Teaching and politics

Posted by September Blue Friday, 10 October 2008

As a general principle, I'm fine with the idea that my students shouldn't be unduly influenced by my own views. True, since they're taught by a person rather than a series of PowerPoint slides, I don't think it's possible - let alone desirable - to act as if I have no opinions of my own when I'm teaching, but my opinions shouldn't be presented as unilateral truth. Or maybe they shouldn't even be presented. Donne was a genius, fine; people who write on whiteboards with permanent markers should be tarred and feathered, okay; but nobody in my class needs to know whether or not I go to church or where I stand on Trident, and they certainly don't need to hear that my opinions on any such matters are The Truth, disagree with me and your grades will pay the price.

So that's the theory. Simple enough.

A while ago, I was teaching an introduction to forms of literary representation using three images of Guernica/Gernika after the Luftwaffe bombing. One photograph of blackened, half-destroyed buildings; one aerial map of the town showing the areas hit; one copy of Picasso's painting. I recommend this to anyone teaching the same kind of thing, too. Forget starting off with George Eliot and medieval allegory. Anyway, the way we talked about the pictures treated the bombing unambiguously as a Bad Thing, but I thought that was fairly non-controversial - until a few weeks later, when one of my students handed in an essay on an unrelated topic that turned into a paean for Franco somewhere around the middle of page 3.


I know my students aren't always going to share my views on politics. I know my students aren't always going to share my views on history. But I did think we might have some common ground on the matter of fascist dictators.

I was reminded of this recently after talking about another incident of several years ago with one of my colleagues, in which I cut a student off mid-sentence and didn't let him finish voicing a particularly homophobic opinion (something beginning with the words 'Of course, all right-thinking people are obviously repulsed...', if I remember right). It's the only time in my teaching career I've ever done that, and I don't regret it. To that student, I'm sure, it looked like I was stamping down on discussion by only letting the views I agreed with get heard. To the others? Who knows.

So then, what's my role in those situations? I shouldn't be using my position of authority as a political pulpit, and my students have every right to hold whatever bizarre, repellent or horrifying views they want. Should I keep in mind that the quiet, sullen student at the back might very well disagree with whatever the rest of the class is saying, and attempt to balance the discussions accordingly? Give equal time to pro-Franco views? Make sure the students are aware that there are at least two sides to every story and that it's not for me to make moral judgments? "Okay, everybody, I see what you're saying, but let's remember that the supporters of baby-bayonetting have a right to their opinion as well?"

It'd be disingeneous to pretend I was morally torn on this issue. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the idea that viciously homophobic and pro-fascist students might feel marginalised for their views, really. Ideally, fine, I'd let them bring their ideas to the discussion, and hear them out, and then gently nudge them with a series of non-confrontational questions and possibly a poem or two into a position where they realised what was truly important in life and tearfully repented of their ignorance, and they'd be the first students to stand on their desks and recite 'O Captain, My Captain' on my last day - but the semester is too short for ideally. And while I could avoid all potential confrontation by refusing to discuss any emotionally charged subjects and making sure any strongly-held views got dissipated by an unstoppable bland wave of let's agree to disagree, I don't think this is the point of studying literature.

I wonder what this looks like from the students' perspective.


  1. Francofou Says:
  2. If he really looks off the rails, you might notify authorities and ask them to check up on him. Wouldn't want to see you on CNN.

  3. Laz Says:
  4. I don't really know how to respond to that because I'm one of those annoying liberal types who thinks that everyone is entitled to their opinion no matter how wrong they are. That said, I don't think all venues are suitable for the voicing of said wrong opinions. Like for example, in my earshot, because all right-thinking people are not obviously replulsed, they obviously realise it's none of their sodding business.

    I disagree with the German law against Holocaust denial, but it's difficult to see how one could feel guilty about denying the deniers a platform to air their offensive views.

    I'm more concerned by the fact I'm not concerned!

  5. Autumn Song Says:
  6. It's a difficult one, and in some ways I think we are dependent upon the dynamics of the class in suych circumstances. If your other students seem confident to quash such objectional opinions (on race, class, gender, sexuality), then let them do it - you can then just referee the argument. But I think, particularly with such homophobic remarks, jumping in and cutting them off is a very good idea. There are a lot of sexually confused teenagers in their first year of university; they don't need to hear that 'all right thinking people are obviously repulsed' and not have this stopped or disputed. You did absolutely the right thing in that class.

    It would be interesting to hear what you students thought, though.