Faculty Network interview: Cynthia Martin, University of Maryland

September 14, 2021

In this occasional feature, FIRE interviews members of our Faculty Network to discuss their research, teaching, and advocacy on free expression at their institutions. This month, we talked with Cynthia Martin, Associate Professor of Russian at the University of Maryland. Dr. Martin is currently the Undergraduate Program Director for Russian, teaching a variety of courses on Russian language, literature, and culture. Martin has authored or co-authored multiple Russian language and grammar textbooks, and served as English language translator for numerous other volumes.

Interviews are conducted via email and are lightly edited for length and clarity. 

First, for our readers’ benefit, could you give a little background on your academic background and some of your teaching and research interests?

I have a BA in Political Science and Russian Studies from the University of New Hampshire, an MA and PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Pennsylvania. I came to the University of Maryland in 1990, and am currently an associate professor of Russian and program head. I regularly teach language and culture classes, as well as general education classes. My research interests are quite eclectic, ranging from second language acquisition, pedagogy and assessment, to Soviet and contemporary culture and Moscow conceptualism. 

A main reason I was interested in doing this interview with you is because among the courses you teach at UMD is a comparative study on freedom of speech in the United States and Russia. I’d love to hear more about how you approach that course, and also about what activated your interest in teaching a course of this type. 

A few years ago, UMD launched what was called “I-series courses” designed to be the signature courses of the general education program. These courses are described as speaking “to important issues that spark the imagination, demand intellect, and inspire innovation. They challenge students to wrestle with big questions.” My course, titled “The Power of the Word: The History of Free Speech in the US and Russia,” poses as its central question: “Why is freedom of speech so essential to a democracy and such a threat to a totalitarian regime?” Having travelled regularly to the USSR since 1977 and Russia since the USSR collapsed in 1991 and having studied and worked in the former Soviet Union for a number of years (in a Soviet publishing house, no less), I developed both a scholarly and experiential interest in the theoretical underpinnings of totalitarian systems and how they operate in reality, in particular how they simply cannot tolerate freedom of expression. The current climate here in the US with respect to freedom of speech in the past few years also prompted me to develop the course. 

As the title suggests, I approach the course from a comparative perspective. We investigate the underlying rationale for the First Amendment, we read and discuss a variety of documents and explore foundational ideas, and then we examine the Marxist ideology underlying Soviet Communism, first theoretically and then how that ideology was manifested in practice in the Soviet Union. Hence, we explore rationales for how free speech has been defended or repressed philosophically and historically and then examine how these rationales might apply to today’s free speech issues. 

I assign two teams to debate one of these assertions, but here’s the twist: neither team knows which side of the debate they will have to argue until the beginning of class on the day they are scheduled to debate.

One way we do the latter is through organizing debates around issues we see in contemporary American society today. Recent course debates have included, for example, assertions such as “First Amendment protections should continue to extend to ‘hate speech’ (as they currently do)” and “Censorship of posts and/or users based on political viewpoint is the sole prerogative of a given internet-based platform (search engine, social media site) and there is no need for government regulations or oversight.” I assign two teams to debate one of these assertions, but here’s the twist: neither team knows which side of the debate they will have to argue until the beginning of class on the day they are scheduled to debate. As a team they have to discuss and prepare arguments that would be made on both sides. The main skill I want them to develop is to be able to think through the arguments of those who hold opposing views. This is an essential skill if we are to continue to be a self-governing republic based on our commitment to equality that requires robust civic engagement in our shared spaces.

You’ve studied Russian language, culture, and history extensively enough, perhaps, to have internalized an understanding of Russia’s free expression culture compared to ours. What are the key things that separate them, in your opinion? 

The cultures of free expression in the US and Russia are totally different. In the American tradition, the First Amendment protects speech that goes against authority, prohibiting the government from making laws that restrict speech, and so in a “self-governing” republic, our protests against authority can take place in the open, explicitly and directly. There is no such tradition in Russian or Soviet history (though things are changing some in post-Soviet Russia). There is an enduring image of the “dissident” that goes back centuries and expands well beyond political dissent, extending to virtually all aspects of life. In fact, the concept of the dissident is deeply embedded in the creative arts, whereby writers and artists became the main purveyors of ideas. Ideas always have the potential to be subversive in a totalitarian system, so those who express ideas are always a potential threat. If we look at the 19th century, for example, virtually every major writer of the “Golden Age” of Russian literature fell afoul of authorities at some point. In the 20th century, dissidents in the creative arts were not just exiled, they were often executed.

Totalitarian systems do not tolerate questions or doubts of any kind. Western liberal democracies are messy precisely because they recognize the right to question and doubt, especially when it comes to authority.

In a totalitarian system, the pen really can threaten authority by spreading ideas that challenge the system’s totalitarian world view, and so silencing those voices becomes a necessity in order for the regime to survive. This is a commonality of all totalitarian regimes. Since open political dissent was not tolerated in the Russian experience, there developed this enduring tradition of artists becoming the “dissidents.” And so Russian creative culture became the place where citizens could go for intellectual stimulation, and artists themselves developed very creative ways to say things without saying them explicitly. Consumers consequently learned to read or see or hear subtexts in their cultural products. That is not to say that we don’t have dissident artists in American culture or in Western liberal democracies — we certainly do — but clearly our tradition of expressing political dissent openly, in the public square, so to speak, is not a tradition we find in Russian culture. 

FIRE has long been concerned that students aren’t given a strong enough foundation in the guiding principles of free expression and the First Amendment, and a number of studies have documented students’ ambivalence about the extent of the First Amendment’s protections for certain expression. Are there certain ideas about free expression you see more students bring into your course? And what ideas do you hope they can take away?

I think I would say what is alarming is what they do not bring to the course as it relates to freedom of expression. Students often don’t have a sense of how “exceptional,” to use a loaded term, modern Western liberal democracy is in human political and social history. What was and so far remains exceptional about Western liberal democracy is that it posits individual liberty and equality as our fundamental and primary values. (That is not to say that we have always upheld these values in practice, but it is these very values themselves that have pushed us to reject systems and policies that do not live up to them.) A commitment to individual liberty and equality gives rise to virtually all our other values, including the very notion of self-governance, civil liberties, freedom of expression, and many others. So that’s where we have to start in the class — where do our fundamental values come from? 

If we don’t understand these basic underpinnings, it is difficult to see how the First Amendment is fundamentally about the power relationship between the state and the individual, designed specifically to prevent state-sanctioned tyranny in a self-governing republic where those in power are just some of us who have been given “the consent of the governed” to be in charge. Western liberal democracies reject the notion that there are certain “special” people among us who have access to some total, full picture of an absolute truth, and therefore we are obligated to listen to all voices, the assumption being that through rational engagement, we can together pursue truth — both individual truth and collective truths of our common humanity. 

In a totalitarian system, the pen really can threaten authority by spreading ideas that challenge the system’s totalitarian world view, and so silencing those voices becomes a necessity in order for the regime to survive.

Totalitarian systems are based on very different underpinnings, usually claiming that 1) there exists an ultimate universal Truth that we must all accept, 2) this Truth most often is presented in a way that promises Utopia if we all live accordingly, and 3) there is a special group of individuals who have access to that Truth, and they have the right and obligation to rule over the rest of us to take us to that Utopia. In this worldview, eliminating dissent is justified by those in power as their obligation, since those dissenting represent obstacles to Utopia. Totalitarian systems do not tolerate questions or doubts of any kind. Western liberal democracies are messy precisely because they recognize the right to question and doubt, especially when it comes to authority. Without at least a basic understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the worldviews of both contemporary Western liberal democracies and totalitarian systems, it is difficult to recreate rationales for protecting freedom of expression or repressing it.

What I hope students can take away is that we have to engage in discussions about controversial issues with respect and humility, seeing those who may disagree with us as having a perspective for a reason or for reasons, and we should attempt to understand where that perspective is coming from, rather than dismissing or even demonizing the person who holds those particular views. In fact, if we truly believe that some of our fellow citizens have views that are misguided, then any hope of changing those views has to begin with understanding them, not shutting them down or driving them out of the public square. And we have to be open to the possibility that we may change our own views, as well.

You’ve managed to harness your particular expertise into a course taking a novel approach to teaching on free expression. There are surely other professors out there who are interested in doing the same, but aren’t quite sure how to get there. Do you have any advice to offer them?

I humbly offer the following from my own experience. First, all fields of knowledge depend on a commitment to open inquiry, and professors should explain that to students and then model what that means. I am afraid that young people today do not have very good role models in our contemporary polarized environment. Professors in any field can take a look at what is happening today, or perhaps historically, in their field of expertise that involves freedom of expression — are there instances of unpopular or controversial views that were or are being debated in the field itself? How were or are those views treated? How do scholars make sound arguments for or against such positions? In addition to academic controversies, we see numerous cases where scholars today come under fire for expressing personal views that are totally unrelated to that person’s field of expertise. I would suggest that professors expose students to these instances and help them think through them. In order for my students to feel free to discuss a controversial issue openly, I am very careful not to reveal much about my personal political views. Of course, my students can figure out that I fall on the side of defending freedom of speech and individual liberty, that I do believe the values underpinning Western liberal democracies are better than the values underpinning totalitarian regimes, but they should not know, for example, which candidate I support or how I feel about current political issues. No matter how we try to make our classroom climate conducive to students being able to express ideas freely, there is still a power differential in the professor-student relationship. I do not believe that a professor should use the classroom, a place with a captive audience whose members will receive grades from the professor, as a place for political advocacy. I want students to engage all sides of an issue and think for themselves, not be motivated to self-censor or articulate ideas that they think I already hold. 

On the first day of class, I tell them that and discuss how I want us to engage with intellectual humility. UMD has adopted the word “fearless” to describe so much of what happens on campus, so I play with that. I tell students I want us to engage fearlessly, that they should not be afraid to express personal views, but they also should not feel compelled to do so, they should feel free to express views that may not be their own but that they wish to explore, to not be afraid to have ideas challenged, even or especially their own, or to challenge others’ views respectfully. I tell them that we have to think about certain distinctions such as: ideas or ideals vs. the reality of the implementation of those ideas; thoughts vs. feelings (“I think…” vs. “I feel…”); facts vs. opinions or beliefs (if the latter, what are we basing them on — facts, faith?); seeking to understand is not the same as justifying, etc. I also give them some effective strategies to use in respectful conversation: Ask, don’t assume (“What do you think about X? Why?”); listen to the other person’s response rather than thinking about your own before even hearing what the other person has to say; acknowledge you heard and understood (“So you say X, that’s interesting, but what about Y?”); no personal attacks allowed, rather stay focused on ideas, not criticizing the person who has expressed them; be careful referring to “they” as in “they say X” as in “they say our democracy today is broken” (can you identify who “they” are?). 

I have found students to be eager, even hungry, for such conversations. I believe that the university should be a place where students learn to engage in robust discussions about important ideas, be they in the distant past, in our contemporary society, or heading our way in the future, or be they in the humanities, hard sciences, technology or business, etc. We have to do a better job of providing the environment for such engagement, and professors in all fields are in a position to create that environment. 

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Schools:  University of Maryland – College Park