There are a number of considerations in the air in Franks' posts and in the comments. Franks contrasts two general approaches:
(a) To respond negatively to students expressing such sentiments would amount to expressing one's own sentiments, a violation of the detachment or neutrality instructors ought to manifest.
(b) Detachment or neutrality in the pedagogical sphere is impossible. Neutrality is violated simply by the texts we choose, the topics we address, etc. Thus, no special worry is raised by responding negatively to students who express hateful sentiments. In a sense, it would be ethically irresponsible and show a lack of integrity concerning one's own values not to respond negatively.
Franks associates (a) with Freud, (b) with Sartre.
I've got two (actually, three) thoughts here, but would be interested to know others' thoughts.
First, the central question, as I see it, is what is pedagogically justified here. Franks and the commenters mention this, but it gets short shrift in the discussion. Is there a way to turn the expression of such sentiments into a "teachable moment," for that student and for the others?
Second, my sense is that the discussion is grounded in a false dilemma:
Should we let hateful sentiments simply play out without personal comment, in the hope that the revelations themselves will bring about enlightenment? Or should we reveal our own personal commitments as a way of signifying and respecting the values at stake?But surely there's a lot in between ignoring such sentiments and using the force of one's classroom authority to extinguish them. My own response to students' expressing racist or sexist views has been (1) to determine if they're even relevant to the topic at hand (often they're not, in which case I ignore them), and (2) if they are relevant, to critically engage them with the same level of seriousness or attention I would give any other relevant position or view. By treating these views seriously without privileging them, I try to show respect for the student and try to help the class determine whether the views deserve respect. This is in the spirit of Franks' own remarks:
This is a complex endeavor, to be sure, and context surely matters... Let us imagine an example - a criminal law class covering the topic of rape. The professor begins with statistics on sexual assault from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). A student raises his hand and expresses the view that women often lie about rape, and so we cannot take the numbers seriously. Would engaging this view advance the goals of the class, or derail the discussion? I can imagine a series of questions to the student, some interrogating the claim's relevance and informational value, and some analyzing its reasoning, e.g., On what do you base this claim? Do you believe the methodology of the NCVS is fundamentally flawed? If so, do you also take issue with the NCVS statistics on, say, robbery?What I don't recommend is Marks' next move, going Freudian on the student:
If the answers to these questions are vague, anecdotal, or inconsistent, e.g. "I just think it's really easy for women to lie," "This girl in my high school lied about being raped by someone," "No, I don't think people lie about robbery," then the Freudian question might be an important one: why are you invested in this claim, despite having little or no evidence to support it? This question could be the departure point for a larger discussion of the social and cultural perceptions of rape and the effects these perceptions have on the reporting and prosecution of sexual assault.I think it would be a serious pedagogical mistake to personalize the issue in this way. For one, many students with 'controversial' views (in my observation) are attention-seeking, and this move keeps the student in the spotlight, rather than the issue. There's a real danger here that objective, impartial inquiry will recede in favor of armchair sociological or psychological speculation.
Lastly, one question to be considered is how other students react to the expression of these sentiments. In philosophy classes in particular, students need to have a thick skin. They'll confront unfamiliar, even threatening, views from their peers, and we shouldn't let that discomfort control the discussion. On the other hand, I've had students complain that such sentiments essentially create a hostile atmosphere, one in which other students disengage and avoid interaction.
(Small aside: Marks' original post mentions offensive course materials, which I think raise a different class of issues.)
How do you handle these issues — and what are the best approaches?