Teaching Controversial Materials in the Online Classroom: Forbearance, Turpitude, or Learning Opportunity?

Teaching Controversial Materials in the Online Classroom: Forbearance, Turpitude, or Learning Opportunity?
Tom Armbrecht, PhD June 1, 2018

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“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

—Albert Einstein, US (German-born) physicist (1879 – 1955), no original source given


As news and social media make readily apparent today, almost any subject can be controversial. In fact, contentious debate has become an ersatz form of entertainment among people who don’t know each other and have no personal stake in an issue. Given the ubiquity of this mode of communication, it is hardly surprising when dissent among students manifests itself in the online classroom. Discussion boards, group projects, and even synchronous meetings all have the potential to become forums for disagreement, rather than for intellectual debate and exchange. The potential for conflict makes it vital that instructors develop strategies to ensure their virtual classroom spaces remain friendly and conducive to learning, particularly when they teach material that they know is capable of engendering discord.

As a former professor of French literature who specialized in gay and lesbian writing, I often taught texts that were controversial when published and remained so even in the contemporary classroom, despite increasing acceptance of same-sex sexuality in American culture. Some of the greatest authors of twentieth-century French literature, including Jean Cocteau, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Jean Genet (among many others), described sexual desire in ways that are enduringly provocative. Although by the time I taught their works in my own classroom, many of the texts were almost 100 years old, the ideas they presented still had the power to shock students. In order to make sure that class members were not overwhelmed by their emotional reactions to the detriment of their analytical capabilities, I developed strategies for teaching “controversial literature.” This essay explains some of the techniques I used through anecdote, rather than just via theoretical example. It aims to help teachers imagine themselves in similar situations so that they can prepare themselves to broach emotionally charged subjects in their own classrooms, whether online or in person. Although most of the ideas related below were conceived for face-to-face teaching, the principles still hold for the electronic classroom, with slight modifications, and do not necessitate building new tools or purchasing new software.

Codes of Conduct

Conflict in the classroom arises less often from opposing but well thought-out ideologies than it does from unconscious ignorance or prejudice. To prevent the formation of a tense atmosphere that does not allow for the development of ideas, it’s a good idea to establish rules of conduct that preclude expressing beliefs not respectful to all members of the class. There is a distinction between discouraging disrespectful behavior and condemning someone’s beliefs. Although instructors may hope to open their students’ minds in a way that makes them more accepting of others, their charge is neither to change their opinions, nor to judge those already held, except in their capacity to withstand critical thought. A statement in the syllabus that acknowledges the potential for controversy and makes clear the ground rules of communication can be an effective means of making students aware of the importance of mutual respect and the promotion of civilized discussion. To this end, I included the paragraph below in my syllabi and asked a student to read it aloud for the rest of the class at the start of every semester:

Classroom Atmosphere: The University is committed to creating a diverse and welcoming learning environment for all students and has a non-discrimination policy that reflects this philosophy. Disrespectful behaviors or comments addressed towards any group or individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, ability, or any other perceived difference, are unacceptable and will be addressed by the professor.

Although the language of this paragraph is anodyne and makes no specific threat, it does accomplish two essential tasks: 1) it reminds students that the values of the classroom are those of the institution; and 2) it introduces the importance of respectful conduct on the very first day of class. The former objective is important, since it alludes to the school’s mission and the potential sanctions students face if they behave in ways that impede it. Backing up this statement by referring to official institutional language on the subject can lend credence to this assertion. The latter charge establishes the instructor’s commitment to equality as well as her authority in the classroom. Addressing the subject of atmosphere right at the start is a good way to put the subject on the table before it arises from necessity. No one is likely to feel indirectly accused of such behavior if the topic is introduced before a course begins. Using a statement about conduct as a topic for discussion is an interactive way to establish the ground rules and set the tone for the course.

The literature that I taught in my classes was often written with the express purpose of representing “deviant” sexual desire, which made it vital to acknowledge the books’ potential, and sometimes intentions, to offend. I was always careful to stress the fact that I chose the works because of their literary and historical merit, however, and made clear that the reasons we were studying them would become apparent during our analyses. I also felt it important to recognize that some students might be so perturbed that their feelings could interfere with their learning. Given the variety of backgrounds and experiences in classrooms today, sensitivity to diversity is crucial. Students might need help or even accommodation, not to skirt the material, but to find a way to engage with it.  To this end, I wrote the paragraph below to make students cognizant not only of what they were going to read, but also of my personal awareness of the potential heterogeneity of their reactions:

Controversial Material: It is imperative to be sensitive to others’ points of view and experiences in a class that deals with challenging material, such as this one. Some of the literature we will read and films we will view contain graphic depictions of sexual activity or violence that may make some students uncomfortable. Such reactions are to be expected, since many of the authors intended to shock their readers. All texts have been selected for their cultural and artistic value. Their modes of expression, historical context, and roles in the development of French literature specifically and influence on civilization more generally are the primary topics of inquiry. Please feel free to talk to the professor about texts that provoke strong emotions in you, particularly if your reactions interfere with your ability to analyze the work.

Although the above paragraph was specific to my courses, it makes a point that, while ostensibly self-evident in an academic context, may need to be spelled out: course materials have been selected for their conceptual merit, not because they are amusing, shocking, titillating, etc.

Given that the above ideas were presented in the syllabus, it should not be difficult to incorporate them into an online class. Simply including them in the introductory materials is unlikely to be sufficient, however; expectations should be pointed out and potentially used as a topic for discussion, lest students gloss over them. (See this post about making introductory materials more interesting for guidance on the topic.) Making classroom conduct part of a larger conversation about netiquette provides a logical context for the topic and underscores the fact that respect is essential in online communities, where the inherent anonymity of the medium can lead to behavior that few students would engage in face to face.

Reaction and Analysis

Part of intellectual development is the ability to distance oneself sufficiently from a subject to analyze it objectively, even if it is not to one’s liking. Students unused to encountering materials whose importance may be obscured by the subject matter often react and do not look further into the work. On the very first day of my courses, I wrote the equation “reaction ≠ analysis” on the chalkboard to make students aware that their task was not necessarily to enjoy a book, but to learn from it. Rather than simply dismissing students’ reactions, however, I found that their affective responses were often an effective entry into a text. If a student was shocked by reading about non-heteronormative sexual activities, for example, exploring why the author chose to address the subject and, more importantly, how she or he did so was often the starting point of a fruitful discussion. Asking students what bothers them is not the same as asking why they are upset; identifying difficult passages is, however, a starting point for investigating why a text may have been written to offend.

There are many topics besides sexuality, such as suicide or war trauma, that may affect some people personally because of their past experiences. Although the idea of “trigger warnings” is controversial, making students aware of what they are about to encounter is not the same as giving them permission to avoid a subject. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “How 3 Professors Use Trigger Warnings in Their Classrooms,” faculty members discuss the importance of making students aware that what they will read is likely to move them. Acknowledging that materials can evoke painful emotions is a way of showing students that you recognize the individuality of their experiences. Presenting such challenges as a means of gaining perspective may help prepare students to deal with their reactions. It can also make them aware that you are sympathetic to their difficulties, even if you expect them to remain engaged in the class.

The theoretical nature of my strategies may make them seem academic instead of practical. As part of a semester long exploration of a topic, however, students were generally able to make thematic links between works they “didn’t like” and those whose intellectual value was more apparent to them. In fact, by encouraging them to make such connections, I was able to keep the discussion focused on analysis and not reaction.

Acknowledging Preconceptions

As the person who ostensibly controls what occurs during the lesson in terms of subject matter, activities, and how the class is run, the instructor’s view is often implied through the topic of the course itself and the nature of the assignments given. Instructors should not underestimate the potency of their opinions relative to those of their students, and may need to reexamine their own presumptions to realize their potential effect. Although simply squelching a disagreement might be the first impulse when strife manifests itself, doing so does not teach students anything. Moreover, censure suggests that the teacher’s view is primary, even in the context of open debate.

After teaching LGBTQ literature for several years, I came to realize the very topic of the courses presumed something not all students had accepted when they arrived in my classroom. A course about queer writing presupposes that sexual identity is indeed a relevant concept to apply to the study of literature. Although the idea of a lesbian author is most likely not tendentious in an American context, there are socially progressive thinkers who reject the qualification as reductive. In French culture, for example, belief in the universal values of “liberté, fraternité, égalité” is what makes a person French. Privileging attributes such as sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion is regarded as contrary to national unity. French politician Robert Grossmann and philosopher François Miclo argue that “gay literature” is an empty term in The Minority Republic: Against Communitarianism: “Just as there is no such thing as heterosexual literature, there is no gay literature, either. That is to say, no literature can be described by an epithet. There is simply literature and nothing else” (my translation, 158). Grossmann and Miclo assert that literature transcends its author’s identity. This idea seemingly contradicts the American concept and national motto E pluribus Unum (from many, one), which holds that distinct groups—originally each of the 13 colonies, but metaphorically, any community—can come together to form a unity from which they can act (and write) without sacrificing their singularity. The opposition between universalism (the organization of society by values to which anyone can adhere) and communitarianism (social structure based on values specific to a person’s cultural experience) falls outside the liberal–conservative binary that overdetermines many contemporary arguments. The French cultural critics’ point of view has nothing to do with the morality of sexual orientation, but instead puts forth a definition of literature.

Despite their distinction, Grossmann and Miclo’s argument may cause LGBTQ authors to feel as though their identities are being denied by the refusal of their specific experience and its influence on their art. Regardless of whether it is true that considering authors’ sexual orientations provides a valid approach to their oeuvres, which, as the teacher of such a course, I believe it does, the idea relies on a premise that all class members may not accept, as I occasionally discovered was the case when I taught. Acknowledging the influence of others’ ideas—and even ideologies—need not call into question the validity of a class, but it does recognize that such presumptions may not be universally held. Ethical objectives of the writers (and of the instructor) are also thus distinguished from the learning goals of the class. Doing so shows students that the instructor is what the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning would call “academically detached.” That is to say, the instructor is aware of more than one point of view and promotes the investigation of “the origins of the controversy and the structures of competing arguments,” regardless of any personal convictions. Academic detachment on the part of the professor can foster a similar willingness in students to engage with unfamiliar ideas, since they need not fear being ostracized for their opinions, but learn instead that privately held assumptions are not the same as convincing arguments.

Ultimately, teaching controversial material can be viewed as a pedagogical challenge, but not because it is an exercise in getting students to accept a particular point of view. The difficulty lies in convincing them that they may need to learn more and to reconsider what they already know before taking a stance. To this end, Yale’s Teaching and Learning Center calls for the cultivation of “‘tentativeness’ among students.” In other words, teachers should “encourage them to explore their fixed ideas and prejudices, and have them recognize that confusion and uncertainty are stages in their development toward independent opinion.” Although many classes have the mastery of certain materials or skills as their stated objective, the exploration of new ideas and the ability to modify one’s beliefs are themselves skills useful not only in the classroom, but also in daily life, as students come to realize that disagreement is an opportunity to widen and deepen both their knowledge and their beliefs.

Yale University’s Center for Teaching and Learning has excellent and concise recommendations about teaching controversial topics that contain ideas that inspired this article, which I want acknowledge by summarizing them:

A classroom is part of the real world, and is therefore an appropriate place for students to wrestle with existential issues. Higher education’s goals is to cultivate civic humanism, so as to teach students to be tolerant, responsible, and engaged citizens. Despite the nebulousness of these very concepts, the instructor’s role is not to define them, let alone to prescribe the issues to which they apply, but instead to make sure the learning environment remains respectful and encourages the thoughtful exchange of ideas.

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