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Handling Sensitive Topics in the Classroom? Want Some Legal Advice?

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?"

BARBARA 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 religious principles."

RS: "And what did you answer?"

BARBARA 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?"

BARBARA 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 ... "

BARBARA 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 other classroom?"

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.

"For 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 classroom."

AA: "Now, in general, do you think teachers should avoid expressing personal opinions, especially on controversial issues?"

BARBARA 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 teacher."

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?"

BARBARA 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.'"

AA: Professor 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.