Joshunda Sanders

Author and Journalist at Self-Employed

Can You Teach Controversial Subjects Without Drawing Fire?

Full 12192013 controversy

Shannon Gibney, a black professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, recently received a formal reprimand from campus administrators after three white male students lodged a complaint. Gibney’s crime? By teaching structural racism in an October communications class, the students said, she had created a "hostile learning environment."

Gibney’s story made headlines earlier this month, after she published an essay about the experience on Gawker. The professor wrote that she had been admonished by the school's administration in the past for discussing racism and race with students and colleagues. After the most recent incident, Gibney and other college staff members plan to file a federal class action lawsuit, alleging that MCTC is a discriminatory workplace. But Gibney is not the first professor to find herself embroiled in controversy while teaching hot-button issues.

Earlier this year, Michigan State University professor William Penn was asked to take a leave of absence for the fall semester after he was filmed telling students in a humanities course that Republicans "don't want to pay taxes, because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it that they possibly could," among other comments. Penn's case is, admittedly, a rather extreme example of the kind of negative attention, protests and complaints educators everywhere can draw when they make perceived or real missteps in the classroom.

But these incidents raise important questions for professors who teach controversial subjects in an array of disciplines, from the humanities to science. How can professors teach volatile topics without earning themselves reprimands or worse? Professors of education, writing, pedagogy, science, and communications say that one way to engage students on often fraught topics is to frame the discussion in a way that is clear and specific. Here are their tips on how to do just that:

Lay the groundwork early.

Aya de Leon, who is on the faculty of the African American Studies department at the University of California Berkeley and Director of Poetry for the People, tells students in her American Cultures class right off the bat that discussions about racism, oppression, and sexuality may become uncomfortable.

Providing that context—and combining it with a welcoming perspective—allows students to drop the course early on if they don't want to participate. "Six weeks later, when they're upset, I can refer back to that earlier conversation," de Leon says.

Think about terminology.

Mary Anne Mohanraj, clinical assistant professor of fiction and literature and associate coordinator of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaches post-colonial literature, which leads to a lot of conversation about race and class.

Mohanraj, who was born in Sri Lanka, is bisexual—a fact that comes up sometimes in the classroom. "Framing is really important" when discussing contested topics with students, she says, particularly when they are from a different racial background. "Understand what definitions you're using, which may not be ones they're familiar with for those terms,” she says. “It also helps to say that this is an area where any of us may misstep. Students, like most people, get anxious and worried they're going to say something wrong and their friends will think they're terribly racist or sexist."

Explain, explain, explain.

Robert Jensen, who teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, says that anyone who wants to have a valuable career in academia will venture into controversial territory: "It's just a question of intellectual honesty."

What’s more, he says, it’s valuable for students to be presented with controversial material, so they can develop critical-thinking skills and bolster their understanding of relevant themes and topics. He navigates complicated territory by erring on the side of over-explanation, and he doesn’t just plunge into contentious themes. Instead, he makes it clear to students why he is engaging them in potentially explosive conversation topics.

Don’t indoctrinate; start a discussion.

Deb Morrison, a doctoral candidate in science curriculum and instruction at the University of Colorado Boulder, teaches at the intersection of a number of controversial topics, including climate science, evolution, and racial and linguistic equity.

"I try to frame things in a structural way,” Morrison says, “acknowledging that there's a different level of risk for white educators and aware that when you're talking about emotionally-loaded issues like climate change, we don't have to agree or have consensus. There's a fine line between critical thinking and the idea of indoctrination and in educational settings, it's a closer line than you'd think."

Like other professors, Morrison says that relying on specific, concrete examples helps her avoid pushback from students. She also organizes her instruction by allowing students to ask lots of questions and reminding them that there aren't definitive answers in some cases. That way, Morrison says, when she teaches evolution, for instance, she avoids alienating students who might believe in divine authority over scientific authority. Those students "don't have to believe the assumptions I make based on a chain of evidence in order for me to educate them," she adds. "I just need to have them see how I got to that thought. I'm never going to ask a student to replace their assumption of time with mine because that's a belief they've had since birth. It's a lot less threatening if we talk about assumptions."

Banish ridicule.

Arri Eisen, a professor of pedagogy at Emory University, wrote this about the topic of engaging students in controversial material for the The Chronicle in 2009. Some science professors, he says, are “understandably disinclined to teach common descent, that part of evolution that hypothesizes a common ancestor for all living things, including humans. They are afraid of the political risk, of losing their jobs, of parental outcry.”

But he encourages those professors to think of teaching evolution not as “opening a can of worms, but rather providing a real teachable moment”—a chance to give students a space to “recognize and work out the tensions that arise with conflicting personal stances.”

“With ridicule expressly forbidden,” he writes, “classroom discussions inevitably lead to students' acknowledging that humans employ a complex interplay of experience, faith, and trust in evaluating the validity of a concept. Most important, students learn that simplistic rejection of a conflicting worldview is counterproductive."

Eisen says: "It's important as a teacher not to teach your beliefs, but to make them available. The more important thing to do is open the conversation in a safe way."

Know who supports you.

There’s no getting around it: Being transparent about potentially controversial topics is often augmented by privileges and protections that are embedded in the academy. "I've had a lot of criticism,” says Jensen, the Texas journalism professor, “but I'm white, male and tenured."

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Jensen wrote a column condemning American-supported acts of terrorism and was vilified by the president of the university at the time, Larry Faulkner. While he draws frequent critiques and attacks for his work outside of the classroom, Jensen says that he is generally insulated from official complaints because of the authority students bestow on him as a white male. The most he experiences in his Introduction to Journalism class, when he teaches racism, are negative comments in anonymous student evaluations.

"I have an enormous amount of formal protection so that when I lecture about structural racism, I'm not going to endure the same kind of attack as someone who is black. The same is true of feminism, because I'm not a woman," Jensen says.

Back when she taught at the University of Utah, Mohanraj recalls, the English department there received an anonymous letter complaining about her decision to discuss sexuality in the classroom. Administrators responded by stating that they supported academic freedom and would defend her against any further complaints.

"That's inherently difficult material, and maybe it should be," she says. "It's difficult for all of us to navigate, I think. But this is the work we've been hired to do and we should be supported in it."

Images: Professors who teach controversial material can end up drawing unwanted attention. Left: Shannon Gibney of Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Right: William Penn of Michigan State U.

Joshunda Sanders is a writer and journalist.

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