Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The world needs classroom discussion rules

I don't own a TV, so I missed the controversial Colbert joke, Suey Park's response, and Josh Zepps's "interview". I had just sat down to write about it, when this Andrew Sullivan "response" to this (as usual) brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates article came across my desk. (Make sure you follow the links in Coates's post to get the full scope of the argument.)

I'm going to talk about the issues raised later. But first a rant: seriously, the world needs classroom discussion rules.

I teach about race, gender, and class, so it's important that my classroom is a safe space for discussion. My students create their own rules for classroom interactions, but one rule is absolute: you don't decide what someone else feels or experiences. If Park says she was offended by Colbert, then she was offended. Period. You can ask her to explain why she feels that way (as long as you're actually listening). You can challenge the usefulness of her response. But you cannot tell her that her feelings are wrong. And it is absolutely inexcusable to use a position of privilege as an older, white, male broadcast journalist, for example, (or as a professor), to speak over and belittle the experience of someone far more vulnerable than you, a younger, female person of color, (or a student). While we study systems of inequality, we must be aware of them in our own classrooms and our own conversations.

Every year, my students choose some version of "show respect" as their top rule for classroom discussion. The essence of respect is not assuming that you're smarter or better informed than anyone else in the room, especially when the topic is anther person's lived experience. Note that this rule applies equally to a woman of color who feels a classroom statement was racist, and to a white man who is offended by allegations of racism. Both are entitled to their unique reaction to their own experiences.

But that doesn't mean that everyone's opinions are equally valid on all topics. If a fellow student/human being has had experiences that you don't share, then you'd better listen to their opinion on those experiences. You don't have to agree, but you have to listen and not assume they're too stupid to understand their own mind.

People who have thought long and deeply about complex subjects, who have done the hard mental work of grappling with those subjects, cannot be dismissed as "overreacting" or "fatalistic". If Coates believes racism is an inherent part of the American experience, then that belief - based on a lifetime of experience, and a depth of historical scholarship - cannot be belittled or stigmatized by labeling it "depression." Respect demands that critics engage his argument through facts and figures, through logic or history. Disrespect is shutting down his voice because he's not saying what you want to hear.

I tell my students that they will feel uncomfortable in my classroom. Learning is a painful process. Like muscle growth, it requires tearing down existing structures and replacing them with something stronger. The pain gets better, but only if you allow yourself to be torn apart first.

Maybe you don't agree with Suey Park. Maybe you don't agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates. But it is possible to disagree by engaging the issues, not by minimizing a person's experience, or shooting down their fundamental right to articulate that experience in their own way.

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