Openness vs. Safety in the Classroom

Words were said, and then voices slightly raised. Other words were returned. Hands shot up around the classroom, some shaking. One or two voices quivered. Someone left the room. The temperature of the classroom rose. Camps were set, flags raised and ideological ammunition assembled. All eyes turned to the front of the room, awaiting marching orders...

What's your teaching style? Do you give readings, generate discussion, and then sit back and see where the discussion takes itself? Or do you have a rigidly structured class which involves copious amount of your personal politics, opinion or will? Or perhaps some sort of middle ground?

I've been having a lot of inner dialogue around this issue and have a few thoughts to jot down, which will hopefully stimulate some thought in your own practices.

1.) Openness and a 'removed approach' smack of a naive belief in objectivity, that somehow the instructor can be an objective, removed observer or facilitator that generously allows free dialogue, free thinking and free direction. We all have our agendas and politics.

2.) Openness demands 'good faith' from all parties and, honestly, this is difficult (if not impossible) to achieve in a classroom of wide ranging power relations. Even with set ground rules, the potential for derailment is always there.

3.) Openness and 'open air time' allows dominant and privileged bodies the chance to reinsert themselves at will, often to the detriment of others. Certain students always come the fore and this is not always a sign of leadership or engagement but a desire to control conversation, direction, etc... Respected feminist and antiracist educator Peggy McIntosh never allows a class wide 'debrief' time after her small group discussions for this reason, particular students dominate the air space, choose who gets represented how, and deny space to others.

4.) Intervention can be well intentioned but harmful. We may think that we know what power dynamics are at play when, in reality, we're just imposing our reading on the events. Be careful reading into things.

5.) All students deserve a safe space to learn. Openness can negate some people's safety (as could intervention). How do we balance space for people to sort out problems collectively with moments that are symbolically, discursively, or epistemically violent for some?

6.) We all have a political and ideological positioning but by staking particular claims in particular ways, do we silence dissent or difference? How do we balance the goals of the instructor (and institutions) with those of the students?

These are a few brief thoughts in thinking through some of these issues. Balance between openness and safety in the classroom is not easy to achieve, especially around particular 'sensitive topics'. How, as instructors, should we be prepared to deal with this?

Edit: Lisa Kabesh adds to some of this discussion over at Dry Erase Writings - check it out.

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