Strategies for Keeping Warm in the Classroom

Strategies for Keeping Warm in the Classroom


It has happened to all of us. It has happened to someone who someone you know heard about from someone else: a perfectly competent professor disciplined for saying something totally innocuous in class after being reported to the administration by oversensitive students.

We talked about this a bit here. In “Professors Running Scared? A less dramatic rendering of professor-student relations today,” a piece in Psychology Today, Jennifer Baker (Charleston) takes a look at this phenomenon. She notes the bemusement with which students tweet about the outrageous things their philosophy professors say, skillfully collected by @myphilprof, and writes:

The tweets are helpfully set against what seems to be a theme in the opinion piece business lately (how do they coordinate their topics?): “faculty fear their students!” “Young people are out of control… with their sensitivities!” Professors have written that their colleagues stay up at night, afraid of how their students might react if they say something offensive in class! (If you think I am exaggerating, read here.) This professor says he can’t even teach certain issues, like abortion, because of students today. His self-report is here.

Us philosophy professors, of course, teach abortion ethics all the time… If you think there’s something fishy going on, given these two accounts aren’t compatible, I agree.

You can read the rest of her piece here.

Relatedly, if you’re not following @JadedPhD on Twitter, you’ve been missing out on some gems:

Ok, ok. Let’s suppose there is a real problem here with student-motivated “persecution” of faculty. How should faculty deal with this fear they have? One way is by not talking about potentially offensive topics. That is, as everyone agrees, a bad idea. So forget that. Let’s also leave aside “trigger warnings,” further discussion of which in the philosophy blogosphere might trigger a mass exodus of readers. Let’s instead talk about what we can do in the classroom, how to approach controversial topics, how to address students you think might be/get offended with what you’re saying, how to be proactive with administrators about potential problems, etc. Given how much controversial and potentially offensive material is unproblematically taught every single day of college (which might speak to how big a problem this really is, if it is one), there must be lots of successful strategies out there. If we share them, perhaps we can assuage the concerns of the more fearful among us.

UPDATE (6/5/15): See “I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all” by Amanda Taub at Vox.

(image: detail of “Sower with Setting Sun after Millet” by Vincent van Gogh)

 

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Will Behun
Will Behun
6 years ago

I think it is very easy to be dismissive of faculty “fear” from the perspective of tenured or tenure track faculty who have a lot more protection from student complaints than precarious faculty. When PhDs are lining up for $2500 a course jobs, getting rid of anyone who might upset our precious students becomes a much easier decision on the part of a university or college administration.

All that said, I’ve always striven to keep students guessing about my own political, social, and religious views. A little research would quickly clear this up, but in the classroom I am rigorously non committal. I think that this defuses a lot of students who would otherwise be primed to detonate. Often it’s a matter of delicate phrasing. Certain phrases give away positions. If I call abortion opponents “anti-choice” or supporters of same-sex unions “enemies of traditional marriage” this might well give an indication of my position. So I avoid them where possible and mix them around when I can’t avoid them. If asked, I always am
honest but I also tell my students that they shouldn’t really care about my opinions, they should care about my arguments.

I do avoid some of the most controversial issues, especially when debate offers little chance of doing anything but reinforcing uncritical ideas. If the topic comes up, I can generally address it quickly and move on just as quickly.

I think that the best solution is a combination of managing the classroom and managing ourselves. We have neither to neglect or own positions nor dilute classroom discussion.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

First, let’s extensively ridicule anyone who has any sympathy with my opponent’s view and lump all of these opponents together under an absurd caricature of an almost diabolically paranoid, student-hating, bitter and cowardly Professor.

Then, for charity’s sake, let’s hypothetically assume they’re right.

Philosophy, ladies and gentleman. Philosophy.

Will Behun,

That’s always been my approach, and it has worked reasonably well for years, but lately it seems less effective. In the past, not knowing my views would increase student engagement, since it provoked their curiosity and made them want to come up with arguments to help draw out my opinions. I’d often get evaluation comments about how much they liked it.

Recently, however, I’ve found it backfiring. Students show are showing more annoyance and frustration with my refusal to take a side. It’s becoming a distraction, because instead of debating with each other, they get off the topic and keep asking me what my view is. Frankly, it feels as if they’re asking: “Come on, professor, settle this, which of us is right?”

Frankly, I’m finding more students whose expectations of “fairness” in debate has changed. They previously expected the professor to be unbiased by not taking a side. Many now think a debate is only appropriate if the professor takes the right side. In a recent attempt to teach Jarvis Thomson’s abortion essay, which in the past had always been a really passionate, engaged, and interesting topic that led to great class experiences, this time many students on both sides of the debate were angry and hostile: they seemed upset that it was being treated as debatable, and my impartiality seemed to make that worse.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
6 years ago

Justin, I’ve said this before and presumably I’ll have to say it again. There is significant selection bias in your methodology. For a variety of reasons, most academics and nearly all philosophers espouse left-of-center views. So almost everyone is on the same page, about everything from economic policy to same-sex marriage rights, with those students most likely to raise a stink.

But what about people who are critical of those views? How many of them (of us, I should say, as I am including myself here) dare open their mouths? I cannot speak my mind in a classroom even if asked, and for the sake of my career can only hope that nobody ever manages to piece two and two together about who I am.Report

David Boonin
David Boonin
6 years ago

Two comments:

1. Regardless of what one thinks about the risk of a student filing a formal complaint against a professor in these sorts of cases, I think it’s quite reasonable to think there is a significant risk of it having a negative impact on the professor’s student evaluations. The students may not be unhappy enough or motivated enough to seek out an official to complain to, but they will be unhappy enough and motivated enough to give you a low rating when a form is put in front of them. And poor student evaluations can have a number of negative consequences beyond being demoralizing. Depending on the institution, they can have an effect on your merit evaluations, and thus on your salary, and they can cause problems in tenure and promotion cases. I’m finishing up five years as Associate Dean for Arts and Humanities at the University of Colorado and each year have overseen all of the tenure and promotion cases in my division (excluding philosophy, which reports to someone else). I also oversee all of the reappointment cases in the division for non-tenure-track faculty. I would say that it is not at all unusual to see student complaints on course evaluation forms that are generated by their not liking the way the professor covered some controversial issue, particularly those involving race and/or gender. I would also say, although I admit it’s a limited data set, that it appears that female faculty and especially female faculty of color, are particularly susceptible to getting low student evaluations in courses that treat such subjects. So I think the problem of being adversely impacted because of the way one covers controversial subjects is considerably more widespread than it would appear if one just focuses on cases involving official sanctions.

2. My main strategy (in additional playing devil’s advocate) is to always keep the focus of my lecture and the class discussion on the argument itself rather than on the issue the argument is about. For example, a couple of years ago, for the first time, I taught articles on pedophilia and bestiality. The article on pedophilia, in particular, came pretty close to being a defense of the permissibility of the practice — at least insofar as it aimed to show that the arguments against it were unsuccessful — and I was pretty apprehensive about teaching it but didn’t like the idea of not trying simply out of fear of what might happen. It was somewhat uncomfortable at points, but I tried to keep the focus on the arguments and emphasize that you don’t have to be in favor of pedophilia to think that a particular argument against it is an unsatisfactory argument. In particular, I tried to emphasize that the more strongly you feel that it is wrong, the more concerned to be to make sure that the reasons you have for that view are good reasons. In a way, I framed the discussion of the article as doing a favor to those (I presumed everyone in the class) who think that pedophilia is clearly wrong: helping to put them in a better position to defend their view and feel confident in it. I also made very clear that I was not interested in having them talk about whether they are “pro” or “con” on pedophilia and only wanted to hear what they thought about the particular arguments discussed in the article and the author’s objections to those arguments. This was a sexual ethics course and there were some other potentially inflammatory topics that I covered in a similar manner, and I didn’t get any real complaints about anything from the course and my student evaluations were above average for my teaching courses at that level.Report

Andy Metz
Andy Metz
6 years ago

Baker raises good points about how we can talk about issues in class, but that is a totally different issue than complaints filed by students and how they are dealt with. For example, with Prof. Kipnis, President Shapiro suggested that there was no discretion about dismissing a frivolous Title IX complaint. Thus, no matter the circumstances, a Title IX complaint means an investigation, which, if frivolous, is at best a terrible waste of time for the person being complained about, and at worst, a terrifying experience to have to undergo.

The nature of the labor market that the author of VOX article discussed is not to be discounted, either, in terms of making faculty nervous about discussing topics that might make their students feel uncomfortable.Report

Cathy Kemp
Cathy Kemp
6 years ago

I nominate Will Behun’s approach as guideline number one. The crutch of controversial issues to compel student attention can lead people–for lack of experience or other strategies in early career, or of energy (other approaches can be VERY consuming) while teaching huge loads with no support, in more than one place–to make either the explicit content of their own views OR the secret of them the object of fascination in the classroom. This probably goes well enough most of the time, but probably hits a certain student or group of students in a certain semester in just the wrong way on the wrong day to blow up in instructors’ faces every now and then. MOST of the time I’m probably fine not wearing a seatbelt, but, you know. So keeping the focus on the issues, if teaching them really is the best approach to the class, or on the arguments (as David Boonin suggests), and keeping one’s own views not just secret but out of sight, is a good baseline.

So much of the rest of the advice here has to do with facility and dexterity of setting social boundaries in large-group settings both with the group and with individuals. I find that younger/earlier career members of the profession who (one hopes) are still learning these things come at the problem still too much identified with the student perspective. Here I am, shutting down a social and emotional play by a student–wow is that political of me! This power is both exciting and scary! I am now obsessed with how this did (or will) make the student(s) feel, how I feel, how this would look to other people, people I identify with, people who might themselves be identifying too much with students. That emotional ratcheting-up in an instructor is something students have been honing a radar for since grade school–they pick it up immediately. Do exactly the same thing bloodlessly, blandly, Weber-bureaucratically? They won’t even notice. This does *not* mean being bloodless or too-formal in one’s teaching, rather, save the passion for the arguments, the discoveries students make in class, the material assigned.

I and others could probably generate a long list of rules governing a typical host (not a host of typical) problem-situations in college classrooms in philosophy. But there’s a faster way, for people who can use their imaginations and get past their own social presentation and doctrinal ethical views as norms for all things social. There is an enormous collection of examples of the kinds of tactics and problem-solving we’re talking about here, a collection developed for an entirely different area of social life, but conveying nonetheless the precise style of light-touch boundary-setting needed for a less burdensome approach to managing students and classrooms in all settings. It’s a storehouse of examples of the Aristotelian sort, collected in an unlikely (also likely) place: the work of Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners. I know! But it’s the dead-level truth, fully-guaranteed, and I recommend it all the time to the early-career teachers I know. It teaches both policy and policy-navigation, so it’s easily adapted to specialized rule-governed social settings. This means it works for all social and cultural settings, once you get past seeing the advice as dogmatic rather than performative. Yes, it means reading whiny or clueless or self-righteous letters from Miss Manner’s readers (we, who never read or hear anything whiny, or clueless, or self-righteous, except from students, right?), but the balm (and the glory) come from the way she handles each one, sometimes with just a line. Read and learn as Aristotle would have us, from good examples. Try it! There are many volumes, but my favorite is this:

http://www.amazon.com/Manners-Excruciatingly-Correct-Behavior-Freshly/dp/0393058743

File under Justin’s headline: Keeping Warm in the Classroom.Report

Sensitive Susan
Sensitive Susan
6 years ago

I’m disappointed that you are so dismissive of the feelings of your colleagues, Justin. It’s odd, when you know how much time, money and energy we’ve devoted to becoming teachers, especially considering the fact that most of us are not tenured faculty. “Of the nearly 1.8 million faculty members and instructors who made up the 2009 instructional workforce in degree-granting two- and four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, more than 1.3 million (75.5%) were employed in contingent positions off the tenure track, either as part-time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.” Again, setting side opportunity costs and risks, it sincerely hurts my feelings, deeply, when you continually brush aside our concerns and endorse statements by individuals who call us toddlers. You laugh at us for being insecure when we have good reason and we don’t deserve it. Is this callous obliviousness or abject malice on your part?Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

I’m going to ignore the snarkiness in which the question was posed, and treat it as a legitimate question. In that vein, I suspect it would be helpful to start the course by explicitly telling the students that the aim of the course is to deal with the arguments for and against ideas that are controversial, that everyone should focus on the arguments, that the aim of the course is not to simply teach students which ideas are correct, that it is possible for arguments to be bad even if the ideas they support are ultimately true, and that being emotionally invested in a topic gives one all the more reason to make sure that one has good reasons for one’s position. Others in this thread have already pointed this out. What I would emphasize is that it is probably best to be proactive and say all of this at the beggining of the course. If you wait until emotions are high then it will likely just seem like apologetics to the offended parties. In most other courses students are accustomed to memorizing sets of established facts. So it probably isn’t wise to just dive into the arguments without ever taking a stance and expect students not to get frustrated. I wouldn’t just assume that they will just intuitively understand what’s going on.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

I’m not sure why some here seem to be construing “teach controversial topics in the classroom” with “teach my own personal political ideology or position.” It’s not too difficult to teach a controversial topic while limiting yourself to fairly representing the major views in the literature and while representing each argument as powerfully and charitably as possible. It’s a whole different story to devote lectures to your own pet views. I’m not sure why that has any special value over and above fairly representing the literature in general.

Go ahead, teach abortion. There are published pieces that cover the spectrum of views on that position. Teaching economic justice issues? Have your students read the free-market libertarian positions out there along with other positions. Animal moral status? Even easier, move from Kant to Singer to Elizabeth Anderson (and points in between). Students, in my experience, are happy to be exposed to the arguments surrounding controversial issues. Students are less interested (for good reason) at having their professors proselytize to them. I agreee with yet another anon that professors don’t need to take a public personal stance in the classroom in order to effectively teach controversial topics.

What I DO think we have to do is signpost what we are doing and why we are doing it. Students can get lost if you jump straight into arguments (anon is right about this as well) if we don’t give them much rhyme or reason for the jumping. Students will also sometimes directly ask you for your position (they are curious after all), but that’s easy enough for me to deflect: “my view in this is irrelevant to your grade or your paper…however, I’m happy to discuss this with you after the term is over; obviously I think the topic is worth discussing further but I would rather avoid influencing what you think by letting you know what I think” (or something to that effect). Normally, students are not able to guess where I stand on these issues (I ask them on my written evaluations) and I’m happy to strongly articulate views that I think are wrong (even those I think are dangerous).

I realize that this dives more deeply into a disagreement that we’ve all had here before about what it is that we’re supposed to be doing in the classroom in the first place but at least one advantage to the “tourguide but not participant” approach is that you make students responsible for figuring out their own position without feeling like they have to take you on.Report