Treading Carefully in Classroom Discussions

In his “Tread Carefully with the Socratic Method,” Rob Jenkins cautions “What if a student takes offense to something we said—perhaps while we were playing devil’s advocate—and accuses us of some form of discrimination?” Jenkins continues, “On today’s hypersensitized campuses, where in many cases emotional responses have been privileged over intellectual ones, that has become a very real possibility.”

Jenkins cites the example of a student who, in a private meeting, accused him of taking a discriminatory position concerning students with disabilities during a class discussion; a position he had not taken. The student accepted Jenkins’ explanation that he was using the Socratic Method. However, he wondered, “Would things have turned out differently if she had gone straight to the dean and accused me of having a bias against students with disabilities?” The obvious answer is, “Of course it would turn out differently.”

The day before Jenkins published his essay, I taught a lesson in a history course in which I referred to Saladin as an “important heretic.” In the same presentation, I talked about the “European heretics” who referred to themselves as Crusaders.

As a pedagogical strategy, I frequently discuss concepts from various world views. In this case, I was describing Saladin from the point of view of the Europeans and the Europeans from the point of view of Saladin. Unfortunately, students sometimes miss context.

Fortunately, most students discuss their concerns with us—either during class or privately—instead of going straight to the Dean. Misunderstandings can easily be worked out through conversation. But what about the students who go straight to the Dean?

First, there is the possibility of administrative corruption where the complaint is used to attack the faculty member regardless of its legitimacy or even if the student is lying about the incident. Readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed regularly see articles about such administrators.

Second, complaints need to be investigated and investigations cost time and money. In the case of Jenkins’ student, the Dean would need to spend time interviewing both the student and Jenkins. Then, an additional meeting with the student would be required to help the student understand that she had misunderstood the comment. At a minimum, the complaint would require several hours of administrative, staff, and professorial time—as well as the time of the student—to resolve.

For other complaints, larger investigations might be taken. Once, I was accused by a student of racism because of how I had structured an assignment; a complaint that was found to have no merit. As part of the investigation, I was interviewed by the college attorney at the cost of hundreds of dollars to the college. If the attorney also interviewed the student and/or conducted meetings with college administrators, the cost of the investigation might easily have been in the thousands of dollars.

Although I share Jenkins’ realization that a student might go straight to the Dean, how might things turn out differently if the student skipped going to the Dean and instead went straight to social media?

Let’s consider my example of referring to Saladin as an “important heretic” or as the Crusaders as “European heretics.” What if the student posted that “My anti-Muslim professor called Saladin a heretic” or wrote that “My history professor attacked Christians during class.” That comment could then be shared by the student’s social media followers. Eventually, it could be picked up by a highly biased organization or media outlet as a basis to attack anti-Islamic or anti-Christian professors.

In today’s political environment, in response to my so-called anti-Muslim or anti-Christian beliefs, my detractors might post by home address, telephone number, and email address on-line. If this were to happen, personal information would likely be posted about my husband as well. Calls for my resignation or my death might follow.

As I was drafting this essay, I read an article concerning a lawsuit that was filed by a student who claims that she received a failing grade in a class because of her religious beliefs. What fascinated me most about the article were the comments in which people were condemning/supporting the professor/student without having adequate evidence for their assertions. Many of the commentators had done such a cursory reading of the article that they could not even properly identify the sex of the female professor whom they frequently referred to using masculine pronouns.

As professors, we can be thankful that students will generally confront us directly if there is a misunderstanding. As a result, we can say “Oops!” and immediately clear up a misunderstanding. However, we must remain cognizant that an offended—or deceitful—student can go straight to the Dean or even directly to social media.

    –Steven L. Berg, PhD


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