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 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.