Teaching Newsletter, August 17, 2017

August 17, 2017

The violent demonstrations by white nationalists this past weekend at the University of Virginia have brought renewed attention to one of higher education's biggest challenges: fostering civil dialogue in class.

There’s no shortage of guidance available. Groups like Project Pericles, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' American Democracy Project have been working to help students engage in constructive conversations, especially during fraught times.

Vanderbilt and Harvard Universities have offered tips on facilitating students during "hot moments." The Junto, a blog about early American history, has several recent entries about teaching amid political tensions. We've run similar articles on this topic in recent months, too. And just a few days ago, the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation put together what it calls the Charlottesville syllabus, which contains links to resources on the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia and of Charlottesville's Confederate monuments, among other topics.

As useful as these resources are, they may do little to quell the anguish of people like Derek Weimer. He taught James Alex Fields Jr., the man who is charged with killing Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 other people by driving a car into a group of counter-protesters.

As Mr. Weimer explained on the radio show As It Happens, he tried repeatedly to persuade his then-high-school student about the evils of Nazism. Mr. Weimer used the sorts of tools and language that educators hold dear — reasoned debate and civil discourse. Now he wonders if it was enough.

"Maybe I could have been more extreme, more blunt, aggressive," he said. "Maybe I could have taken him aside and given him a matter-of fact, in-your-face type of discussion that, you know, 'You're going down the wrong path.'"

In light of the events of this past weekend, and in a context in which white nationalists feel increasingly emboldened to perform acts of violence, is fostering civil dialogue still the most appropriate course of action? Or is something stronger needed? What do you think?

It's Hard to Change Minds

Deeply ingrained ideas can be difficult to dislodge. A case in point: a cluster of seven classic “neuromyths” that a group of researchers studied, as described in Frontiers in Psychology. One such neuromyth is widely held in higher education: that people learn better when they “receive information in their preferred learning style” (there's actually little evidence to support this idea). While more than two-thirds of the general public fell prey to these myths, so did a majority of educators, and — surprisingly — nearly half (46 percent) of the people who had been exposed to neuroscience courses. The findings, the authors wrote, suggest that education and training in neuroscience can help reduce belief in neuromyths, but won’t eliminate it.

Who We Are
This is Teaching, a new weekly newsletter about teaching and learning that we’re developing here at The Chronicle. We hope it points you to some useful resources and sparks an insight or two. If this newsletter has been forwarded to you and you would like to continue receiving it, please sign up here.


— Dan and Beckie