Universities are generally understood to be bastions of independent thought and free-expression, which is exactly what they need to be. However, one of the realities that we need to take into account is that “freedom of speech,” “free expression” and other vitally important ideals are not and never have been evenly distributed within our society: the Guardian studied its own comments section and revealed that the further away you get from being a straight, cisgendered, white male, the higher the proportion of abuse and harassment you receive simply for visibly existing and having opinions. As you might expect, this mundane and everyday torrent of abuse helps to reinforce the white male dominance within journalism and many other fields.
Universities need to create spaces in which free expression is safely possible for as many people as we can, rather than embracing the idea that the visible complete freedom of speech belonging to one powerful social group automatically extends to everybody – and particularly not when free expression for part of society shuts down that same freedom for marginalized groups.
Balancing this need has always been a necessary challenge, and is more important now than ever after the rise of the sexist Nazis who prefer the more neutral branding of the “alt-right” to prominence and visibility across the western world.
Colleagues and friends teaching in several different countries around the world have discussed an increase in the number of students proclaiming white-supremacist views within the classroom, together with sexism, homophobia, transphobia and related issues.
The impulse might be to debate these perspectives, but the problem with debate is what it communicates to everyone in the room, not just the students who hold these views. A debate is polite. A debate is framed as neutral. Given that these perspectives challenge the fundamental humanity of many students within the classroom and their right to exist, presenting them as something that can be debated, on which there can be a cordial agreement-to-disagree, communicates to marginalized students that they are not safe. And they stop attending classes. Why would they stay? Some have said that the students themselves should challenge these viewpoints in class, but given that the entire context suggests that the classroom endorses the perspectives they’d want to fight against, would they feel safe doing so? The rise of harassment targeting people both on and offline highlights that the risk of making yourself visible is very real.
Society also tolerates these kinds of statements, which is in itself part of why they’re so dangerous. Richard Spencer, a leader within the modern Nazi movement, has published articles advocating the genocide.
What universities need is to provide contexts that offer the most marginalized students a supportive and safe environment for them to learn and work within. Once that foundation is established, we can discuss these issues and perspectives that might be raised within the classroom.
Fortunately, the most important steps are very simple.
The most vital thing we can do in practice is to name and highlight the problem by noting that someone’s made an inappropriate sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic statement, etc, as soon as it happens. Doing so signals that the problematic statement isn’t just accepted as valid enough to tolerate or debate without challenge. Having highlighted it, we can then say “but let’s talk about it,” and discuss how/why it’s a problem, since often this produces good teaching moments, and avoids shutting students down. Since we’re highlighting the statement and raising it for discussion, we’re not focusing on the student who made the statement as a problem themselves.
As such, this process is an attempt to find a reasonable compromise where the needs of the most marginalised and vulnerable students are prioritised, without entirely closing the door on students who are learning.
There are tools available to us that make life easier, and they come in the form of information we can include in our course pages, and/or draw attention to at the start of each semester in lectures and workshops. Firstly, framing statements introducing the fact that we are likely to be discussing problematic content in class, that discussing these views doesn’t mean endorsing them, and also highlighting that sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic behaviour and statements aren’t tolerated are all helpful. Such framing statements ideally set up scenarios where the above approaches are easier to do. Secondly, it’s useful to include a separate section on our course pages and introductory material with information on the student grievance procedures. (The student grievance procedure for Massey University can be found on their website as a template) A plain language version might be something like this:
‘If you have a concern of any kind about the course, talk to your tutor in the first instance. If you don’t feel able to talk to your tutor, please talk to your course coordinator. If you don’t feel able to talk to your tutor or your course coordinator, you can talk to your Head of School. If you don’t feel able to speak to your Head of School, there are further options available to you. Through any of this, the student association can provide you with confidential support, guidance and advocacy — see their website.‘
Including information like this means that if a student has a problem, it’s very clear what they need to do, and they’re supported as they engage with the process.
So, that covers how to respond to problematic statements in the classroom, and some ways of setting up courses to make doing so easier and more productive. However, that isn’t everything we need to be prepared for. If after we’ve highlighted the problem and discussed it, a student continues to make and/or defend problematic statements, either within a single class or across multiple class sessions, then we can say we’ve already covered why that’s problematic, that they’re being disruptive and that we need to move on. If they keep going, we can escalate by following the Disciplinary Regulations for Students. One of the keys here is that we’re not making the judgement over particular politics or ideology, we’re responding to behaviour that someone isn’t stopping once it’s been explained why it’s a problem.
One of the reasons why it’s important to establish the correct procedure for student grievances is to help avoid unnecessary disruptions: if a student feels that the only way to have their concerns or problems addressed is to disrupt a class, then doing so is not unreasonable. If we highlight the correct way to deal with the problem ahead of time, then that hopefully means we will only need to deal with the rarer cases: if a student repeatedly makes their complaints in a classroom context when they’ve been informed about how to make a complaint and have it addressed, then that also counts as something that can be handled with the Disciplinary Regulations for Students in the same way as any other disruptive behaviour.
It’s vitally important that teaching staff at all levels know that these suggestions, practices and procedures exist, because the structure DOES support them stepping in to handle problems in the classroom and to call racism racism, etc, without automatically opening them to the risk of complaints they’ve singled out students unfairly. One of the reasons it’s important is that if anyone is caught flat-footed and freezes and/or changes the subject, we’re back to the problem where silence communicates tolerance of that point of view, and suggests that we don’t support marginalised students. As such, knowing that it could happen and having a plan (which this post is hopefully helpful for) is a good first step.
Another problem to bear in mind when considering how to respond to these kinds of problems is the different challenges faced between courses taught internally face to face via lectures and workshops, compared to distance teaching that functions through forums and other online tools. In theory, teaching online theoretically offers more time for teaching staff to craft a measured response, but also risks situations blowing up almost instantly – and nobody will know which scenario is which until it happens. Additionally, the fact that forums are open for 24/7 discussions raises the possibility that problems can unfold overnight without supervision, leaving teaching staff picking up the pieces after the fact.
One option here is to write a short immediate post as soon as you see a problem, highlighting that a given statement was inappropriate and why. That covers the really important initial flag early on to highlight and challenge the idea that it’s tolerated in the teaching space. You can conclude by saying “I’m writing a more developed post on this which will be up soon,” since that communicates that you’re on the case, and hopefully avoids a more substantial blow-up between students while you craft the more developed response. However, this option is only a practical response for problems that teaching staff see unfolding ‘live,’ and doesn’t work for problems discovered to have unfolded overnight.
Within the context of Massey University, there is a working group of teaching staff who have been meeting to discuss situations like these within the College of Humanities, and there are plans to extend those meetings to people from other colleges and other campuses in early 2018. If you would be interested in being involved, please contact me and I’ll ensure you’re kept informed about developments as we go. Also, I recommend that Massey staff take Personal Development Courses with Virginia Goldblatt such as “How to Manage Student Complaints,” and “Constructive Problem Solving in the Workplace,” since she is one of Massey’s authorities on the subject and the great weight of information about our internal processes here comes from her.
Thanks to everyone in the thus-far unnamed working group who helped develop the ideas and discussions that went into this article, and to the staff of eSocSci for hosting it.
– Kevin Veale.
The opinions expressed in this blog represent the opinions of the author and not those of Massey University or eSocSci except when they do not express the opinions of the author in the example of a quotation within the post. Read more. This post can be cited using this method.