Tackling Tough Topics

The director of our Center for Teaching Excellence recently wrote a blog post about creating safe spaces.  While she definitely didn’t raise such a concern, it’s easy for me to see how someone could take her post and then decide it’s simply easier to shy away from subjects that could lead to conflict.  There’s also the ever-popular complaint that we shouldn’t have to be “politically correct” (which, for the record, has to be one of the dumbest phrases, linguistically-speaking, ever created).

Thus, the trick is how to talk about challenging issues honestly while creating safe spaces.  Here are a few ideas/approaches that work well for me (there’s also an essay on embracing tension in the August/September issue of The Teaching Professor that’s worth reading).

First, just talking about such issues helps tremendously.  When I talk to students who fall into at least one minority category, their main complaint is that they feel invisible, that no one is talking about issues that matter to them.  Whenever controversial subjects have come up in my classes or on our campus, most students respond simply by saying “I’m just glad we’re talking about this.”  As long as we avoid the issues or avoid talking about them in the complexity we deserve, we continue to propagate this invisibility our students feel.

Second, acknowledge your limitations.  This idea should probably come first, honestly.  As someone who falls on the majority side of every marker of identity there is (white, upper-middle-class, well-educated, straight, non-disabled, middle-aged, American male), I start any discussion (and usually all of my classes) by talking about the stories I don’t experience.  I don’t have to pay very close attention to my surroundings, unlike women; I don’t have to deal with micro- (and macro-) aggressions on a daily basis, unlike African-Americans; I don’t have to worry that someone is going to attack me while I’m walking down the street because my sexual identity is evident, even when I’m not with a partner, as many LGBTQ people do.

Third, have an open mind when listening to their stories.  This one follows immediately on the heels of the previous approach.  If we dismiss the stories of those who are different than we are without truly listening to them, we create an environment where no one will be willing to speak honestly about the subject.  In her TED talk, Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of a single story that we use to define people.  She gives the example of a professor who said that her novel was not “authentically African.”  She goes on to say, “Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.”  He couldn’t truly hear her experience of Africa.

Third(a), use proper terminology.  When I was writing about my identity above, I had to look about what the disabled community tends to use for those who are not disabled.  Turns out, they really don’t like abled, which makes sense.  It’s not that difficult to ask people we know well in a minority community about language.  And, for the record, your female students are not girls; they’re women (one of my pet peeves).

Fourth, diffuse to defuse.  Okay, that one’s just my trying to be clever, but here’s what I mean.  Instead of simply coming into a class and asking everyone a question about the reading, I usually do something like put them into groups.  If I ask the question to the class at large, the people who are most likely to respond are those at the extremes, those who feel quite strongly about the issue.  If, however, I put them into groups, other people will tend to moderate the extremists and help us get into the subject more smoothly.  We’ll definitely get to those extremes, but starting with them isn’t a healthy beginning point.

Fifth, ask them for evidence.  If a student (or group) makes a claim, I ask them for some evidence.  That’s often from the readings I assign, but I also want them to draw on personal experience, at times.  For example, one of the readings they do in my first-year writing class attacks the stereotypes of people on welfare.  One of the questions I ask them is whether or not they know or have known someone one welfare.  Most students haven’t, not surprisingly, which leads to one useful point in discussion, in that they’re almost all arguing from what they’ve heard and read.  Those who have known someone usually present a range of experiences, moving from the sister or uncle who needed welfare for a period of time to get through a rough patch in life to those who have seen people abuse the system.  Again, that’s a much healthier place to begin a discussion than allowing someone to start by talking about how people just have more babies they can’t afford to get more welfare (which, oddly enough, has never come up in their personal experiences).

Sixth, use the readings to lay out the argument.  I don’t enter into the discussion until much later, once students have had time to work out some of the basic ideas, as the readings serve as the starting point for that discussion.  If I want to expose students to an idea that will truly push them (and I do), I’ll have a reading do that for me.  That way, I remain much more neutral in the discussion than I would otherwise.

Seventh, be balanced.  Rather than only have one reading on a subject, laying out the argument I agree with, I need to show them a variety of view points.  On the day they read the essay on welfare stereotypes, they also read an essay by Pat Buchanan.  Not surprisingly, he takes a rather different approach to talking about America (he’s not directly talking about welfare, but it relates).  Some students agree with Buchanan; some don’t.  Regardless, they have two rather different viewpoints to help them think through the issue.

Last, question both sides equally (or as equally as you can).  We’re human beings, and we want to push people to see the world as we do.  However, if students see us coming in day after day putting forth only one agenda, they’ll quickly conclude that we’re not really open to other points of view on such subjects.  I was reading a book on teaching several years ago, and the author talked about one of her professors.  The author was trying to make a point about the government’s funding of social programs.  Whenever the author tried to use the word government, the professor asked her to insert the word taxpayers.  Such an approach made the author think about the issue differently, but she later found out that her professor actually agreed with her point.  She simply wanted the author to see a different side and make up her own mind.

We professors need to engage challenging subjects.  Our students want and need to see us talking through them, and we need to hear their stories.  We can’t and shouldn’t shy away from such issues, no matter how difficult they are to talk about.  Our students need us to have these conversations within our disciplines.  There are ways to do so while still creating safe spaces for those students whom we care for so much.


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