A college instructor was showing a documentary about the work of the charity, Doctor’s Without Borders, serving refugees in the mountains of Iraq. After the video, the instructor posed the question, “What do you think?” One student responded, “It’s just foreigners benefiting from free medical care.”
Hurtful, divisive comments can occur in any classroom at the university. Many instructors might anticipate the topics that typically fuel emotional responses: religion, politics, race, genetic manipulation, abortion or other areas that people feel deeply about. Other seemingly benign subjects can become volatile without pre-warning. Regardless of how we expect our students to critically examine ideas and be respectful of others, for some students, these skills need development.
As teachers, it is important that we do not become embroiled in the emotions that underlie the reactionary responses of our students. How can we protect our students from being a victim and/or the perpetrator of these attacks, and, how can we turn these situations into teachable moments? What can we do to prevent reactionary comments, and if they occur, guide students to critically examine their thoughts and behaviors?
1. Starting with your syllabus, emphasize your own values and the expectation for mutual respect, along with the ability to listen to and understand different perspectives. Share these expectations verbally on the first day of class with an explanation as to why these traits are important.
2. If you know that a topic can be polarizing, introduce it from a perspective already acknowledging varying points of view. For example, rather than say that you will discuss abortion, introduce it as differing definitions of personhood. Rather than begin a subject on sexual preferences, frame the topic as the continuum of experiences with sexuality.
3. When a student responds in class with an insensitive remark, explain to the class that that opinion could potentially represent the viewpoints of many. Ask the class what people may have experienced to view the topic in that manner. Then, ask what differences could explain those people with a different point of view.
4. If tensions are quickly rising in the classroom, stop the discussion. Ask students to take a piece of paper and to divide the paper in half. On one half of the paper they should list why a person would support a position. On the other half, ask students for a similar description about people who oppose that position.
5. There is a tendency to ignore what may be construed as an innocuous statement to keep a conversation moving forward. During a recent discussion about the economy, a student remarked that girls who work after childbirth are letting others raise their children. While the comment was not directed at anyone in particular, several students took objection to the implied inferences. The instructor calmly noted, “I’m curious, what makes you say that?” The class then discussed the economic realities faced by families today. After class, the instructor also explained privately to the student how her use of the word, “girls” devalued women. The student was unaware that her word choices communicated more than she intended. Having a private conversation was the best tactic in protecting this student who didn’t realize the implications of her remarks.
6. During discussions, acknowledge the possibilities of different points of views by continually inviting all students to join the conversation with broad statements such as, “who has had a different experience, or are there any other ways of looking at this not yet discussed, or, are there other opinions on this topic?”
7. For assignments on difficult topics, ask students their initial views, and then have them research and develop the subject from an opposing point of view.
Ask your students to let you know if a situation develops where they feel uncomfortable, and address the issues right away. Many insensitive remarks are unintentional, and it is our responsibility to raise awareness. All of us carry assumptions that we are not aware of until confronted from a different perspective, usually from someone whose background differs from our own. Approaching these situations with curiosity and an openness to learn about differences will demonstrate the mutual respect that we want in all of our classes.