Content restrictions in classroom discussion?

Do any of you use restrictions on content of discussion contributions in your undergraduate classrooms? By this I mean restrictions on expressing or arguing for particular views, even if politely expressed. (I’m assuming we’d all block students from using hate speech or being directly abusive to each other.) The kind of thing I’m wondering about is e.g. forbidding students from advocating white supremacy, or arguing that consent is not necessary for morally acceptable sex. If you do use such restrictions, how do you formulate them?

Thanks for your help!

20 thoughts on “Content restrictions in classroom discussion?

  1. At my work. We have open discussions. Certain views and actions are not acceptable. Each of us are different. You can’t offend me. I know people who can be easily offended. I believe kids and adults must follow the old golden rules. Be polite. Nothing good to say. Say nothing.

  2. I have not tested this method (fortunately I’ve never had to!), so it may not be effective in practice, but my plan for if a student did try to defend such a claim is to point out that views like that, whether they are expressed “politely” or not, are inherently disrespectful to [relevant group], and as such do not meet the stated ground rules of respecting one another in classroom discussions. In effect, tell the class that althought you may not be saying, “[classmate] is worthless,” if you advocate a view like white supremacy/pro-rape/etc, that assertion (or a comparable one) is implicit, and that’s still an unacceptable violation of the requirement to respect one’s classmates.

    (A possible concern about this plan arises if there happen to be no members of [relevant group] in the class – then the assertion about disrespect wouldn’t be able to rest on the already-stated ground rule that they respect their fellow classmates, and would have to rely on a more general claim about respecting others, which I suspect some students may be less willing to accept automatically.)

  3. I don’t have any such restrictions. In fact I find it rare for there to be cases that even come close to beyond the pale. But let’s say you do have someone who says (politely, let’s assume) something to the effect that white folks are smarter and harder working than people of color. This is the kind of attitude that lots of people (in the US at least) have, and our students of color will surely encounter (have encountered) that elsewhere. Isn’t it better to give such students a chance to respond in an otherwise safe, controlled environment? They will likely not get such an opportunity in the wider world. And isn’t there a better chance of altering the viewpoint of the original commenter by giving her view a full airing – asking her to justify it, facing challenging alternative views, etc.?

    I’m struggling to think of a likely comment that is so harmful as to be un-discussable. We do have discussions of problematic non-consent sex cases in class – sometimes with interesting outcomes. (For instance, students have raised “wake-up” sex between committed partners as an interesting borderline case.)

  4. My policy is that students can make whatever arguments they want, but that doesn’t mean they’re free from my telling them why it’s a bad, offensive view.

    The big problem, as I see it, of letting a student argue for, say, white supremacy, is that *if that view goes unchallenged* and given the same merit as an argument for a non-offensive view, then that gives it too much merit. And that’s one source of harm, particularly to those who are affected by such arguments (e.g., people of colour in the class).

    I know that some people often take things like this in stride and say, “OK…and moving on…” but that’s a problem. I’m not going to stop students from holding offensive views, or from possibly making (relatively polite) arguments for such views in class. But I’m not going to let those arguments stand without being challenged and confronted.

    The best thing is when a student takes up the mantle and interrogates the argument. When that happens, I’m usually melting inside, and I make sure to praise that student’s arguments. That way, students know that I’m, again, not just letting the offensive comment/argument slide.

  5. aj: Consider the effects on other students in the class when you take the view that there’s nothing too offensive to discuss it. While this is a nice ideal, it doesn’t work that way in practice. If one spends an entire class giving air to people’s reasons for thinking that black people are inferior to white people, this will very likely have a deeply alienating effect on any black people (and likely others) in the class.

  6. Rachel,

    My point wasn’t that we give the entire class to air this kind of view. But instead to do exactly as you say (if Rachel = Rachel), have them challenged, hopefully by the other students – and especially by the students who may feel disparaged.

    This indeed creates a risk of just the kinds of things you worry about. The issue seems to be whether that risk of harm outweighs or is outweighed by the potential benefits to those students and others. While the harm risk should of course be considered, I don’t think creating an environment completely free of the chance of this kind of harm trumps all the other potential goods of engaging.

  7. in response to ajkreider’s comment:

    “I’m struggling to think of a likely comment that is so harmful as to be un-discussable”.

    …one case that has come up recently is discussion of the permissibility of rape (or rape as biologically ‘natural’) as a possible trigger for victims’ PTSD.

    one of my students suggested today (when we talked about this in class, in relation to mill’s harm principle) that speech acts considered minor in isolation (e.g. casual sexist or racist remarks) can do considerable harm when agglomerated, e.g. when many or most people are making those kinds of remarks and the environment begins to seem hostile, degrading, disrespectful to the person(s) the remarks are directed towards. this seems to be a not terribly unlikely consequence of the ‘anything goes’ approach to unrestricted content.

    but on the other hand, if in most cases those causal remarks are interrogated by other students and / or the lecturer, and ultimately rejected by at least a majority of the students (and maybe even the person who made the initial remark), the benefits of that process – combined with the general importance of not policing speech – seem to tell pretty strongly against restrictions on content, even when they come with the risk mentioned above.

    …but i’m still thinking this one through.

  8. Like ajkreider, I’m having a hard time thinking of cases of students coming up with really offensive comments. I can see that rape discussions could get tricky, but at least in my experience students tend to avoid the subject, and similarly for most of the other worrying possibilities that have been mentioned. Of course, it may be that I’m insufficiently sensitive to some possible problem areas, so I’m curious about what examples other people will say they have encountered.

  9. I try to be extremely sensitive to things that may trigger certain forms of PTSD (discussions of physical or sexual abuse have to be very carefully constructed for me to make these things work). My preference is not to trigger students if I can at all avoid it (I would rather not further traumatize these students even at the cost of allowing students to discuss their opinions). When I am dealing with delicate subjects like sexual coercion, violence, racism, etc., I tend to dominate the discussion ( I set up the structure of the discussion and make clear, given the readings we have done and the way I lay out questions for discussion ) that some things are ‘out of bounds’ without actually saying so (I think saying that some things are ‘out of bounds’ will merely annoy students…on the other hand, beginning the conversation with, let’s say, a specific argument for, say, the evolutionary benefits of rape along with a [very good] argument against sexual violence allows me to set up the dynamic mostly as an is/ought problem that students can then run with].

  10. No, no restrictions. I’ve never had a student advocate anything morally offensive like white supremacy or the legitimacy of rape. Nothing close to that. We do discuss touchy moral and political issues, but I try to demonstrate to my students from the very beginning that I respect them and their opinions (I do), even when I disagree. I like to think that this sets the tone for how my students treat me and their peers. I’ve been lucky to have had very, very good students, though.

    Would I step in and simply prohibit a student from advocating for something like white supremacy? Yes, but not necessarily to defend the other students (they don’t need it), but rather for pedagogical reasons–preventing the discussion from getting derailed by an idea that is clearly wrong. Of course, even here you have to be careful–advocating for “white supremacy” in the sense of supporting the KKK clearly won’t do. But if a student wants to raise some of the (controversial) research surrounding IQ and race, then that is something that does have a place in the classroom, it seems to me, assuming it does not get too off-topic.

    I agree with Rachel that it is definitely the wrong move to just move on when a student challenges the class with a view that is objectionable and clearly false. I think we have to confront it right there and demonstrate why it is so. Partly, perhaps, because it’s not good to let people cause offense, but mostly because we want students to be rigorous and logical, and we need to set a good example by giving refutations of poorly thought-out political and moral beliefs.

  11. I’m also grappling with this at the moment. When teaching ethics, home of so many unpleasant examples, I ask students to tell me if there is any specific subject that may be a trigger so at least I can refrain from using examples and thought experiments that focus on that. With political subjects I have always stuck to the belief that it is better to have obnoxious views out in the open and subject to challenge, but recently I have found that a bit more difficult – why should I and the classmates of the persistently obnoxious-statement-making student have to continually put energy into challenging him or her when s/he is blatantly enjoying being the centre of attention? There are more constructive ways to spend a seminar.

  12. ajkreider, in my experience, as a person of colour who has sat through many white supremacist arguments and defences of racism within the walls of academia, I can say that the harm is significant. And until academia no longer harbours institutional racism, there cannot be a guarantee of a safe, controlled environment for people of colour to respond to such displays without inevitably suffering negative repercussions to personal mental health, as well as professional exclusion and silencing.

  13. Where I teach (not in North America), domestic violence, some forms of rape, and general degradation of women are widely practiced and culturally accepted. When discussion occurs of sensitive issues, I see no real alternative to permitting students to (for instance) argue that beating one’s wife is perfectly acceptable, even when most (probably all) of the female students are ongoing victims of abuse. If I were to try to silence those students, there would probably be a strong community backlash and no discussion at all would end up taking place. Plus, many of the students who would defend the prevailing orthodoxy have never even really heard arguments against permitting violence towards women. If I try to silence them they would just get defensive and there would be little chance for their own views to evolve.

    It is always hard though to try to figure out when and how to speak out, and its all too easy to cloak complacency in the veil of cultural sensitivity.

  14. I allow anything not ad hominem.

    If it is irrelevant to the topic we are supposed to discuss, I say so and have refused to continue discussing it for need to move on to what is relevant. (Usually people with hateful views are just looking to derail conversations. Don’t let them.)

    Hateful and horrid ignorance doesn’t fare well in the light. The offended love to see the person with offensive views squirm and sputter when subjected to a little philosophical questioning. Usually, they take up the charge themselves and speak up against the ignorant.

    Any discussion that could touch on rape, abortion, sexual harrasment or a few other issues should be preceeded by a disclaimer that this is a sensitive issue. And say (and write in the syllabus) that If people need to miss a certain topic, leave class early if stressed, meet with the professor to discuss their stress, etc. they will be helped in doing so. These disclaimers need to be taken very seriously and should be repeated occasionally in class.

  15. I don’t have anything constructive to say about content restrictions neatly formulated–but to the above discussion, I have definitely stopped students from discussing rape when it seemed that they were going to say something offensive. The number of women who have been, or will be, sexually assaulted during their college experiences is really just horrifically stunning–and I don’t want anyone to feel unsafe or unable to learn because another student says something triggering. Of course when students do say offensive things, I address it–but on some topics, I think its best to simply stop it. (And, hopefully, needless to to say, how and when I would do this is obviously going to be different depending on the course content, how the discussion relates, and what a student is saying.)

  16. In college I began working through the years of rape I experienced as a teen. Every single time, for the duration of my college experience, whenever someone in class uttered the word ‘rape’ I would immediately emotionally and intellectually shut down for the duration of the class. Of course, reactions vary and a lot depends upon where survivors are in their healing process, but I do not think my reaction was atypical.

    I believe that it is incredibly important to have discussions about sexual violence in healthy ways, perhaps even in the classroom. But I remember being angry, sad, and frustrated that something as simple as a word–let alone a whole discussion, well-run or not–could bar me from anything that subsequently happened in class.

    Because of my experience, I will be ever attentive to the very real possibility that in mentioning sexual violence I would have not only further traumatized survivors of sexual assault, but also that *I would have likely put them at an educational disadvantage.* I bring this up because it is easy to see that triggering students is undesirable, while a bit more difficult to know just how triggering can further isolate survivors and impede their education.

    I have lost those days in class. I have lost those opportunities to think and learn and grow and heal. I had already lost so much. I sometimes still grieve for all the things I have lost because of my trauma, including those classes. Healthy conversations about sexual violence are so very important. But I just don’t want to take anything more away from survivors who might be in my classroom. I don’t want to give them more to grieve.

  17. Years ago, I had to teach the topic of abortion in an ethics class when I had first started teaching.

    I also had just had an abortion, and was having a hard time dealing with the stigma.

    So I started the topic by sharing that since it was a class of 140 students (I know), let’s recognize the statistic by Guttmacher that more than 1/3 of American women will have had one abortion by age 45, and that this also could affect men, women with friends who had one, their mothers (!!!!) etc. I reminded them of the proper medical terms, etc. (This was the semester when President Bush signed the “partial birth abortion” ban, and that’s not the proper term for it. Even our ethics book spelled that much out.)

    My students were very logical with their arguments, no name calling, etc. I think the reminder “you probably know someone who had one…” worked well.

    Now, I did teach a Race, Class, and Gender course where a noose and vulgar language was left on the dorm room of three of my black female students. The administration told me to not talk about it. I couldn’t NOT talk about it–that’s not going to make it go away!–or rather not allow my students to talk about it. After checking with the students targeted and getting their permission, I pretty much opened the floor for discussion. That was the day the unwillingness to admit “I have privilege” left. I still feel it was probably the best lessen I’ve ever taught, and I simply moderated it. Lots of walls came down, lots of community reaction of disgust and support for the targets came out.

    (And the university never found out I didn’t just pretend like nothing happened.)

  18. In my Ethics course, I’ve taught units on abortion, consent, monogamy, and a number of other topics where triggers are more likely (though of course – and this is sometimes overlooked – literally anything *could* be a trigger). I always preface class discussions by reminding students that people are affected by these things and that it’s statistically likely that some students in the class have been directly affected. And then I remind them that they should keep this in mind when commenting.

    Beyond that, no, no formal restrictions on topics aside from telling them to stick to an argument and be prepared for folks in the class (myself included) to point out flaws in the argument.

  19. Anon Grad:

    In thinking about ways potentially to minimize the times triggering words or topics get raised, do you have thoughts on how to avoid it? How about this: distribute 3×5″ cards at the beginning of the term so that students can anonymously list deeply triggering words/topics?

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