by Mark Blaauw-Hara
“Professor has heavy liberal bias, so all students injecting a leftwing mentality in their papers will pull a higher grade than those of the conservative. A professor to be avoided.”
I was thinking of this post—one of my reviews on RateMyProfessors.com—earlier this month as I prepared for a section of first-year composition. We were slated to discuss Malcolm Gladwell’s 2015 article on how school shootings spread. The date was February 15, the day after the Marjory Stoneman Douglass school shooting. I had originally assigned the article because it is an accessible, in-depth, and well-researched exploration of a difficult problem in our society, but I did not anticipate that we would be discussing it on the day after an actual shooting. I struggled with how to handle the topic in class, both in terms of how best to navigate the difficult emotional impact of the topic and whether any research I brought—statistics linking gun ownership with incidences of mass shootings, or data on how many mass shootings were carried out with guns purchased legally—would be heard, or whether it would be discounted because of my perceived liberal bias.
It’s true that I am a liberal. Two of my earliest pedagogical touchstones were Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, both of which explore how educational systems can perpetuate class differences. One of the most significant reasons I pursued a job at a community college was because I wanted to be the teacher students from disadvantaged backgrounds needed. I am deeply concerned about racial and socioeconomic inequality, labor issues, American neocolonialism, growing anti-intellectualism, gun violence, climate change, the increasing influence of multi-national corporations, and a host of other liberal favorites. I serve on the board of my local natural foods co-op, installed solar panels on the roof of our barn, and own a plug-in hybrid. One of the reasons I insist on satellite radio in our cars is because it plays NPR for twenty-four hours.
However, in contrast to the interpretations of my online reviewer, I am careful not to advantage one side of the political spectrum over another in class. As a teacher heavily influenced by Freire, I privilege dialogue and critique in my classrooms; to reward a liberal ideology (even one that I personally think is right) while punishing a conservative one would shut down that dialogue. I bring in readings about contemporary problems like gun control, climate change, crime, and drug use not because I necessarily want students to believe the same things I do, but because I think they should research, debate, and write about real issues without easy solutions, thereby developing techniques of critical thinking and persuasive writing that will help them be less vulnerable to the machinations of those in power. And, of course, I hope my students will grow into informed, active citizens who will advocate for solutions to those problems.
Community-college students, in particular, can benefit from the critical thinking and dialogue that are the hallmark of many college writing classes. Nationally, about one-third of community-college students are first-generation; about half receive financial aid (“Fast Facts”). Some community colleges, such as my own, are located in rural areas with little racial or cultural diversity. In other words, many students attending community college come from backgrounds where research, critical thinking, and dialogic problem-solving are uncommon, and they tend to have had few chances to interact with people who are significantly different from themselves. Writing classes—and other classes—should teach not only marketable skills but also habits of mind that help students become more informed, critical participants in society.
However, as we choose readings and facilitate discussions, we also need to choose how we will represent our own views. I struggle with this latter choice. Most teachers would probably say that when I facilitate discussions about potentially controversial issues—gun control, say—I should consciously minimize my own perspective so as to encourage open critical dialogue from my students. Adopting a clearly liberal perspective while facilitating a discussion would likely shut down students who did not share a similar perspective.
In her 2003 article in College Composition and Communication, Karen Kopelson argues that the gains made by the progressive movement in America have resulted in a conservative backlash that has primed many students to disregard anything associated with liberality. (Kopelson’s social analysis seems all the more prescient considering the changes in national politics subsequent to her piece: the rise of the Tea Party, the seeming inability of America to do anything meaningful to combat climate change, and the election of Donald Trump.) Kopelson argues that if we want to support students’ critical engagement with controversial issues—especially those that have been heavily politicized in the larger American society—we should perform neutrality. As she writes,
It is not a complacent refusal to interrupt or interfere with the expression of any and all student views; it is not the liberal-humanist acceptance of all views as equally valid. The performance of neutrality I am advocating is a deliberate, reflective, self-conscious masquerade that serves an overarching and more insurgent political agenda. (123)
Kopelson’s argument certainly has merit, and I agree that if our goals are to inspire critical thinking and rational debate, we will more effectively do so by crafting a space in which students feel as though they can argue their viewpoints without fear of being immediately shut down by the professor. However, our country’s public discourse has proceeded to a place where coverage one finds disagreeable can be labeled “fake news” and even calling for a reasoned debate on certain issues—gun control, dealing with climate change, exploring alternative energy sources—is seen as a liberal “tell.” In such a climate, some readings and discussions stand to be quickly rejected by students, no matter how neutral the professor’s presentation of them. I imagine that, like me, many liberal teachers find it deeply perplexing that even raising the issue of gun control should be considered a “liberal” move—after all, doesn’t everyone want to prevent mass shootings? And doesn’t it make sense to decrease access to the tools that are repeatedly used to commit murder? Shouldn’t we at least talk about what the research says?
In their examination of why anti-vaccine websites are persuasive, Moran et al. describe two communication theories that can have relevance to discussions of controversial issues. The first, social judgment theory, posits that some attitudes that we hold toward certain issues become interwoven with our senses of self. When we are confronted with arguments that challenge our strongly-held attitudes, we experience those arguments not only in relation to the issue at hand but in relation to our identities. For example, in my rural area, hunting is a family tradition and way of life for many people. Gun ownership is widespread, and frankly, gun violence is low in my area. Understandably, national arguments to limit gun ownership not only strike my students as unneeded but also threaten multi-generational family traditions.
Moran et al. also address cognitive dissonance theory, which proposes that we are most comfortable when our attitudes, values, and beliefs are consistent. When new information causes our internal compass to spin, many of us react (at least initially) by rejecting that information, thereby reducing cognitive dissonance. As Moran et al. describe, anti-vaccine attitudes are frequently connected to distrust of conventional medicine and a preference for “natural” health care, and these attitudes are frequently bolstered by an individual’s membership in a like-minded community. Accepting that vaccines are generally safe can drive a wedge—at least mentally—between different beliefs the individual may hold. Basically, it causes less cognitive discomfort to distrust all conventional medicine than it does to evaluate each potential intervention—vaccines, antibiotics, allergy medicine, ibuprofen—individually. To expand this argument to guns, it causes less cognitive dissonance to believe that guns are never the problem—that the problem is inadequate school security, failings of the FBI, or poor mental-health screening—than it does to accept that there are very real differences between assault weapons, handguns, and hunting rifles and that some of those weapons should have significantly tighter regulations (or be outlawed).
When we talk about guns, then, we teachers of composition face several challenges. The first, as alluded to by Kopelson, is that we are already marked as liberals, who, as “everyone” knows, hate guns. Secondly, when we provide what we see as unbiased data, such as statistics on gun-related deaths in the developed world, that data may challenge students’ sense of self. If America has vastly more gun deaths than the rest of the developed world, and those statistics seem to be tied to the availability of guns in the U.S., does that suggest that the family traditions of rural students—hunting, sport shooting, gun collecting—are somehow part of the problem? And thirdly, if statistical data on mass shootings suggest that guns are too available and reducing that availability will save lives, it reduces cognitive dissonance to reject that data, label the professor a liberal, and advocate for changes that do not have to do with reducing gun ownership (i.e., increased school security).
Our situation seems somewhat hopeless, and one might be forgiven for deciding to focus on how to craft topic sentences and in-text citations rather than taking up hot-button issues like gun control. However, I bet that many of us who subscribe to the teacher/scholar/activist approach see writing as a way to make sense of difficult problems, and when we teach critical reading and analysis, our current problems seem to be ideal fodder. Additionally, our society is badly in need of reasoned, well-researched dialogue. Our students—especially those at the community college—need to learn how to have such dialogues. College should be a space for critical thinking, informed argument, and debate. A college writing class is an ideal space to teach these skills.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly how we should build those skills. I think Kopelson’s recommendation to perform objectivity has merit; I’m just not sure I can do it. Moran et al.’s suggestions help me understand why some topics are threatening to students, but I still wonder what to do in class. Moran and her co-researchers found that people were more likely to accept health information from trusted sources, such as organizations (natural-food stores and the like) that already had ethos with those who were resistant to vaccines. We can work to build trust with our students, which might help them be more open to legitimate critical discussions of controversial issues. Moran et al. also recommend connecting challenging information to the values of a resistant community—for example, a vaccine-resistant community might hold healthy, “natural” living in high esteem, and vaccines might be presented as a part of a “natural” health plan that would minimize the need for antibiotics or radical medical interventions. I have had some success in preceding discussions of climate change with discussions of values—most students would like to minimize destructive tropical storms and protect human life, for example. We can then discuss how climate change affects weather patterns, and then take a few steps into the more ideologically charged realm of how to deal with climate change.
I also like in-class group writing assignments that ask students to propose, if not solutions, next steps to address our problems. I prefer to do these in class for two main reasons: They force students to work with others who may not share their opinions, and they require them to do research that does not lead them down a rabbit hole of sources they already agree with in the way that a take-home assignment does. They have to agree that the sources the group uses are reliable, and they do that through critical reading and discussion.
However, the unfortunate truth may be that there is no way we can have open, critical discussions of hot-button problems like gun violence. There will probably be students in our classes who will, like my RateMyProfessors.com evaluator, insist that we only want to hear one side of the debate. However, I still think we need to keep trying.
Mark Blaauw-Hara is a Professor of English and WPA at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, MI. He is currently the Vice-President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and a reviews co-editor at Teaching English in the Two-Year College. His writing has appeared in TETYC, TheCommunity College Journal of Research and Practice, Composition Forum, and a number of edited collections, including the forthcoming WPAs in Transition and Teaching Composition in the Two-Year College. He has also served as his faculty union’s President, Vice-President, and Trustee, and currently plays the drums in a classic honky-tonk band.
“Fast Facts.” Michigan Community College Association. 2018. http://www.mcca.org/content.cfm?m=87&id=87
Kopelson, Karen. “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, The Performance of Neutrality (Re)Considered as a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance.” College Composition and Communication 55.1 (2003): 115-146.
Moran, Meghan Brigid, et al. “What Makes Anti-Vaccine Websites Persuasive? A Content Analysis of Techniques Used by Anti-Vaccine Websites to Engender Anti-Vaccine Sentiment.” Journal of Communication in Healthcare 9.3 (2016): 151-161.