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August 10, 2018+Mark Urista
+Teaching+Open Inquiry

Don't Avoid Controversial Topics. Use Them!

Like many faculty members, there are times in class when I joyfully watch students actively engage in constructive disagreement. Unfortunately, they do not happen enough. Too many students avoid openly challenging their peers on controversial topics. The old adage, “go along to get along” rules their classroom interactions.

This inclination towards avoidance often infects my own thinking as well: Last fall term while walking down a busy hallway on our campus, I noticed some new artwork on the walls that multiple people were looking at. I’ll spare you the vivid details and simply describe the art as two men fornicating (vividly). Immediately I thought that this artwork would be a great topic for my Argumentation class’ upcoming assignment, but worried that students would feel too uncomfortable to actively debate it. I decided to stick with some “safer” topics instead.

Thankfully, a pair of students in this class visited me during office hours shortly afterwards. They were offended by the artwork and wanted to advocate for its removal. I pointed out that the upcoming debate assignment would require two students to prep two sides of a controversial topic, so either the affirmative or negative could be argued (we flip a coin in class right before the debate to determine who argues which side). I told them that unless they were willing to honestly examine and develop arguments in support of the artwork, I would not allow them to debate the topic. The students agreed to those conditions and started preparing.

A few days later the pair returned to my office and shared their recent revelation: there are many legitimate arguments that support displaying the artwork. During our classroom debate, a wide range of perspectives were shared and analyzed during the round. Afterwards, the students’ fellow classmates applauded their bravery and contributed additional viewpoints. When the class session ended, both students gleefully said they wanted to debate the topic again for our entire campus community.

The process of organizing our campus debate exhibited what I love about teaching:

After recruiting a few additional students, our small group began constructing arguments. The debate was framed around whether it was appropriate for the artwork to be openly displayed on campus – and so both sides were encouraged to base their arguments in our college’s values.

During our preparation, each student realized that they didn’t want to have a debate where one side would “win” and the other would “lose.” The group’s goal was to accurately represent the viewpoint diversity within our campus community about this controversy. By the time we had our final prep session, all of the students were enthusiastically providing arguments for both sides of the debate. They also became genuine friends.

Our event was attended by students, staff, faculty, administration (including all three VP’s) and a board member. During the debate’s subsequent Q&A session, members of our campus community asked questions, constructively disagreed with one another, and found areas of mutual understanding. Numerous individuals came up to us and said they wanted to help create similar events in the future.

Following the debate, our group created a Civil Discourse Club, which has evolved into a BridgeUSA chapter. Our club’s membership reflects the diversity of our student body and is comprised of various backgrounds, demographics, and ideologies. We have become one of the most active clubs on campus and consistently receive broad support. We also have a lot of fun.

This experience has shown me that there are many people on campus who are interested in creating a climate that fosters viewpoint diversity – more than we might think. A good place for this to start is in the classroom. We educators should not avoid the responsibilities that come with the Heterodox Academy statement so many of us have endorsed:

“I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity. I support viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement in my academic field, my institution, my department, and my classroom.”

Students need teachers to believe that they are capable of engaging in constructive dialogue when given the opportunities, structure, and guidance we are trained – and obliged – to provide. Incorporating controversial topics is an excellent means for making this happen.


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