Why 2 U. of Houston Professors Won’t Change Their Teaching for Campus Carry

February 29, 2016

A PowerPoint slide used in a presentation at a faculty forum at the U. of Houston last week raised questions about how professors will adapt to Texas’ controversial new campus-carry law.
For many in higher education, a PowerPoint slide that circulated on Twitter last week offered a glimpse into how professors might adapt to Texas’ controversial new campus-carry law. The slide, used in a presentation by the University of Houston Faculty Senate’s president, Jonathan Snow, advised faculty members to avoid discussing sensitive topics, or even to change their curricula altogether, to avoid riling students who might be carrying firearms.

The new Texas law, which takes effect on August 1, will allow people who hold concealed-handgun licenses to carry their weapons into public-university buildings. For faculty members anxious about such laws, Mr. Snow’s slide served as confirmation of an impending chilling effect on instruction.

So will instructors allow the new legislation to actually change how they teach? The Chronicle spoke with two University of Houston professors to ask about their plans and concerns.

Margot G. Backus, an associate professor of English:

"I won’t alter my syllabus, knowing full well that I’m taking a risk doing that," said Ms. Backus, who has been at the university for 15 years. "It’s important to add, though, that I don’t know how I'll feel when I sit in the classroom and students start to push. I really hope I don’t change anything."

“I don't know how I'll feel when I sit in the classroom and students start to push. I really hope I don't change anything.”
One class Ms. Backus has in mind is an upper-level Irish-literature course that focuses on the intersection of LGBT culture and mainstream Irish culture, which she knows might elicit strong feelings from some students.

"I’ll get two or three very, very angry complaints from students feeling that I was doing something I shouldn’t be doing," she said. "But I don’t really have a choice. To take away sensitive subjects, I would need to get a new Ph.D. This is what I do. I owe it to the very bravest people that I’ve admired my whole life, the people that I’ve thought, ‘I want to be that kind of person.’"

One worry that Ms. Backus does have, she said, is how she will handle how students engage with her lessons. She has always encouraged students to challenge her in the classroom, she said, and to actively debate with her on heated topics. Now, though, she is worried that stoking those debates may be dangerous if a student becomes too emotionally invested.

While her curriculum will remain unchanged, Ms. Backus said, she plans to deal with her concerns about campus carry in ways that comply with the law. She plans to quote from a Faculty Senate resolution on campus carry in her syllabus — saying that "guns have no place in the academic life of the university" — and to poll her students about whether they would prefer that their classmates not bring firearms to class, to dissuade those who would like to.

Amy K. Sater, a professor and chair of the biology and biochemistry department:

"I don’t plan, personally, to make any changes to my teaching whatsoever," said Ms. Sater, who has been at the university for 22 years. "But that is because of what I teach. I’m talking about embryonic development, cell biology, and responsible conduct with biological research. These are not classes where things get that sensitive."

“If they have this concern, this fear, of someone having a gun, that's going to impact their teaching.”
But, Ms. Sater said, the very knowledge that guns are permitted in the classroom is bound to affect her colleagues’ teaching styles. "I’m dismayed by the idea of faculty needing to withdraw from addressing certain subjects or taking on certain issues and change their approach to teaching," she said. "They need to be able to walk into their classroom and be able to control the room. If they have this concern, this fear, of someone having a gun, that’s going to impact their teaching."

While she’s not as concerned about her own classroom, Ms. Sater said, she does worry about the effect on students outside the classroom, particularly in gathering places like parking lots. "Students are the most vulnerable population in this context," she said.

Even though the subject matter in biology is less controversial than, say, gender studies or sociology, Ms. Sater said she plans to hold de-escalation training for her department, a step she hopes will prepare her staff better in the event of a gun-related incident. "Hopefully, faculty will have some training and tools to identify situations as they’re escalating and try to turn that around," Ms. Sater said. "I suspect faculty will feel more comfortable if they have that training in some context."

The idea is not unique among Texas colleges preparing to adapt to the law. The University of Texas at Austin also plans to train staff members in de-escalation as part of its campus-carry policies, said William Spelman, a professor of public affairs and a member of the working group that created that campus’s plan.