Sensitivity framing is crucial in the classroom

Sensible suggestion on greater awareness and appropriate framing by Mitu Sengupta of Ryerson University. But students also need to learn how to speak up; if not in the class, then after with the instructor, prior to filing a complaint:

The panel convened to respond to this complaint shouldn’t have rebuked Ms. Shepherd for failing to voice disagreement with Jordan Peterson, the professor in the controversial video. She was under no obligation to do so. What the panel might have done was to simply advise her to show more regard in the future for students who might feel distressed by any aspect of a difficult class discussion. This might involve nothing more than uttering a few short sentences at the start of the session, such as, “For some of you, our discussion today might feel very personal. If you feel upset by the conversation, please come speak to me after class.”

I do this quite often, taking my cue from the eminent Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, who was my favourite undergraduate professor at McGill University more than 20 years ago. I remember we were discussing colonialism, and Prof. Taylor read out the following excerpt from British historian Thomas Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education: “A single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India.” Prior to doing so, however, Mr. Taylor went red in the face and said, “This is embarrassing and a horrible thing to repeat.”

I was the only Indian in the room. I remember feeling acknowledged, grateful. It wasn’t much, but Prof. Taylor had given me relief from the weight of Macaulay’s scathing, racist remarks. I felt better able to listen and more willing to engage.

We are taught to have the highest regard for free speech, the cornerstone of our liberal democracy. We receive less instruction, however, in understanding that free speech is still an ideal, not a reality.

We should recognize speech is usually more “free” for some people than for others. This may not be due to any tangible constraint, and may even occur despite our best efforts. In my classes, for example, I try to provide a supportive environment for everyone, but find that men consistently speak up more often than women. This is unsurprising. People who command social power – derived from their class, race or gender – tend to have more confidence while speaking, and are better at getting themselves heard. While I’m not recommending that anyone be shut down, we do need to be wary of how the ideal of free speech plays out in practice, in our very non-ideal world that is rife with deeply rooted inequalities.

We have a problem when the ideal of free speech imposes a heavier burden on some more than others – women, people of colour, sexual minorities – who constantly find themselves on the defensive in discussions about class, race and gender. This can be an extraordinarily taxing, alienating experience, and sometimes the safest option for the person involved is to mentally exit the conversation. This, of course, is terrible for the “debate” in progress, not least because you do not, in fact, get to hear “the other side.”

To me, the power and privilege of being an educator comes with the special responsibility of keeping an eye on the well-being of students who are likely to find certain conversations especially stressful, and taking a few extra steps to ensure that they feel recognized and included. Far from snuffing out debate, doing so enriches the conversations that follow.

I think that our younger generations actually have a better grasp of the complexities and challenges surrounding free speech than do our older generations. I remain astounded by the compassion with which my students treat each other. They are creating a kinder and more open learning environment than the one that was thrust upon me during my undergraduate years. And, if students are pushing back against any perceived insensitivity on part of their instructors, I applaud them for taking ownership of their education, and for having the courage to actively protect their self-esteem.

via Sensitivity framing is crucial in the classroom – The Globe and Mail

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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