by Dorothe Bach
of the differences that distinguish us also lend themselves
to conflict or misunderstandings. As the classroom becomes increasingly
diverse, differences between students may take on greater importance:
"As long as students remain in their own culture, they take their
culture for granted. When surrounded by those who are different, they
become more consciously aware of their own culture" (Weaver 24).
Sometimes this awareness may initially produce feelings of discomfort
or even resentment at having to think about things that before seemed
"natural." It might also lead to student remarks that are inadvertently
disturbing or even purposefully offensive. Whether you consider a particular
remark inappropriate may vary according to your discipline, the course,
the student's word choice and tone; how you choose to respond will vary
as well. The suggestions below are not meant to regulate your opinions
or those of your students but to offer a range of possible responses for
what many TAs and faculty feel to be a troubling, even paralyzing, situation
that nevertheless calls for an immediate reaction. Primarily, these tips
focus on handling infrequent inappropriate comments or heated discussions.
If you are looking for additional teaching strategies to use in a course
devoted largely to multicultural issues, see Peter Frederick's essay "Walking
on Eggs: Mastering the Dreaded Diversity Discussion" or the books
listed in Appendix II.
sensitive topics or conflicting opinions in response to the course material
is a good way to begin. Some course topics will emphasize differences
between students in ways that produce predictable disagreements. There
are other times, however, when such conflicts may occur without a clear
warning. In either situation, when a disturbing remark leaves other students
feeling targeted, angry, or offended, it can quickly polarize the classroom
in deep and troubling ways. At such points it is startlingly clear how
people's dissimilarities can create an environment that hinders learning.
These moments of tension and deep disagreement will inevitably occur in
the diverse classroom, whether explicitly or not. Acknowledging differences
and the conflicting viewpoints they bring allows us to be more effective
teachers, just as addressing our students' uneasiness enables them to
become more effective learners.
ignore disturbing comments or reply humorously, you could send the unwelcome
message that such comments are appropriate to the college classroom. Some
teachers might initially feel uncomfortable addressing such comments for
fear of policing student speech or heightening the discord; however, your
response to these remarks is not censorship of students' viewpoints. Rather,
it indicates that you, like other university instructors, are trying to
teach students how to behave in a civilized and polite manner in the classroom,
which includes not insulting other groups of students. Being responsible
for educating our students means leading them to think more critically
about the world and themselves. Although emotionally charged discussions
may seem chaotic or intimidating, often when students are emotionally
engaged they are capable of learning at a deeper level. Of course, allowing
such exchanges may not seem the best option to you in every circumstance,
especially if you aren't comfortable with emotional exchanges or managing
conflict. The following suggestions offer ways to diffuse potentially
heated exchanges while fostering critical thinking. Depending on your
comfort level, you may favor some over others.
ignore the implications of disturbing remarks that students may
make in class (such as remarks that appear racist, sexist, anti-religious,
homophobic, or anti-Semitic).
not ignore the comment, even if it seems unrelated to class material
(e.g., a sexist comment made during a physics class).
not simply call the student racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-religious,
or homophobic. Instead, encourage your students to examine the
assumptions behind the comment.