current climate, we will all suffer together.