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Teaching Difficult Topics
January 10, 2013 - 10:07pm

I am a sociologist. I teach some of those courses that many academics wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. One such course is Sex, Gender, and Society. I also teach other courses or segments of other courses that deal with sexuality, globalization, imperialism, wars, religion, sweatshops.  These are all difficult courses and topics to teach.  Many of my colleagues think I am a glutton for punishment for wanting to teach these courses (if these weren’t enough I just added Sociology of the Body and Embodiment to the list of courses I teach).

These are some of my favorite subjects to teach, but I also know, especially as a junior faculty, that these subjects can create a backlash among students and how they view and evaluate the teaching of these subjects. Over the years, I have realized that there are some steps that I can take that make for a better experience for me (and maybe better evaluations that actually judge my teaching and not penalize me because of the topic).  Here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned about teaching sensitive topics:

Dealing with the “F” word:  Feminist. That’s the dirty word that students are afraid to say out loud but is on everybody’s mind when they walk into one of my gender-related courses. By now I know very well what students think of feminists: biased, man-haters, no sense of humor, angry, and so on. So now, I discuss what it means to be a feminist from the first day of my gender courses. I encourage students to voice what their concerns might be coming into a course like mine and ask them why they chose to take this course. Turns out most of them have what would be classified as “feminist” reasons for taking the course! I spend a lot of time making them comfortable with that label and getting them to embrace it. Most of the difficult subjects we teach have some baggage in terms of the preconceived ideas that students bring with them about the subject and its teacher. These notions need to be addressed and corrected starting from day one, and then the message needs to be reinforced repeatedly throughout the course (for instance feminists aren’t man-haters; if you teach race, it doesn’t mean you hate white people and so on).

It’s Not About You: As a sociologist one of the messages that is most important in my classes is getting students to see how our actions, our lives are part of larger patterns and larger systems. One of the most difficult things about teaching sensitive topics (race and gender for instance), is that it’s bound to make people defensive. Discussing male privilege or white privilege often gets read as a teacher accusing them: “You are sexist” “You are racist”. My job is to constantly remind students that “It’s not personal”, that this is about larger structures and patterns of privilege. Related to that is the need to get students to see past their personal experience (see previous post and the section on “personal as proof”) and evaluate the evidence in front of them.  This particular message cannot be emphasized enough when teaching sensitive topics.

But Sometimes It Is About You . . . And About Me: I once received a comment on a course evaluation that said, “she is the scariest professor I know”. People who know me well (including my students who’ve taken several classes with me) find this utterly hilarious. Me? Scary? What had I done? I had held the student accountable and hadn’t extend the deadline for a paper. I think this speaks to gendered notions that students bring with them when they come to the classroom. As a young female professor, especially a young mother, they expect me to be nurturing and when I am not, they get frustrated or scared. Clearly, sometimes it is not the message being conveyed, but who is conveying the message that rubs students the wrong way. While I have some colleagues who are very critical of immigration policies (in this country and in Europe) their message, as White Americans, is seen as nothing more and nothing less than critical insight. The same message delivered by a brown-skinned immigrant can be seen as “having an axe to grind”, being “anti – (fill in the name of the country in question). I now make it a point to discuss students’ expectations of and reactions to their professors and how these might vary (even when the subject itself doesn’t) based on the professor’s gender, race, nationality, age, and so on.

Teaching sensitive topics is difficult and there is no way around that. But I do think that the above steps have helped me over the years (sometimes more successfully than others), to get students to evaluate their own responses and reactions before they evaluate me as a professor.

New London, Connecticut in the US.

Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at


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