From Text to Tone: Discussing Polarizing Questions in the Classroom

Since 2014, I have team-taught with Michael Kessler a cross-listed Georgetown Law and Department of Government seminar: Religion, Morality, and Contested Claims for Justice. Our goal is to help students hone the skills that will help them to effectively communicate across differences when discussing the politically polarizing questions of our time.

In Five Steps to Healing Polarization in the Classroom (2018), we describe our methods for helping students prepare for thoughtful and productive seminar discussions. Students submit four-page essays or 300-word squibs 24 hours prior to class, from which we draw out an agenda that primes their capacity to discern the interests and questions they may share with other students. We explicitly encourage them to be fully present to each other by making equal participation a group goal and by unplugging from laptops and cell phones. The consistent result is the students’ heightened capacity to build the relationships of understanding and respect across even profound differences that in turn help them to lean into conflict or disagreement when it emerges.

The first writing assignment (Class 2) delves into potential tensions between “free speech” and “safe spaces” in classroom discussions. For our fall 2018 syllabus, we juxtaposed Victor Bruzzone’s “The Value of Immoral and Factually Incorrect Speech,” a July 2018 article in Aero which gives a brief overview of John Stuart Mill’s analysis of the harm principle, with Barbara Applebaum’s “Social Justice, Democratic Education, and the Silencing of Words that Wound” (as excerpted in Religion in Legal Thought and Practice [2010] by Howard Lesnick).

The Applebaum selection opens with a vignette of an education seminar discussion of LGBT experiences of public education during which a white, Christian, heterosexual student “declared that she would have no problem with the homosexual students in her school because she has learned to ‘love the sinner but hate the sin.’” As Applebaum recounts, “When I challenged her remark by asking how she thinks gay or lesbian students would feel having been referred to, by her, as ‘sinners,’ her defensive response was to claim adamantly her right to express her religious belief.” 

What ensues in the vignette is a pedagogical train wreck: the professor continued to “query” the religious student with a series of questions, and the student in turn “accused” the professor of trying to silence her. The vignette concludes: “While my religious student felt entitled to voice her view in our classroom, I could not help but notice that the student who told me he was gay remained silent.” Proceeding with her justifications for silencing “assaultive speech,” Applebaum argues that the “reasonable religious student” is “one who is willing to listen and be open to learning and understanding worlds that are different from the one he/she knows to be true,” and “honest when they are hiding their homophobia behind religious beliefs.” 

In our experience, this text has been invaluable for generating a productive and complex discussion with our students about the characteristics of the space for conversation that we hope to create in our seminar.

In our fall 2018 discussion of this excerpt, our seminar was fairly evenly divided between those who thought Applebaum’s approach was reasonable and those who were strongly critical of her methods. We had all read the same text, but we realized that because of our different perspectives and experiences, we were “hearing” completely different tones of voice. For example, when Applebaum “continued to query” the religious student, some mapped onto the exchange a kind of steamrolling aggression, while others imagined a more respectful tone. Further, some deemed Applebaum’s description of what it means to be “reasonable” as reductive and patronizing, while others found it to be a completely appropriate baseline for respect in the classroom. 

The upshot? To never assume that we are hearing or perceiving the same reality, even when reading the same texts. Instead, we need to ask each other to explicate: What did you perceive? What did you understand? What concerns and questions emerge for you? We also noted the communication challenges that may arise when the data that informs our discussion is shorn of cues to tone and body language—thus heightening our attention to these factors in our own discussions. 

Reflection on our differences helped to shift the focus away from who was right and who was wrong to a conversation about being attentive to how our choice of words might be received into the subjectivity of another person’s worldview and experience. 

It is also interesting to note the setting for the religious student’s response: she did not say that she would tell an LGBT student that he or she was a “sinner,” but she was giving voice to her own interior thought process. The religious student may not yet have considered how to translate her theological framework when speaking in the context of an educational or professional setting. 

How might the scenario have changed if the initial comment were received through the lens of this learning process? Especially at the beginning of the semester, it may be helpful to acknowledge that we are all in school to learn how to carry our specific identities into varying conversational contexts—and that this learning process might entail working through potential missteps, mistakes, and misunderstandings. These conversations might also be a place to flag the availability of office hours or other private spaces as a productive space for challenging conversations.

Shifting the focus to the sensitivities of the gay student who remained silent, our seminar explored a full range of perspectives: from an appreciative analysis of Applebaum’s capacity as a moderator who sets important boundaries, to caution about assuming what a given student desires in a classroom setting, to reflections on those who explicitly ask a professor not to “fight my battles for me.” All of these layers helped to foster reflection on how differing contexts and power dynamics of speech, education, and advocacy might inform a thoughtful and sensitive approach to sincere dialogue.

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