Students adore him, conservatives loathe him, and his guest speakers are always controversial.
Standing before a formidable throng of antiwar protesters in Harvard Yard, Prof. Brian Palmer grabs a microphone, climbs onto a rickety wooden chair and looks up, his thin frame trembling slightly in the cold.
"I was asked to speak about war," Dr. Palmer says, forcing his soft voice into a vehement bellow to carry over the crowd of 1,200. "But is there a war to be found? Perhaps not in Iraq. As Mark Morford has observed, I quote: 'This is a Mack truck versus a Pinto. This is an F-16 versus a paper airplane, a Tomahawk missile versus a spit wad. There is no contest.' "
Palmer pauses to allow the thunderous applause to dissipate. As the professor of one of Harvard's most popular courses, "Globalization and Human Values: Envisioning World Community," Palmer is a celebrity of sorts across campus. His accessibility is almost unrivaled (his home number is at the bottom of every e-mail he sends to his 522 students), and his powerful lectures and selection of notable guest speakers always draw a crowd.
But the class has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, and not just because of Palmer's stance against war. His course, which hosts 20 guest speakers - including linguist Noam Chomsky, author Jamaica Kincaid, ethicist Peter Singer, and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch - has been lambasted for airing overwhelmingly liberal perspectives. Editorials in The National Review, a slam from Rush Limbaugh, and dozens of irate e-mails have forced Palmer, who received the Levenson Award for "best teaching by a junior faculty member" last year, to defend not only his course, but himself.
Palmer, described by one student as a "marketer for ethical questioning," says one goal of the course is to "be aware of the most urgent societal debates and to know how to participate in them. I hope it creates spaces of deliberation and, if it's not too grand a word, spaces of democracy," he says in his trademark whisper.
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