I want to help my students consider alternate perspectives and critique their own views.

Examples

  • In the first class that I taught at Middlebury decades ago, I started the class by asking students to write about why they were taking my course. Flipping through the responses, I came across the following: “I have spent my whole life in [a community with a strict worldview].  I know what they say.  Now I want to know what the truth is.”  I have spent decades trying to figure out how to teach a class to somebody who thinks my job is to debunk myths or provide ‘the truth.’
  • Is there an assumption among students that, if the material is “unsafe” for you, you are not expected to engage with it?  The phrase “safe spaces” gives many of us trouble, but we are still trying to create a space where a difficult discussion doesn’t push someone out of the room.  To me, it seems like students use this phrase to express the idea that “I am sick of this – of being excluded, talked about, studied, without being part of the conversation.”

Strategies·     

  • When a student responds to a claim you have made, zoom out and consider the situation and course as a whole to model openness.  Mark how you learn from students, saying things like “you’re right, that is a great point, I wasn’t taking that into account!”  This is so much better than getting defensive.  I do not realize that I am modeling behavior, but then a student will come into class and repeat this same language to another student.  If you model that kind of willingness to learn, you can cultivate that ability in others.
  • I ask my students to speak from experience but not from a category/identity (for example, “As an X, I think Y”).  That style of argumentation presents the idea that all X’s are the same (all women, for example), and tends to shut down discussion.  If a student does speak from an identity, I try to unpack that claim – for example, “which X’s do you think might share your perspective, and which might not?”
  • Some professors deal with students with whom they have no prior connection, but I am at the point (in a small department) where I teach students that I have lived with now for four years. They know your biases and strong and weak points and you know theirs, and it is a whole different kind of conversation.  You still trip up on things in the classroom, but that familiarity allows us to be ourselves and move away from an assumption of “one-size-fits-all.”
  • In some of my courses, I use a technique called structured academic controversy (see here for description).  This method uses cases and a heavily structured approach to understand various sides of an issue.
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