A Prediction: More Contentious Classrooms

Teaching in challenging times.

July 15, 2020

The college classroom is not a walled garden. What goes on outside our classrooms eventually works its way inside.

During the 1960s, many faculty members at the most highly selective and prestigious college and universities were startled to discover that the growing numbers of women, Black and Hispanic students on their campuses demanded that these institutions accommodate them and their demands rather than simply expect them to fit in. Black, Latino and women’s studies programs and a push for fairer and more inclusive hiring and recruitment practices were among the results.

We live in another moment of disruption, and we should anticipate that the concerns voiced in the streets will affect our classroom’s dynamics. The impact is already apparent. Take the case of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sociology professor who faces criticism for a role-playing exercise that some undergraduates contend created an unsafe learning environment for students of color.

Among the complaints: that allowing white students to play Black historical figures was problematic, and that the role-playing activities were not intellectual exercises, but little more than theatrical entertainments and misplaced efforts to replay horrific historical experiences, much like battlefield re-enactments that trivialize warfare and ignore essential context.

Too often, students’ concerns like these are dismissed as the product of overindulged, hypersensitive, easily offended snowflakes who consider themselves paying customers who are always right. But I think that it is a terrible mistake to trivialize the student concerns.

Many undergraduates are convinced that important alternate perspectives and noncanonical texts and works of art are ignored or disparaged, and that too many faculty members are insensitive to how their assignments and classroom activities are perceived and experienced by students.

There is only one appropriate response to such concerns: to engage the students in dialogue as early as possible.

In spite of the proliferation of teaching centers, it’s still the case that most faculty members have no formal pedagogical training and little familiarity with a subject of mounting importance: classroom management. Here’s the advice I would like to offer.

Don’t expect deference.

Appeals to authority and expertise don’t work in parenting and certainly don’t work in the classroom. If we don’t respect our students, we shouldn’t expect respect in return.

Anticipate potential problems.

Review your readings, assignments and assessments from your students’ point of view and do your best to foresee likely land mines.

Strive to make your class a community of inquiry.

Students come to class with very different levels of confidence and styles of self-expression and argumentation -- styles that can make their classmates feel very uncomfortable. Students differ radically in their family background, political affiliation, degree of religious commitment and ethical assumptions.

Do everything you can to convince your students that college is, first and foremost, a space where students have an unmatched opportunity to formulate their adult values -- a process that requires ideas to be critically scrutinized, tested and remade.

Make your classroom a “safe space” for intellectual exploration.

All of us are susceptible to foot-in-mouth disease; all periodically and inadvertently blurt out remarks that we’d like to take back. That’s why it’s especially important to cultivate a classroom culture that’s open to alternate perspectives and nuance.

Be explicit about your pedagogy.

Explain why you chose a particular reading or instructional activity and offer a pedagogical justification. But don’t stop there: get feedback from your students and be willing to rethink an approach that upsets or offends some of them.

Do your darnedest to embed multiple perspectives into your class.

Make it clear that there are many different points of view, approaches and interpretations, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Don’t adopt the steamroller approach of hastily dismissing a perspective or rejecting a side of an argument out of hand. Oversimplification may reign in the Twittersphere, but it’s one of our jobs to model nuance.

For all the complaints about coddled students overly sensitive to microaggressions, the fact is that we’ve just lived through a period when careerist students were about as compliant, conformist and deferential as students have ever been.

From the Great Butter Rebellion at Harvard in 1766 (which was as much about tyranny and despotic governance as rotten food), the history of college students has frequently been one of contention, conflict and protest. In fact, no period was as combative than the early 19th century, when campus violence was surprisingly commonplace, including instances in which a Harvard professor was blinded and a University of Virginia professor murdered -- which led colleges to drastically alter curricula and promote fraternities, intercollegiate sports and other student organizations and activities, and, yes, impose grades.

Today, the gulf between much of the professoriate and our students is extremely wide (in age, racial and ethnic background, current family income, and attitudes). To bridge that divide, faculty must connect with their students in ways that go beyond instruction and academic advising and be willing to engage with their ideas in a thoughtful, sincere and serious-minded manner.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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