A Reflection on Leading Discussions about Difficult Ethical Issues by Elise M. Edwards

Elise EdwardsI think classroom discussions can be a good forum for modeling the kinds of discussions students might have in their families, peer groups, faith communities, and political contexts.  But sometimes I really wish I wasn’t the one responsible for leading the discussion.

I started a new position this year as a lecturer in Christian Ethics.  This semester, the high moments of my week are my two 75-minute sessions of an Introduction to Christian Ethics class.  I have less than 20 students and they are smart, kind, engaging, talkative, and respectful.  They also come to class prepared and eager to participate in discussion.  I love it.  I count myself as blessed for having the opportunity to teach them.  But there have been several days when I haven’t wanted to go to work and face them.

To be honest, it’s scary to go into a classroom to talk about sexuality, racism, prejudice and oppression, and abortion.  I think it’s incredibly important for undergraduates to learn to think critically about these issues and find ways to express themselves respectfully, coherently, and intelligently.  I think classroom discussions can be a good forum for modeling the kinds of discussions students might have in their families, peer groups, faith communities, and political contexts.  But sometimes I really wish I weren’t the one responsible for leading the discussion.

The kind of nervousness and reluctance to lead discussion doesn’t come from lack of preparation. Armed with essays that give clear explanations of various positions on controversial topics, I’m prepared to explain the alternative viewpoints and encourage students to adopt some of them.  Yet I recognize that sometimes my preparation and clearly defined agenda for the day are devices to prevent unscripted engagements with difficult issues.  I’m often concerned with keeping the class on-topic, exploring only the material I’m prepared to address.

I’m quite conflict-averse in the classroom.  I was as a student and I am now as a professor.  I can vividly remember the awkward moments when I was a student and a peer burst into tears as she earnestly pleaded “Abortion kills babies,” as a male student shared his anxiety about his first sexual encounter with his wife, as a student discussed her abortion.  I wasn’t sure how to handle those situations as a peer, and I don’t have articulate, default responses to handle them as a professor.  I am grateful that conversations with mentors have assured me that even experienced ethics professors struggle with finding the right thing to say at such moments.

There have also been moments when I’m so aware that my social location is different from my students that I’m stumped as to what to say.  When we were defining racism, for instance, I was keenly aware that when I was an undergraduate, I was participating in these conversations in the 1990’s at a historically-black university.  Discussions about affirmative action in that context had a much different tone than today’s debates, especially the ones that occur in my majority-white classroom.  How do I use some of my experiences to inform student understanding without making my experiences normative?

My reluctance to lead discussions on difficult topics is also due to my desire to provoke students to arrive at their own positions, even if they differ from mine.  My students are aware that I identify as a black feminist ethicist.  So they might make some assumptions about whether I think racism, sexism, and prejudice still exist and are harmful.  (Yes, I do.) If my students google me and read my posts here, they will find that I support reproductive choice.  Based on the comments they express in class and the positions they defend in their papers, my students seem assured that they do not have to agree with me to do well in the course.  There are times, however, that I wish I could ignite a feminist agenda within all of them, and that I could make them see the realities of inequality in our world and push them to address it.

So these are the tensions I struggle with: how much to regulate discussion, how to cross the divides of social location and context, and how to provoke students’ arrival at normative conclusions without enforcing my own.  I know it’s not just a paycheck or sense of duty that ultimately nudges me to leave my warm, comfortable bed for my less comfortable position at the head of the class.  I think the material I teach, the discussions I lead, and the work I do are important. But sometimes it really is work.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

Categories: Academy, Black Feminism, Christianity, college, Education, Ethics, Feminism, God, Racism, Reproductive Justice, Women and Community

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8 replies

  1. “There are times, however, that I wish I could ignite a feminist agenda within all of them, and that I could make them see the realities of inequality in our world and push them to address it.”

    You can do that too! Well maybe not in all of them, but in many, this is one of the great joys of teaching!

    And you can do that through the subject matter of the course and your own openness and honesty in discussing it.

    One of the strategies I sometimes use is this. “You don’t have to be a feminist or anti-racist yourself to pass this class, but you do have to understand what feminists and anti-racists think and why.”


  2. Tough job! Sounds like you are good at it!


  3. How lucky your students are to have you as their teacher! And I think that an important part of your teaching is the fact that you do struggle with these issues. You teach them that these topics can be hard to discuss, that the tensions you mention are part of the human condition, but finding ways to discuss them with honesty and compassion so as to have a greater understanding of ourselves and each other is worth the challenge.


  4. Elise, I agree with Carolyn that your students are lucky to have you as a teacher. Your questions will get you to your destination, I’m sure of it.

    Your description of your classroom reminds me of my time teaching Women’s Studies (in the 1970s to early 1990s). The first classes I taught were upper level classes, so I was able to have a very decentered classroom, where I was a resource person and each student taught (almost) as much as I did. We were creating an understanding of women’s lives in those discussions. Of course, I assigned the readings and came with questions for us to explore, but there really was no right answer in those discussions and lots of perspectives were present. But all of my upper level students were feminists or at least they had been presented with a basis for understanding feminism.

    By the early 1990s the only course available for me to teach was Women’s Studies 101, the intro course. What I realized part-way through the first time I taught this class was that I needed to teach my students about feminism, about sexism, about racism, about heterophobia, ableism, ageism, etc. I couldn’t expect that they already had the tools to understand their lives in a patriarchal society, because they were like fish swimming in water and not even noticing that it was there. That led to a big switch in my teaching style. We still had discussions where any perspective was allowed, but I dyed that water so they could see it. I think you can do the same: give your students tools to see the culture they swim in. And I think you can tell your story to let them have view a social location different from theirs. I don’t think that’s making your perspectives normative. They need the information you can give them.


  5. I recall more unity in my women’s studies classes, when they were only a few years old back in the day. The classes were all women, and it was a welcome relief to be able to go to lectures with no men present at all. Occasionally one man would be in a class, and I always gave him hell. It could get real ugly real fast. I have no patience, I love conflict, heated knock down drag out conflict. As a lesbian I live in a world where strength, conflict and determination are what drive me.

    That said, I never took classes in feminist ethics, because they didn’t exist. It would be very helpful for students to be able to discuss abortion, sexuality, racism and other issues in the safety of a classroom. It’s kind of like Chaucer, you’d better read him in college because after you leave college no one is going to want to talk about him with you.


  6. So your students are very lucky Elise, because these subjects are rarified in the outside world. Very few women want to talk about abortion with me, for example. Men almost always avoid the subject too. I don’t much care about it one way or another. Just not interested in child birth or not birth. But a college campus is the perfect place to deal with hard social issues. because students are younger, might be more open, might have more time to think. When you get in the business world and make a living world, time gets used up, people don’t have much passion to talk about anything. I notice upper middle class straight women as a particularly fearful group— they’d rather talk about fashion, shoes… but are afraid of political ideological discussions or ethical ones.

    Lesbians get together and we tend to be brutally honest, we don’t have much to lose, and this brutal honesty is essential in dealing with the hostile straight world, or the phoney liberal straight world now. Talk about the issues in college, and things open up a bit.

    But also, don’t deprive students like me who are aggressive, controntational and love a good verbal battle. I like a fight, and respect women who step up. There are plenty of nice conforming women in the world, so anger, toughness and aggression can be added. It won’t kill anyone, and it will end the bias against radical women. Maybe Christians just are more go along or afraid of conflict… Jews love to debate aggressively sometimes. But I’m glad you are doing it.


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