How to be sensitive to students without compromising academic freedom

Advice from one professor

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, writing professor Charles Green says new complaints of students' identity politics, radial liberalism, and political correctness are actually quite like old complaints.

Do today's activist students 'terrify' you?

"Criticism from students... isn't new, even if it develops out of students' political perspectives or not. Instructors have to learn to meet that criticism and engage it respectfully," Green says.

However, the concerns are borne out of important questions, he writes, such as how to best teach controversial material in a respectful way and how white, male instructors can sensitively lead discussion of race, sexual orientation, and gender.

To answer those, he shares eight pieces of advice based on his own experiences in the classroom.

1. Know your limits. "We all enter the classroom with our blind spots," Green says. Sharing your background knowledge along with uncertainties you hold helps students understand your perspective and better engage with questions you pose. "They'll also recognize the limits of their own knowledge," he says.

2. Acknowledge your position of power. Faculty diversity is severely lacking in academia, Green says. "Even if we're trying to be welcoming, white faculty members, myself included, are part of the problem," he writes. Students may push back against faculty when they learn that as open as the higher education environment is, it "is still a sometimes unwelcome one for students of color." Recognizing this helps students discuss topics more openly, he says.

3. Take your setting into account. "We should remember that academe is a shorthand for extraordinarily diverse kinds of universities," Green says. The experiences of a tenured faculty member from an elite university do not translate to all faculty. "Knowing your own college or university culture more intimately will help you work more directly with your students, whether the subject matter is controversial or not," he says.

4. Be aware of your emotions. "Too many of the essays about fear of liberal students... posit the fearful faculty as reasonable and the student body as unreasonably emotional," he says. However, thinking of reason and fear as entirely discrete "ignores basic human experience." Instead, recognize your emotional reactions.

5. Be mindful of your biases. Everyone brings with them emotional reactions and biases from their personal experiences and the environment in which they grew up. Acknowledging that encourages students to engage "with their own experience and the intellectual material we discuss," Green says.

6. Do not avoid controversial texts. Students may at first seem fatigued with conversations of race because they see the lesson to be too simplistic, for example, "racism is bad." However, in Green's experience, exploring the complexities leads students to be "more engaged and moved to more compelling insights."

7. Be upfront about sensitive course materials. Explain from the very start of the course that some materials will challenge students' perceptions—in at times uncomfortable ways. "That isn't a trigger warning; it's simple politeness... guiding students to your pedagogical approach helps them build the class dynamic more constructively."

8. Avoid getting defensive. Faculty members often react sharply to accusations. Instead, assume you are in the wrong if a student accuses of hurting his or her feelings and take the concern seriously. "Even if you and your colleagues decide you weren't in the wrong, avoiding the defensive impulse will make you a more perceptive teacher," Green writes (Green, Inside Higher Ed, 6/9).

What's your advice for handling controversial topics when speaking with students? Tell us by tweeting to @eab_daily.

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