The Teaching Workshop: Impartiality, Partiality, and Controversial Topics in Conservative Settings

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I work at a Midwestern regional public university that has an extremely socially conservative student body. All students are required to take a philosophy course before graduating, so my introductory classes includes many socially conservative students. I’m committed to talking about social justice issues (e.g., affirmative action, abortion, distributive justice) in those courses. In order to reach these socially conservative students, I feel that I need to take seriously and treat as legitimate some positions that I often find odious. If I don’t, many of my conservative students shut down and immediately write me off as a liberal professor who is trying to brainwash them. Examples of these positions include: that poor people are lazy and deserve to be poor, that people of color only need affirmative action because they are not as intelligent as their white peers, and that women who want abortions are selfish, irresponsible, and so forth. I worry, though, that when I treat those positions as legitimate starting points in class, my other students—and in particular my students of color—feel uncomfortable and out of place. How do I help my more progressive students to feel welcome in class while also engaging my more conservative students in a way that will actually reach them?

Alexandra Bradner:

I teach Appalachia-area students in eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia—regions with extremely conservative student populations—and I’ve never heard students say such things in class. Where I teach, students of different ethnicities and genders often come together against wealthy and/or atheistic outsiders. I mention this only to remind us not to think in binary terms. You might miss the subtleties of your students’ conservative positions if you cast them as caricatures. It’s also important to remember that it’s only the rare young person who enters a philosophy class with considered and broadly informed views. Most students—both liberal and conservative—are simply parroting their formative influences…until they study philosophy.

That said, feel free to shut down empirically uninformed, disrespectful, racist and/or misogynist commentary. No collegiate class is an “anything goes” environment. Philosophers entertain alternative possibilities by trade. But “possibilities” are only such if they can be motivated with a style of reasoning recognized by the discipline. When a student broaches a bogus topic, it is your job to explain why philosophers don’t entertain that topic. If an in-class explanation gives even more credence to the topic than you would like, you can meet privately with the student, which almost always improves in-class engagement.

I do think it’s important to assign readings that conflict with your own cherished views—not only to engage your more conservative students, but to deepen and complicate your own positions. The following readings energize conservative students and would work on any intro syllabus: Marquis on abortion; Locke or Nozick on property; Paley, Swinburne, or Plantinga on design; Anselm or Descartes on the ontological argument; and Aquinas, Hume, or Craig on the cosmological argument.

Finally, set a tone of openness (within the defining constraints of “philosophical” discussion) by never revealing your own views. Students are not powerful enough to argue with the person who is grading their work. Adopt a Pyrrhonian stance in class: suspend belief, despite how self-affirming and politically satisfying it might feel to proselytize.

Harry Brighouse:

Both of your worries are exactly the right worries to have. You need to engage all classes of student, without allowing any class of them to shut the others down. Here are some steps worth trying. You can’t be the liberal professor moralizing them.

First, tell them that it is your job to challenge them to think more, and better, whatever they think at the start. Whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, they should leave the class understanding, better than they did when they came in, the reasons both in favor of permitting abortion and against it. This helps them to see that you are not trying to brainwash them.

Second, find out how the attitudes of the students are in fact distributed—for example, by using online surveys at the very beginning of the semester, or by using regular class online posts. It’s valuable for students who are in the majority to see that others in the room disagree with them, and for students in the minority to see that they are not alone. If you use Blackboard-style online posts, then you get to choose the starting point of discussions by picking up on the best, and most pedagogically useful, points that your students have made, rather than what the first, most vocal (rarely the most thoughtful) students have said in class.

Third, focus on arguments in the literature—or if you prefer, just interesting or good arguments that you prepare for them to discuss. This helps them to distance themselves from their own positions. Here’s an argument for the permissibility of abortion. Now, what is wrong with it? Here’s an argument for the impermissibility of abortion. What is wrong with it? One of the great things about socratic questioning is that you do not explicitly take a position. When someone says poor people are lazy and deserve to be poor, you should take it seriously. But you should require that very student to figure out an argument against the view they have taken.


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2 thoughts on “The Teaching Workshop: Impartiality, Partiality, and Controversial Topics in Conservative Settings

  1. Aaron Rizzieri:

    It might be useful to approach these issues and conversations with students from the ground up. Instead of leading with an article that contains arguments, perhaps you could start with something more biographical or existential. This would have the effect of mimicking interaction with a person who is affected by the relevant form of discrimination and not a mere clash of ideas.

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