If you have been teaching very long, you have met the Thwarters (Tammy and Tony). You know the ones: the Thwarters have the unique ability to issue a declarative statement that sucks all possibility out of a room. (Maybe you know a faculty member like this?) The Thwarters are dualistic thinkers, and while this can be a fine attribute to have, the Thwarters’ beliefs leave no space for interpretation, for difference, for learning, for hope.
Today’s ProfHacker post will provide three scenarios about how the “Thwarters” can stop a classroom discussion cold. We will then ask you to provide your solution to the problem in comments. If you are unfamiliar with this ProfHacker series, you might take a look at these previous posts:
- Meet Chatty Cathy and her BFF Conversational Carl
- What’s that Smell?
- The Case of Know-it-All Nancy
- Too Much Skin Edition
- T-shirt slogan Edition
Before we get to the heart of this post, but we must recognize a few caveats:
- The first caveat: In this series, we will present a few scenarios, and it’s clear that how we handle these scenarios depends upon the discipline, the class size, and the culture of an institution. We try to include as many of these variables as we can, while understanding that we can’t account for each and every situational difference. What we are discussing here are behaviors that—no matter the discipline or the institutional culture—impede learning for other students.
- The second caveat: ProfHacker is not a place to complain about students. That is not what this series of posts attempts. Instead, we want to focus on what we can do, positively and professionally, to handle the sometimes difficult situations we can have with students.
- Lastly, please don’t focus solely on the examples in each scenario. These are merely examples that I chose to use. I could have chosen to use others. The examples are only important in that they are controversial and cause the Thwarter to emerge. The point to these scenarios and indeed, this post, is how do we (as faculty) handle the student who expresses such a strong, immovable belief, one that stops discussion and learning from occurring for other students.
You teach a first-year writing course (20-25 students) where controversial subjects are often the topic of any given class session. In fact, you intentionally introduce “hot button” subjects into your class discussions, as you believe that students need to be able to argue more than one perspective of an issue. At the least, you think, students should be able to recognize that multiple perspectives exist and that they can find “common ground” between opponents of a complex issue. Students read an essay by a prominent female author about how women in the U.S. culture are “labeled” and conversely, how men do not have those same-type labels. Tina Thwarter is waiting for you as you begin class: “I’m not going to read this trash,” she says. “My dad says I don’t have to because I’m not [in staged whisper] a feminist. I’m here to learn about important things.”
You are teaching a mid-sized lecture and discussion course (40-50 students) in political science / government. You are very cautious to never let your personal political beliefs sway the way you present material to your students. Yet students assume—given your profession (university professor) that you are a liberal. As part of the scheduled semester’s activities, you discuss immigration reform in the United States. The Arizona Bill 1070 is in the news, and you ask how this bill may or may not be relevant to other issues you’ve discussed in the course. (You are NOT in Arizona or any neighboring state.) Tony Thwarter says (with such conviction that all conversation stops), “I support this bill because White America should finally stand up and claim its rights... [illegals] don’t deserve anything that the rest of us have to pay for.” (It’s important to note that Tony used language that won’t be repeated in this space.) Many students seem to disagree with Tony (shifting in their seats, looking at one another), but no one says anything.
You are teaching a large-lecture-type science course (100+ students). On the course schedule for that day is the evolution / creationism debate. You expect some students to be uncomfortable or to even be upset about the direction the discussion will take, as this type of discussion can challenge personally-held beliefs. Most students, however, will just ignore the parts of the discussion they don’t support. They understand that it’s your job—as their professor—to teach them something and they will remember testable information and move on (their personal beliefs in check). A few Thwarters, however, decide that their beliefs are being trampled upon by an academic discussion that challenges faith. They stand up during your lecture and quote the Bible verses that explain how you are wrong. Many students seem to agree with the Thwarters, but they stay seated, listening to the exchange. Other students seem to disagree with the vocal group, but also stay seated. No one is sure how to act or what to say.
Many of these scenarios are like those we handle in classes each and everyday. We deal with differing opinions, both on large and small issues. We deal daily with students who have a dualistic way of thinking, right/wrong, good/bad. The Thwarters, however, have a special gift. They don’t just disagree with a stated opinion. They disagree in such a way that there is no possibility of continued conversation. They make their claims with such certainty and conviction that there is no room left for a dissenting thought.
Now, it’s your turn. How do you handle this type of behavior from students in your classroom? How do you handle the student that can stop discussion in its tracks. Please leave suggestions in comments below.
[Photo by Flickr user Cyron and used under the Creative Commons license.]