The Hardest Lesson

Eight years of teaching have taught me one thing if nothing else: thousands of Americans, including young adults who’ve sat in my classes, and yet more that I’ll meet this coming year, aren’t mourning the Orlando victims right now as deeply as we would hope. And yet as a professor I can’t judge these people as openly as I’d like to, or call them out for what I see as cold-hearted bigotry. Teaching in the South often means I have to act the opposite of the way I think, so that my views don’t alienate my handful of conservative students who are prone to intolerance. That’s not cowardice; that’s good pedagogy.

The thing I’ve realized is that ISIS and other terror groups love it when gun rights and gun control advocates lunge at each other, or when one of their deplorable acts pits the religious against the secular. Every time we clash and trade insulting memes on social media, terror wins.

The only way to move forward is productive, civil discourse, even with people we might secretly regard as idiots. In my field, we call arguing on opposing sides dissoi logoi. It’s a logical tool that’s fallen sadly out of practice these days. (Communication is something I happen to be an expert at–or at least they gave me a PhD in it, so let’s hope I know what I’m doing.) Our politicians have set poor examples for us the past several years, with a few exceptions on both sides.

I’ll give you some examples of what I try to do with students who express homophobia or other flawed views. My goal is never to change what they think, but how they think.

Several years ago, one student in my English 101 class wrote a position paper on how homosexuality was a sin. The paper relied mainly on Biblical evidence and concluded with verses that recommended stoning homosexuals to death. My grad school friends at the time challenged me to “rip her a new one,” or report her to our boss. Instead, I returned the paper with suggestions on broadening her range of sources, but not explicitly banning religious texts. I challenged her to engage religious figures on the other side of the debate, and I asked her to reconsider her audience and whether or not advocating the deaths of homosexuals would persuade anyone who didn’t already agree with her. I asked her to think about what she was really trying to accomplish in her paper: Was her goal to condemn homosexuality, or to find out all the possible religious stances on it? My own goal wasn’t to change her beliefs, but to make her explore them through writing.


A tempting response to views a professor might see as bigotry or intolerance, and how we look when we preach.

Recently, a student wrote a paper on gun rights that presented gun control advocates as simply wanting “a complete ban on guns.” His 7-page paper, although well-written, discussed the issue as black and white. Again resisting the need to broadcast my own political views, I invited the student to go deeper in explaining what gun control advocates need to understand about gun rights. The student appreciated the invitation to go further into his own position, probably relieved that his supposedly liberal college professor didn’t try to shred him. He told me about his family and friends, including college girls who wanted open carry laws passed because they were afraid of rape and wanted a more powerful deterrent than pepper spray and car keys. We approached his paper as an opportunity for him to research his views and those of his friends, with the caveat that he also needed to present gun control more fairly and consider what specific weapons and accessories those advocates wanted banned. He didn’t have to change his mind, I said, as long as he understood both sides better.


I’ll admit, I’ve done this at home (or my office on weekends) after finishing papers that express views I find deplorable.

There are times when protests and counter-culture rhetoric are needed. The Occupy Wall Street Movement is a great example. We don’t always need to be “polite,” in the 18th century coffeeshop way (in fact, those people got pretty nasty at times.) I’m certainly a fan of satire, sarcasm, and snark. But that’s not always the most appropriate tool. Hurling your views at others, even when you’re an “open-minded” liberal like me, is not only counter-productive, it’s harmful to democracy. We need to climb out of our echo chambers and actually listen to each other if our institutions have any chance of making it another century.




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