It’s an interesting point to bring up in the higher education classroom, and I’ve been thinking on this for at least the past hour in the back of my head.
I really do feel that a professor still has some responsibility, if not to teach (though I believe they do in fact have a responsibility to teach, despite what I’ve seen in some of the lecture halls and classes I’ve had to attend myself), then to create an environment in which students can learn.
I don’t believe that an environment in which the classroom or group discussion is hijacked by a majority of students who claim that a female character’s own actions led to her rape is an environment in which all students can feel comfortable expressing their own opinions. There may be a vocal few who stand up and say “That is an absolutely false or unfair idea,” but in the middle will be students who leave the classroom with a sour taste in their mouth and a churned stomach.
So what tasks does this delegate to a professor? If not teacher, then perhaps at least moderator?
Another example — I was in a relatively small writing class in my first year of my first college (I later transferred in part because my subject interests changed, and weren’t available there, but in part because too many of my courses were 100-to-300-student lectures during which professors used powerpoints that came with the textbook, and absolutely nothing was gleaned from attending the lecture that wasn’t by reading the textbook; books are cheaper than tuition). One of the readings was on rape culture, feminism, and sexism.
The writer insisted that media was to blame for rape culture because men could not help themselves around women once they saw them half-naked on billboards, and strongly suggested that all men in general were just biologically predisposed to be rapists and needed to be shielded from provocative advertising.
It was a predominantly female class. All of the women in the class except for myself supported the article loudly and enthusiastically in class discussion, and the men were either unsure of what they could say, afraid to say it, or so embarrassed or disgusted that they didn’t want to say anything — they were just biding their time until they could leave. When I spoke up it was expected that I was going to be in agreement, and when I criticized the writer, the article, and these ideas that men were all rapists and all women were potential victims, all incapable of having any power over their own fate, the next ten minutes of class was an attack and defense situation.
The professor called on people to speak, but never leant her own comments. For the entirety of that unit, I was almost afraid to speak up, because every time I did I was met with a hoard of angry voices declaring I was not a feminist, that I was on “their side,” and that I was wrong, ignorant, or shouldn’t speak any more. After the unit, at least three women in the class no longer spoke to me. Speaking to the professor after classes yielded nothing more than that made good points in class. It felt like both a responsibility and a burden to speak, because when I didn’t, no one else did — not even the professor.
Maybe this is a forced introduction into the “real world,” where unpopular opinions can lead to shunning and aggression. At the end of the class, everyone got a postcard from the professor’s collection, and mine remarked that the image was of a “strong woman, just like you!” It was a nice sentiment, but didn’t make up for one of the most uncomfortable courses of my academic career.
On the other hand, when we discussed perceptions of and barriers faced by LGBTQ individuals in my Adolescent Pschology II class, the professor had a slightly different handle. He too let it fall primarily to student discussion, calling on people to speak, sometimes letting us regulate ourselves — it was an even smaller class than the writing at the other school and we were familiar enough with one another to fall into respectful patterns of sharing. Then, somehow, the conversation turned to several students in the class swearing that literature and research backed up the idea that gay men were most likely to be pedophiles, that the AIDS epidemic was primarily the fault of the gay community and was a good thing, etc.
The professor stepped in, pointed out some faulty logic, helped divide (or tried to help divide) the fact from the opinion for students who cited one as the other. Students on both sides had to concede some things — it wasn’t a matter of a liberal agenda or the forcing of opinions on others (actually, the professor is a devout Catholic who helps oversee, at a local institution, who does and does not advance from their studies to the priesthood).
I felt awful at the end of the class, but I wasn’t dreading going back, because I felt like the professor was taking some kind of responsibility for making it a place where anyone was welcome to learn. He didn’t give his own opinions on the matter, he didn’t silence anyone, he didn’t tell anyone they were wrong — he simply noted that some things were actually factually inaccurate, misconceptions perpetuated by a popular culture of misinformation. It wasn’t a debate class, it was a class about fact and theory — and when opinions got in the way of either of those two things, he believed it was his job to clear that up.
And I am of the opinion that even higher education students need that. So maybe it isn’t a matter of preparing other educational materials, or even giving students additional resources, when it comes to a higher level of learning — I concede that. I’m used to the responsibilities of Elementary and Secondary Ed, and of being a general advocate for marginalized groups in environments where what needs to be resolved is a lack of information. On the college level, students are supposed to, to some degree, be able to learn for themselves — though one should still keep in mind that everyone comes in at different levels.
Maybe it’s just a matter of being sure to moderate discussion, as would be done in any good debate at any age, to be certain that people know the difference between good information and misinformation, opinion and fact, and to be sure that conversations do not become so inflamed that learning cannot happen.