exercising judgment in teaching about controversial issues

My department has run a number of workshops (organized by grad students) on “teaching about race.” They asked me to speak about what the rules are about what we can and cannot say in the classroom. I was pretty sure I knew the “rules” but asked our Provost for the official statement. Interestingly, there was none, but the question was referred to the Legal department. After a delay, Legal Affairs sent back an email citing Wisconsin state statutes and linking to some policy statements. I’ve pasted the original correspondence below.* First a student and I translated the legalese into English bullet points. Then I wrote an essay about how to think about the authority and ethical responsibility in teaching controversial topics. This was recirculated this fall and as I’ve gotten positive feedback about this, I decided to post it here, with a few more edits, in case it is helpful. There’s always more to say, and legitimate disagreement about how to handle some things. Feel free to use the comments to expand on these points.

The bullet points first, then the essay.

  • We have academic freedom but are required to deliver a course that matches the course description and not bring in material that is outside the scope of the course.
  • We must distinguish personal opinions from institutional positions.
  • We must exercise professional judgment and adhere to scholarly standards.
  • It is illegal to engage in political campaign activities or lobbying while at work or using work resources.
  • If discussion of political candidates is relevant to course material, exercise great care to avoid the appearance of campaigning.
  • Urging students to communicate with state officials to influence legislation is probably lobbying and therefore illegal.
  • Discussing the merits of legislation is OK if the topic is germane to the class.
  • It is illegal to promote any specific religion or religion in general; discussions of religion should be germane to the course.

I then wrote the following essay elaborating on these points

Exercising Judgment in Teaching Politically-Charged Topics in the Classroom

More on Academic Freedom & Opinions

  1. You have both the right and the responsibility to determine course context. The ideal mindset is that you have authority and it is your responsibility to exercise your authority with care and judgment. Instructors do have power and legitimate authority; it is built into the structure of the university. Acknowledging the structural power and internalizing the sense of authority and self-confidence can help you to respond to student challenges and concerns in a way that is respectful and open to learning about the concerns of your students while still retaining authority.
  2. You can intentionally structure your course to emphasize a distinction between facts and evidence on the one hand and interpretations of the meaning of the facts or their policy implications on the other. It also can be helpful explicitly to explain the distinction between descriptive facts (e.g. trends in the crime rate over time) about which evidence is usually straightforward, and causal explanations (why crime fell) about which there is more room for genuine scientific dispute, even as evidence and scientific research are still relevant in both cases. And you can explain the weight of sociological evidence about causal explanations.
  3. Teach the course content the students signed up for and you described at the beginning of the term. Although brief digressions into personal issues can humanize you and improve the educational atmosphere, it is inappropriate to subject a captive audience to the self-indulgence of long digressions that are irrelevant to the content of the course.
  4. If events lead you to feel that support for your students or your moral responsibility requires that you speak out about something, take care to do this thoughtfully and in a way that respects the needs of your students.

Campaigning, Lobbying, Religion

  1. It is illegal to campaign, lobby, or advocate religion in the classroom and it is wise to avoid giving the appearance of doing any of these. If your course content involves analyzing elections, current issues before the legislature, or religion, it is helpful to provide a clear statement of what you are doing and how it is germane to course content.
  2. It is not illegal for you to express your opinions (except if this could be construed as campaigning, lobbying, or advocating religion), but you should consider your professional obligation to teach your students in deciding which opinions should be expressed in the classroom and how.
  3. It is not illegal to discuss controversial topics, to provide facts relevant to elections or issues, or to bring material into the classroom which some students may consider to be “biased.” It is your professional ethical obligation to do your best to distinguish matters about which there is sociological evidence from ethical or moral or political values and to give students tools for thinking through their own positions as they weigh evidence and consider values. You can provide a model for this.
  4. Students are not prohibited from giving their political opinions or even from campaigning, but letting discussions get too one-sided can be problematic.

Think about pedagogy

  1. Teaching difficult topics always involves overcoming resistance, whether it is mathphobia or learned helplessness for technical skills or students’ prior beliefs about social issues or defensiveness about their social position in studying race.
  2. Remember variability in students’ background and experiences and think about teaching to diversity of prior knowledge and background experiences. Explicitly tell students (and yourself!!) that you know they are not all the same as each other. Remind yourself that the class is not homogeneous and that a few outspoken students do not speak for the whole class. Remind yourself that there is always variability around whatever the central tendencies are in your class or campus. It is common for instructors to use homogenizing language in lectures that implies that the students are all middle class, or Democrat/Republican, or White, or ignorant about the lives of poor or minority people, and this is extremely alienating to students who do not fit this assumption. Also remind yourself that  students of all races vary in their class backgrounds, religiosity, and political opinions.
  3. Remember majority-minority dynamics. Remind yourself and students that anyone who feels themselves to be in a minority can feel threatened and intimidated. Students who are racial-ethnic or gender minorities are feeling intimidated in the current climate, but there are also invisible minorities, including religious conservatives, or opinion minorities that can develop in a particular discussion.
  4. Teaching students is more about helping them learn to think critically and less about trying to indoctrinate them or beat them into submission when they disagree. You are in charge, you are the one who decides what the right and wrong answers are for the purposes of your class. You have the right and obligation to mark an answer wrong if it is wrong even if a student disagrees with you, and the right and obligation to insist that right and wrong answers are tied to the course materials. But you cannot control their thoughts or opinions. You cannot force them to agree with you. You cannot make them not be prejudiced. We certainly hope students will come to have respect for evidence and logical reasoning, but you cannot make them do this. The limit of your authority is in judging their use of evidence and reasoning and citation of appropriate course materials in their work.
  5. Remember that influence and intellectual development take time. Students who resist information initially may often (but not always) shift their thinking over time if given the opportunity to digest new information and work out their own thoughts. Teaching strategies that allow students to voice multiple perspectives on issues and to consider both/all sides of controversial issues promote learning.
  6. Your ability to influence students’ thinking is enhanced if you connect with and build on what they already think/know (or think they know). Consider creating some ungraded mechanism, either anonymous or as part of a participation grade, for  getting regular confidential feedback from students about their reactions to course materials. The more you know what they really think, the more opportunity you have to teach them.
  7. Everyone resists if their core identities are challenged, including sociology instructors. Trying to force students to change their core identities, or insulting them, is a losing strategy.
  8. Remember: The most common form of student resistance is disengagement.

Respect the human dignity of all students and insist that they respect each other’s dignity.

  1. Insist that you be treated with respect and that students treat each other with respect. Establish classroom ground rules for respectful behavior. People who teach race usually do this, but it is also necessary in other classes, where students may insult each other in the process of discussing almost any topic.
  2. Treat your students with respect, even when they have done something stupid or said something outrageous. Again, this is true in all classes, regardless of topic. If a student needs correction for an egregious error or an offensive comment, make the correction but do it in a way that seeks to respect their dignity. A private correction is usually better than a public correction, when possible. If a public correction is needed, try to do it in a way that respects the student’s good intentions while offering the correction.
  3. Avoid demeaning students for any reason, including but not limited to, political or social positions. Demeaning students for poor academic performance is also bad. Avoid demeaning categories of people for any reason.
  4. Recognize that speech that does not seem demeaning to you may seem demeaning to others, so be prepared to acknowledge that a student might be offended by something you say. And remember that a student may not have meant to offend you or a fellow student.
  5. Teach and practice tools for managing disagreement and staying civil and respectful in the face of disagreement or unintended insults. (There are many resources for this.)

Dealing with challenges to your authority and human dignity

  1. Instructors who are not White men, and especially those who are members of visible racial/ethnic minorities or who are international are more likely to experience challenges from students than others, but any instructor may be challenged.
  2. Plan for and practice responses for maintaining civility, dignity and an authoritative stance when you feel disrespected by a student or subjected to overt hostility. This can be especially difficult if there is flagrant disrespect, when it is important that you not respond in a way that could be actionable. You do not have to just swallow it, but lashing out can get you into trouble. If it is an insulting email, do not reply. If it is an insulting face-to-face interaction, or you find yourself getting upset, get out of it as quickly as possible saying as little as possible. “This conversation is over for now. We can talk more later.” Even if you are upset, do your best to put on a front of retaining your sense of authority and self-control. Do your best to avoid escalating the situation. If you feel threatened, call Campus Police or try to get bystanders involved.
  3. Report any problematic interaction involving overt disrespect or hostility to your supervisor or chair or talk it over with a colleague. Do NOT just let it eat at you. If it upset you, it is important enough to tell someone else about it. I advise you to report all problematic interactions to your supervisor (if you are a TA) or the department chair (if you are an instructor). Involving a third party sooner rather than later can keep a difficult situation from escalating and help you gain allies in finding a solution. There is a student code of conduct and you may be able to ask Student Affairs to intervene. Under some circumstances, a disruptive student can be removed from your class. It can be helpful to remember that many disruptive students are disruptive in multiple classes, and their actions are not necessarily “about you.”
  4. I think it is especially important for people who are members of racial/ethnic, religious, or gender minorities who experience targeted insults from their students to report them to their department chair. I think White (male) faculty are often ignorant of the level of insult that some of their colleagues are enduring. I would include the insults that appear on anonymous course evaluations at the end of the term.
  5. If you are worried about something unexpectedly “blowing up” in class, plan ahead for a fast-action response. Perhaps: I would like everyone to take out a sheet of paper and first write your own personal opinions about what just happened in class. Then think about what concepts we have been studying might help to understand this conflict. I’ll collect these papers and we will discuss this more in a later class, after we have all had a chance to calm down and reflect.


*Here is the original exchange. I sent an email to our Provost asking for an official statement about the “rules” about what we are and are not allowed to say in class. She referred the inquiry to Legal Affairs. After substantial delay and a couple of follow-ups, we got a reply.

My original email to the Provost:  My department has been running “teaching about race” workshops each semester for the past couple years. For the upcoming workshop, I’ve been asked to begin by saying exactly what the law says we can and cannot say in the classroom. I’m pretty sure that our legal limits as state employees are that we cannot use our positions as public employees to campaign for anyone for political office and that we cannot “lobby” about legislation before the state legislature. There are also Supreme Court decisions about religion that say we cannot use our position as instructors to advocate for particular religions. Beyond that, I think, we are bound not by law but by some principles about treating all students with dignity and respect regardless of their opinions, even as we retain academic freedom to teach what we believe is correct. We are not required to be “unbiased” in the sense of treating all opinions as equal, but we are expected to respect evidence and scholarship and critical thinking. The student organizing the session asked me if I can point to any official university rules on this point. I’m sure I’m right, but I can’t remember where this is written down.  So I’m passing the buck to you, partly because I think the grad students in my department are not the only ones who will want to know exactly what the rules are about this in the coming months and years. Is there any written policy I can pull together and pass along?

The emailed response from Legal Affairs:

Pamela Oliver raises a number of issues that could merit treatise-length treatment because of the complexity associated with them. To keep this within manageable proportions, let me share a few thoughts and resources that might aid Pamela (and others) on the subjects she raises.

First, faculty members teaching courses should adhere to the subject matter(s) of the course and, in general, avoid topics in the classroom that are, fairly speaking, outside of those subject(s). Within the subject matter of the course, the faculty member enjoys the academic freedom “to discuss and present scholarly opinions and conclusions regarding all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to reach conclusions according to one’s scholarly discernment.” (FPP Sec. 8.01 (B)). That said, FPP also recognizes that “[a]cademic responsibility implies the faithful performance of professional duties and obligations, the recognition of the demands of the scholarly enterprise, and the candor to make it clear that when one is speaking on matters of public interest or concern, one is speaking on behalf of oneself, not the institution.” (FPP Sec. 8.01(C)). These policies of the faculty are codified at https://www.secfac.wisc.edu/faculty-legislation.htm. The UW System’s commitment to the principle of academic freedom was also articulated recently in a resolution of the System’s Board of Regents. See https://www.wisconsin.edu/regents/download/meeting_materials/2015/december/New-December-2015-Education-Committee-pdf-v4.pdf#page=131.

Second, discussion of political campaigns in the classroom and attendant issues are discussed in guidance offered by UW System. See https://www.wisconsin.edu/government-relations/download/Guidance-on-Political-Campaign-Activities-at-UW-System-Institutions-2016-10.pdf for further details.

Third, advocacy of State legislative outcomes (lobbying) is also regulated by State law. Briefly, a faculty member should not use University resources to advocate on behalf of the University without checking with University Relations. Faculty are, of course, free to advocate a personal position on an issue, but that position should be made clear when communicating such a position. See https://budget.wisc.edu/budget-news/guidance-for-uw-madison-employees-on-lobbying-activities/ for further details.

Finally, unless the course deals with a religious topic, care should always be exercised by faculty in discussing religion in the classroom. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the government (to which the University is part, since it is a State agency) may not establish religious orthodoxy of any sort, nor advance a specific religion nor promote religion. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) (citing other cases holding the same).


Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

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