AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on
WORDMASTER: how should a teacher handle controversial topics in the
classroom? Rutgers University professor Barbara Lee gets asked that
question all the time, as she recently did through an online forum of
the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her specialty is employment law and
higher education law.
BARBARA LEE: "I think there's a
heightened sensitivity now, in all sorts of way. For example, several
universities not too long after Nine-Eleven decided that all their
incoming first-year students should read a book about -- most of them
were about Islam. And there were some lawsuits about that, saying that
that was a violation of, for example, Christian students' religious
freedom rights. And the courts have said no it isn't, this is a valid
educational assignment and it's not any kind of problem in exercising
your rights to follow your own religious beliefs."
AA: "And so
now seven years later, actually, after Nine-Eleven, the attacks of
September eleventh, two thousand one, are you still getting questions
about topics like that?"
BARBARA LEE: "Yes, we are. I think in
some respects, at least at some colleges, students are becoming more
conservative. If you look at the national surveys of college students,
they are more conservative, certainly than my generation was, which is
the baby boomers. And each generation has gotten a little bit more
politically conservative and somewhat more religious."
RS: "You said that you'd gotten some e-mails. What were some of the questions that you've been asked?"
LEE: "This was one of my favorites. A professor of art apparently
teaches a drawing class where he has nude models, and he wanted to know
what should he do if a student objects to drawing a human figure in the
nude because she or he feels it's indecent and a violation of their
RS: "And what did you answer?"
LEE: "Lawyers always answer 'it depends.' But what I did say is, well,
is it a required course? What's your purpose in having the nude figure?
If you're interested in sort of the framework of a body, could you use
an animal instead of a person? On the other hand, if pedagogically they
really need to learn how to draw the human figure, and it has to be
unclothed, then it seems to me that you could insist that they do it."
RS: "And other e-mails you've gotten?"
LEE: "Oh, questions about how to deal with students who insist on
arguing either with other students or the instructor about issues that
are really not relevant to the subject of the course. That's an easy
one. You just tell them that you'll be happy to talk to them after
class, but enough is enough and you need to move on."
RS: "What are some of the strategies that you use -- not you use, or perhaps you do ... "
LEE: "Well, I've been teaching for twenty-six years a course that
includes affirmative action and sex discrimination. So I have some
pretty opinionated students about those things."
RS: "So what
are some of the strategies you'd recommend to teachers going into the
classroom -- be it an English as a Foreign Language classroom or any
BARBARA LEE: "Well, I'd be very careful to
make sure that the discussion and the assignments are really closely
linked to the topic. There are some writing assignments, for example,
that teachers may be quite certain are going to ruffle students'
feathers, and it may not be necessary to do that.
example, I guess if you were teaching an English as a Second Language
course in a Middle Eastern country and you ask them to write about why
women shouldn't be allowed to drive -- or should be allowed to drive.
That might be an issue that they get upset about. You might, depending
on the point of view or the purpose of the assignment, you may want to
get them to defend or take a position or argue something, but you could
do it about a subject that isn't going to create fireworks in the
AA: "Now, in general, do you think teachers should avoid expressing personal opinions, especially on controversial issues?"
LEE: "I think they can if they're asked, but I don't think a teacher
should ever impose his or her personal beliefs or opinions on students.
And students, because of the power differential between teachers and
students, students may assume that they are expected to agree with the
AA: "And what happens when one student in class
expresses a personal opinion that maybe offends other students in the
class -- what do you suggest that the teacher do at that point?"
LEE: "Well, I mean that's happened in my class. And what I say is, I
say right up at the beginning of the course, 'We're going to be
discussing some controversial issues. You may say what you like as long
as it's professional and as long as you are respectful of other
people's right to have differing opinions.'"
Barbara Lee teaches employment law and higher education law at Rutgers
University in New Jersey. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With
Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.