I’ve recently been thinking a fair amount about the issues facing teaching colleagues in the United States (back home for me, essentially) surrounding possibilities of ‘Campus Carry’ laws meaning students could bring guns to the classroom. I have a lot of fairly intense feelings about that subject, none of which are very positive, but that’s not really where I wanted to take my thoughts on this particular occasion.
What really was lingering with me was the UH faculty slideshow suggesting that faculty be very “careful when discussing sensitive topics” or outright avoid them altogether. In Higher Education, especially in some areas even more than others, part of the nature of engaging the world we live in is direct address of sensitive topics. Higher learning is full engagement, and I don’t think that can be avoided without cost. Certainly it makes sense to think being cautious will help to avoid violence if guns could be present, but as with many things, the impulse to violence will be present regardless.
And I suppose on a much smaller scale is the desire to avoid causing offence. Sensitive subjects require openness, diplomacy, sensitivity and real discussion, which all can be quite difficult in the classroom. There must be sufficient openness to facilitate meaningful discussion, yet how far does one step in if something said needs clarifying, or might be offensive to others who are present?
I’m afraid I feel that I mishandled a situation of this sort recently, and I keep considering how I might have done better. In a class workshop on several pieces of writing by the students, there was discussion of one point in a student piece that addressed the dress codes for women entering a certain country in another part of the world, with which this student was familiar. Another student commented on how this passage needed to be clearer, in terms of the reasons why women should only dress in modest clothing that covered most of their bodies.
The student who said this seemed to say that providing statistics on sort of violence or attacks that women who don’t follow these rules would be helpful reasoning, as women aren’t attacked for wearing revealing clothes, “not here, not in Britain.”
My response was, “I wouldn’t necessarily say that.” What I had meant to object to was the notion that dress was the primary cause for violence in that part of the world, in contrast to that not being the case here. I felt that was not entirely fair or accurate to the culture being discussed, and though I never got to that point, had wanted to propose other possibly reasons for modest dress, such as culture or religious influences.
It certainly was not to imply victim-blaming or enforce the notion that women “ask for it,” as I am so far in opposition of that mentality that one could not even measure the distance in parsecs. The fault of any violence, sexual or otherwise, lies with the the attacker only.
But the comment, I realise, could be taken a number of ways. The student responded that statistics show very few attacks of sexual violence are linked to dress, and the violence will happen anyway. I agreed with this and tried to steer the discussion back towards the writing quality of the piece itself, as that’s what writing workshop should focus on. But I don’t believe that my original intention ever became clear in my rush to refocus workshop time. My worry was, too, that the original author of the piece was going to be hurt by the discussion’s possible implications on the culture discussed, without being able to defend the piece (as students being workshopped are usually to remain silent until the others have given feedback).
It is important, I believe, to have these discussions and have them openly and honestly, yet there’s a need to balance the class time for the purposes of the course. At the same time, I genuinely wish I’d had my bearings more during this situation, and was better able to clarify my response.
How have you found it difficult to navigate sensitive topics in your own classrooms? Are you currently in the US, considering the impact of possible campus carry? What positive methods have you found to encourage open discussion where possible? I’d love to hear your thoughts.