Consider Placing This Language in Your Syllabus

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Commitment to Viewpoint Diversity, Mutual Understanding, and Constructive Disagreement

In order to create a classroom environment that supports respectful, critical inquiry through the free exchange of ideas, the following principles will guide our work:

  • Treat every member of the class with respect, even if you disagree with their opinion;
  • Bring light, not heat;
  • Reasonable minds can differ on any number of perspectives, opinions, and conclusions;
  • Because constructive disagreement sharpens thinking, deepens understanding, and reveals novel insights, it is not just encouraged, it is expected;
  • All viewpoints are welcome;
  • No ideas are immune from scrutiny and debate;
  • You will not be graded on your opinions.

What do you think?

12 thoughts on “Consider Placing This Language in Your Syllabus

  1. I think there are a couple of problems with this language. I basically agree with Rebecca Miller’s comment, but I’ll explain my theoretical concerns differently.

    First, I think the concept of “viewpoint diversity” is wrongheaded. One reason is that viewpoints/perspectives are not the same thing as opinions/ideas/conclusions. Consider the case of a student born into the ruling class of an apartheid regime: That student’s basic starting viewpoint, as upsetting as it is, results partly from the circumstances of their birth, and it will surely shape their opinions, but this doesn’t mean the student has to hold pro-apartheid opinions. To welcome the one in a classroom is not necessarily the same thing as welcoming the other. And if you do welcome the student to express pro-apartheid opinions in class (perhaps relying on other students to be able to challenge them in the marketplace of ideas you’ve created), it’s likely that you would still be quietly trying as a teacher to change those opinions — whereas for most forms of diversity, that would be entirely inappropriate to do.

    Second, students do not arrive in any classroom holding equal power to speak freely in front of their peers. Personality factors alone mean that professors may have to work harder to make shy students feel safe asking questions or joining in debate. There are even greater challenges for students from racial and ethnic minority groups, women of all kinds, LGBTQ students (especially those whose status is immediately visible), and sometimes members of religious minorities. I don’t think your syllabus language precludes the kinds of special consideration necessary to make such students feel truly free to speak, but I think it suggests an incoherent way of thinking about it.

    Third, I think “you will not be graded on your opinions” is too ambiguous to be useful. It allows too much room for special pleading by students who think that plainly counterfactual claims are their opinions and thus worthy of special treatment. I’m not saying there’s no difference between facts and opinions, but I am saying that professors and students (or for that matter professors holding different ideological positions) often draw the line separating them in very different places.

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    • Here’s how I have tried to approach the problem of free discussion in my own syllabus language. (It reflects the fact that I’m teaching at a specific religious university.) I don’t claim it’s perfect — I don’t think perfection in this matter is even theoretically possible — but I hope it captures some of the ways my thinking about the issue is different.

      —–

      How the Course Reflects a Philosophy of Humanity

      This course is grounded in the belief that humans—across time and space—share a common dignity and value. We can recognize ourselves in each other, even when we are very different or when we find ourselves in conflict. This is related to the core values of Marywood University; the course is designed to promote “the pursuit of truth, goodness, beauty, justice, and the common good within the context of the Catholic faith tradition and in dialogue and service with persons of diverse faiths and worldviews,” helping students “achieve their full potential to live as conscientious citizens in a pluralistic society.”

      Students in this course have a right to be treated with respect by their fellow students as well as the professor. This means they have a right to expect that high standards for learning will be upheld in this course. It implies that hard work will be necessary; that the grading will be both demanding and fair; that different perspectives will be examined when appropriate; and that factual accuracy will be insisted upon. It also means students have a right not to be harassed or treated with contempt in the classroom.

      How Academic Freedom Protects the Course

      Scholars, including students, must engage in controversial research and critical discussion of ideas. In the United States, a professional right to do this is defined in a statement by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which says “the common good depends upon the free search for truth.” At Catholic colleges, this principle of academic freedom is also promised in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990. It encourages us to engage in the “free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God” in an attitude of “mutual respect, sincere dialogue, and protection of the rights of individuals.” In this spirit, I encourage you to disagree respectfully with each other and with me, whenever it does not disrupt the course, with the goal of advancing our common understanding of history.

      This right protects all of us. It does not simply protect our ability to express our own opinions. It means we have a duty to protect the academic freedom (and other rights) of other students and professors, including those who may feel more vulnerable than we do. It means we should work to make others feel welcome to participate. Above all, it implies that we have a responsibility to examine our own beliefs in light of others’ arguments and evidence. As the saying goes, we are all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.

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  2. No. In various ways, this list does more to protect the comfort and power of the privileged than anything else; it is a formulation of civility as White-culture respectability.

    I’m not the person to do a full breakdown, but let me take one as a jumping off point.

    The “light not heat” philosophy has three effects I wouldn’t like.

    One: it gets unfairly perceived, policed, and weaponized against some groups more than others. Think about which groups are perceived as having “attitude”- and at the same time are blamed for being “too sensitive”.

    Two: It tends to make the offense of a statement’s content equal to the offense of a statements presentation. It is not equally bad to advocate genocide as it is to call said advocate Nazi scum.

    Three: It sends the message that the onus for managing the listener’s emotions is on the messenger, not the listener. See: white fragility, white tears.

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  3. I like most of this and will definitely consider using something like it in the future. For me, two bullet points don’t work:

    “All viewpoints are welcome;
    No ideas are immune from scrutiny and debate”

    I would remove those. The essential point about creating open debate still stands. In my classroom, some viewpoints are *not* welcome at all, and some ideas are *not* up for debate. The assumption that everything should be welcome and up for debate is itself a highly ideologically charged point of view. An alt-righter, for example, is not welcome to come into my class and “debate” whether white people are superior. That doesn’t seem like a far-fetched scenario in this era, and I don’t want my syllabus to give ammunition to people who try to hurt others in the name of debate.

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  4. As an elementary teacher, I see value in this. Much of what is included on this list are ideas that I try to instill in my kids. I really like the second point: Bring light, not heat. I will definitely add that to my list this year. I also find it useful to remind students (and adults) that we may disagree with opinions, but not personalities.

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    • You’re gonna have a LOT of Snowflake “Students” being “triggered” and running for their “Safe Space” with blankies and coloring books. AND getting you in trouble for your “Ism” du Jour.

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      • What happens when “treat every member of the class with respect” intersects with “all viewpoints are welcome”? When that “viewpoint” argues against the equal treatment (or even for the mis-treatment) of certain categories of people who are in the room?

        When you get people like this guy above, who care so little about other people’s feelings that he’d rather assign derogatory labels and dismiss people than listen to their stories and opinions.

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  5. I like it. I also think we need to be more intentional (or at least, I need to be more intentional) about bringing these points up in class — probably several times each semester. We all need to practice these principles because they do not come naturally and because our current civil climate pulls us away from them — not just those who disagree obnoxiously, but also those who shy away from any disagreement because they tend to think any disagreement is destructive and damaging. (I have a lot of students in the latter category).

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    • Yes, I have found that students often think disagreement itself is disrespectful. It’s funny how often students will preface comments with phrases like, “I agree with what everyone has said…” or are very apologetic in tone if they express a disagreement.

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