Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #3 Dealing with Sensitive Issues
This post is part of a series examining the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) “Ethical Principles in University Teaching“. Each post will focus one area and unpack it, raise questions, and attempt to further dialogue around how to teach ethically in the higher education classroom.
The third area on STLHE’s list is: Dealing with Sensitive Issues.
How do we define what becomes a ‘sensitive’ issue? Who defines it? Often, what becomes a sensitive issue – race, gender, physical disability, mental health, sexuality, class, and more – is actually an extremely important issue but the designation of ‘sensitive’ allows it to be infrequently talked about, or talked around rather than directly addressing the issues. How does this affect the ways we think about ‘sensitive’ issues in the classroom and why does this matter?
The STLHE suggests that ethical teaching is: “Topics that students are likely to find sensitive or discomforting are dealt with in an open, honest and positive way.” Much of what is deemed sensitive will depend on the student. Some will find dealing with certain topics honestly the discomforting part. For example, when discussions around racism happen in classrooms, often there is some discomfort from White students over having to face systems of domination that they are implicated within. While, for minority students, perhaps being honest requires discomfort on their part from reliving past traumas in uncertain spaces. Perhaps, if topics like racism are to be dealt with there is need for a certain amount of discomfort. ‘Sensitive’ topics are vested with all sorts of power relations and discussions that are not always easy to suss out in the classroom.
There are issues around ‘honesty’. Often people cloak their misinformation, prejudice or hatred within the guise of honesty or ‘straight shooting’. You might hear, “You might not agree but I’m just telling it like I see it,” or, “That’s just the way it is” when, in reality, there is very little that will appear the same and be ‘honest’ to a whole classroom, especially around such divisive topics such as race, gender or sexuality. So how can an educator in Higher Education be ethically responsible when it comes to such issues?
I believe that it begins with interrogating one’s own position on the issue. What are you opinions on the topic, where do they come from, and how has this positioning biased you in particular ways? There is very little that is subjective, especially around these issues. Knowing where you stand and how you got there will go a long way towards mediating discussion in your class and showing students the processes involved in recognizing their own positions. Part of being able to see your own position is recognizing the limitations of it. I remember an old episode of the once popular TV show Boston Public which was set in a Boston high-school. A White teacher was intent on interrogating the power of the “N-word” when used with and towards African-Americans. After some controversy, the Black principal of the show was quite clear in telling the teacher, “Unless you’ve experienced the power that the word has, you are not qualified to talk about its power.”
There is perhaps some truth in this, in recognizing how one’s positions can limit the discussions taken up. This is not to say that these discussions cannot happen but that there is a time to recognize our own limits as instructors and turn to the knowledge of the students or others to fill in the gaps. It is in discussions around ‘sensitive’ issues that there is a need for collective knowledge gathering and sharing, perhaps more than at any other time. There is a need to hear more voices than the instructors.
This in itself is filled with its own perils: How do you keep the discussion civil and productive? How do you ensure that students feel safe sharing their experiences, especially around topics that might leave them vulnerable? Is safety always productive?
There are no ‘set-in-stone’ answers but, as instructors, there is the need to think about these issues before hand and to locate one’s own position around the issues so that when they come up in the classroom (and they will) they are dealt with in productive rather than harmful ways.
Check out the rest of the series: