Teaching contemporary moral issues in a large lecture format presents a challenge. Of course, the students must read, write, and think. But they also need to have fruitful discussions in which different points of view are presented and argued for, ideally by their peers. With this, they can come to appreciate the full range of reasons for and against certain conclusions and can experience reasonable and respectful disagreement across difference. Maybe disagreeing with others in front of large audiences comes naturally to some students—but for most it doesn’t. I need to induce students, including those who are shy and reserved, to engage in that kind of discussion.
Even with techniques like think-pair-share and good questions, students can be nervous about expressing their thoughts about controversial political and ethical issues, especially when they believe that their thoughts may not be widely shared. I use two tools to help.
First, students take an online survey in the first week of the semester. The questions include what their pre-class beliefs are about various matters that we’ll discuss: Do they think that, in the majority of cases, abortion is permissible or wrong? Do they think it should be legal? Do they think someone with an income above the median has an obligation to give away 10% of their income to the poor? Is cloning for reproductive purposes wrong? The survey also includes more general questions about their political leanings, whether they consider themselves feminists, and various questions about their expectations of family life (because one segment of the class concerns the gendered division of labor).
What’s the point of the survey? Well, one is that I learn whether certain views and attitudes are unlikely to be represented well in class. For example, over the past few years, opposition to reproductive cloning has pretty much disappeared, so I know that I will have to work a lot harder to press the case against cloning than I used to if I want the students to take it seriously.
The other, I think greater, value is that presenting the students with the results of the survey shows them that the class is more diverse than they might otherwise have thought. Madison is a famously liberal campus, so, for example, the students almost all assume that the class will be overwhelmingly pro-choice; and, prior to my using the survey, it was hard to get pro-life students to talk because they felt isolated. However, showing them the class percentages of students who are pro-life has made them feel less inhibited about presenting their reasons.
Withholding or Disclosing Your Views: A Pedagogical Choice
The other tool is a policy of withholding my own views about the issues we discuss. I agree with Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy who, in their brilliant book, The Political Classroom, argue that the decision whether to withhold or share one’s views about controversial issues is ultimately a pedagogical choice. But in a large class where difficult and controversial moral issues are the focus, I think the default stance should usually be nondisclosure.
We want our students to learn how to think critically about moral and political questions. “Critical thinking” is something like this: stepping back somewhat from the opinions we have received from our cultures, communities, and families, and then articulating, evaluating, and weighing the reasons for and against those and other opinions. This is not merely a cognitive process—until it has become a habit of mind (and maybe even after that), it takes courage, especially in a setting in which you do not know, and therefore cannot be sure that you can trust, your interlocutors. I’ve written before about how to foster trust in a smaller classroom. It can be done in a larger classroom, but not immediately, and only to a limited extent.
I worry that disclosing my own views would run several risks:
- Students who disagree with my view might withhold their own views, worried that they would be judged harshly or marked down.
- Students who agree with me may become complacent and think that, because they agree, they don’t have to work as hard at articulating their reasons and defending their conclusions.
- All students might feel pressure to spit back my own views to me in their written work. I don’t believe that enough of them trust me not to be tempted by that, even if I repeatedly insist that it is not what I want and will not be rewarded.
Of course, context matters. My now-retired colleague Donald Downs once warned me against being too austere about disclosure and against judging negatively those who disclose or even advocate. He observed that one of the legendarily great undergraduate teachers on our campus, the late Harvey Goldberg, was a historian whose classes not only presented but advocated a sophisticated Marxist view of history. Indeed, my own high school history teachers, all three of them excellent, were unabashed in pressing their own views. (One was a conservative, another a Social-Democrat, and the third a Maoist.) Maybe it makes complete sense for a Marxist teaching Marxism or a classical liberal teaching classical liberalism to be open about their allegiance, as long as they can effectively signal that students should develop their critical faculties and exercise them on the arguments being discussed.
Still, I haven’t shifted from my own practice. Maybe there were good reasons for Goldberg being a legendary teacher, and maybe he could pull off advocacy. The context is different: For most of his career, he was a Marxist amongst liberals and conservatives, so his outlook added diversity. My own history teachers had the great advantage of knowing that they disagreed with each other, so their students would encounter a variety of outlooks. But for most of my students, mine is the only philosophy class they’ll take, and in other classes their professors will, mostly, be at least on the same side of the political spectrum as I am.
Do I actually succeed in withholding my views? For years I had no evidence, either way, except for one conversation with a student who, on Election Day, asked how I’d voted. I asked what she thought my political views were. She thought I was liberal, but when asked why gave the lame answer “I don’t know. I think it’s because I like you, and I don’t think I’d like you if you weren’t liberal.” But now I have real evidence. I recently introduced an end-of-class survey, polling the students on their views about the issues after we have discussed them, asking whether they have changed their minds (almost all change their minds about something, and the changes of mind go in both directions), and asking what they think my views are about the issues we have discussed. For most of the issues, about half the class says they don’t know what I believe, and the other half is roughly evenly split about my views. When I present the findings at the end of the term, even those who thought they knew what I believed realize that they didn’t.
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