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Some scenarios:

  • In your Sociology of Families course, you ask students to write a paper on the arguments for and against gay adoption. One of your students tells you that he cannot do this assignment because offering arguments for gay adoption clashes with his religious beliefs.
  • In your Race and Ethnicity course, a students cites "evidence" that African Americans are intellectually inferior to whites. When challenged, she points to the syllabus, which states, "Each person's perspective is valuable."
  • A student whose opinion differs from the majority of the class speaks her mind. She is personally attacked by another student and before you can intervene, the attacked student runs out of the classroom. Do you run after her?

Hot button issues may not come up regularly in classroom discussion in every discipline. But in sociology, they come up all the time. Abortion. Gay marriage. Poverty. Religion. Even issues that may not capture headlines all the time -- like spanking -- are regularly covered (and fought over) by sociology students.

At a session of the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, which is going on this week in Philadelphia, professors tried to talk through strategies for how to discuss these issues -- without losing control of their classrooms, hurting students' feelings, or ending up being lampooned on David Horowitz's Web site. The above scenarios (which audience members said were close to things they had experienced) were analyzed and debated.

"A lot of people try to avoid controversy in the classroom for all kinds of reasons," said Tamara Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at the State University of New York at Albany who has taught sociology at numerous colleges. "But controversial issues are relevant to the discipline and to students' lives."

Smith and others who spoke at the session said that there was no way sociologists could avoid these topics. But the speakers and audience members had all kinds of views on whether various strategies were effective or not. Judging from comments in the room, the professors who gathered for the discussion were all on the "liberal" side of the hot button topics. But professor after professor spoke with concern about making students who disagree feel comfortable expressing their opinions.

Horowitz, the radical-turned-conservative who has urged state legislatures and Congress to enact legislation to fight what he calls ideological manipulation in classrooms, was for much of the discussion the elephant in the room that no one was talking about. He wasn't mentioned in the presentations, but when he came up in the Q&A, it was clear that many sociologists do worry that their classrooms are particularly vulnerable to attacks by conservative groups.

But what was striking was that the professors (only a few of whom were aware that a reporter was in the room) spoke with passion about how they had been grappling with these issues for years -- well before Horowitz started to push his legislation.

Among the teaching issues discussed at the session were whether professors should to be up front about their views. Some speakers argued for doing so from the start, in the spirit of honesty; others worried about making those who disagree feel that they can't speak out, and still others said holding back the information can be "a distraction" as students pester to find out and try to analyze which side their instructor is on.

A number of professors put statements on the syllabus, specifically encouraging students to share a variety of views, but to avoid personal attacks. And many use various forms of debates (in which people may end up arguing for a side they don't believe in) to teach various concepts.

Heather Sullivan-Catlin, an associate professor at SUNY-Potsdam, said she likes to give assignments in which students must present arguments for both sides of an issue, and then assigns them at random to debate the issue in class. So the students have studied both sides, but don't know which side they will be called upon to defend and whether it will reflect their beliefs. "They learn the issue better if they have to do both sides," she said. One danger: "Sometimes the 'winner' is the loudest or most eloquent, not the person presenting the best argument."

However thoughtful professors are about encouraging civility, several said that with combustible topics, you can have an explosion and not even realize why until after the fact.

Jennifer Keys, an assistant professor of sociology at North Central College, talked about how she teaches a course on the sociology of abortion. She uses many approaches to try to help students think about the arguments with which they may disagree. For example, she has students talk about groups like Feminists for Life and Catholics for Choice, and to consider how people can identify as feminists or as Roman Catholic and disagree with the views dominant in those groups.

Or she used "distancing techniques," such as having her students analyze a selection of abortion-related bumper stickers. The discussion wasn't on whether abortion should be legal, but the effectiveness of arguments that need to be expressed with the few words that a bumper sticker allows.

Keys said that she has also used polling to get students to think more about their positions. By showing students that the country is split on an issue like abortion, they must confront the reality that -- whatever their position -- many disagree. In the past, she has sometimes done an anonymous poll of her students and then had students analyze the differences between their classroom's views and those of the public. One year, she found that only one student opposed legalized abortion and shortly after that, that student dropped the course.

After tracking down the student, Keys learned that in a small group discussion that she didn't hear, another student made a remark to the effect of "I can't believe anyone here is pro-life. I just want to strangle pro-lifers." Unknown to that student, one of the members of the group was that pro-lifer, who felt a need to drop the course. Keys said that if the comment had been made in front of the entire class, she could have intervened, and pointed out why it was wrong to make such a statement.

"But we need to remember that we don't know what students say to each other," Keys said, and that's where damage can be done.

In dealing with such situations, most professors talked about a mix of in-class discussions on acceptable forms of criticism and one-on-one discussions with students who may be personally attacking others, or who are being attacked.

Getting Personal

Another challenging issue discussed at the session was how personal to allow or encourage students to be in discussions. After all, students' views on abortion may be shaped by having had one (or by being adopted), and students' views may be shaped by having been a crime victim or having a relative in jail.

Professors in the audience at the sessions shared examples of times when students' personal experiences greatly helped a classroom discussion. For instance, one professor said that in a class on poverty, when a student made disparaging remarks about people on welfare, a student who stepped forward to say that he had been on welfare prompted a lot of healthy thought and discussion. But another professor said that when a student in her class revealed that he had been institutionalized for a year, other students had a hard time knowing how to react, and it wasn't clear that the student realized the implications of sharing the information.

One professor in the audience said that he worried about introductory sociology courses becoming "too much therapy, too much Oprah," and not enough substance.

Another professor, Derek Greenfield of St. Augustine's College, in North Carolina, cited another factor professors should consider when they talk about topics to which students may have strong emotional reactions. "It's easy for us to bring up a topic to illustrate a point, and then to want to move on to the next topic we want to cover," Greenfield said. "But these can be very emotional topics that directly affect students. We're ready to move on, but how do we know they are ready to move on?"

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