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Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #3 Dealing with Sensitive Issues

February 10, 2012

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:

Part 1: Content Competence

Part 2: Pedagogical Competence

Part 4: Student Development

Part 5: Dual Relationships with Students

Part 6: Confidentiality

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2012 3:09 pm

    An interesting post, thanks. I have to say that statements like “Unless you’ve experienced the power that the word has, you are not qualified to talk about its power” annoy me immensely. They come from the same family of arguments that complains if wealthy MPs pronounce on issues of poverty because ‘the rich cannot know what it’s like to be poor’. Ethical practice depends upon being able to put oneself in another’s shoes – it is essentially imaginative. One does not have to have experienced something to imagine it and understand it. If this were not true then the literature exploring these issues would lose all of its power. I’ve never been a dog, but I know that cruelty to dogs is wrong and I don’t see any pressing reason not to say that cruelty to dogs is wrong.

  2. August 24, 2012 10:27 am

    Hi Eric, thanks for the post. I’m wondering if you could point me towards a good source (or sources) for a definition of “classroom equity” in higher ed classes, or for a discussion of what that might actually look like. My own pathetic research has come up with definitions of equity at the level of admissions, but not at the level of classroom discussions.

    • August 24, 2012 11:02 am


      It’s somewhat telling that when equity is discussed in education, it is more about the bodies that are present rather than how we teach them or what we teach them. Not that diversity of people doesn’t matter – it does – but if the education is centred around assimilation into a dominant paradigm…

      Off my soapbox, what you’re looking for probably falls under ‘inclusive teaching’ or something of that ilk, which is why your search may not have turned it up. Equity also encompasses so many things (race, gender, sexuality, etc…) that often resources are divided along those lines.

      I think this site, from the University of British Columbia (under ‘Resources’ in the left menu), lays out some nice starting points for people to begin thinking about equity in the classroom and hopefully it’s of some use to you:


  1. Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #1 Content Competence « Beyond A Degree
  2. Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #2 Pedagogical Competence « Beyond A Degree
  3. Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #4 Student Development « Beyond A Degree
  4. Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #5 Dual Relationships with Students « Beyond A Degree
  5. Openness vs. Safety in the Classroom « Beyond A Degree
  6. Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #6 Confidentiality « Beyond A Degree

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