'Teach-in' offers tools to learning from tough topics

UI 'Teach-In' tackles inclusion, sensitive subjects

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IOWA CITY — A growing number of American universities of late — the University of Missouri and Yale University most recently — have been accused of handling sensitive subjects poorly and failing to respond to incidents of bias appropriately.

And those cases have triggered outrage. Students have protested, administrators have resigned and the nation has been watching.

But charged discussions about sensitive subjects are not uncommon in increasingly diverse university classrooms. In fact, University of Iowa professors said Friday during an “Inclusion Teach-in,” those debates should and do occur daily, often producing healthy exchanges and enrichment.

“We talk about very sensitive, potentially difficult topics,” said UI philosophy professor Richard Fumerton, one of seven faculty panelists who participated in the event.

“And what I guess I’m struck by, more than anything else, is that in more than 41 years of teaching about this stuff, I’ve never actually had a complaint from any student about the content or the way in which the discussion went,” he said.

Faculty shared suggestions about how to ensure students find themselves in a “brave space” in the classroom — if not a safe space — with the understanding that even one incident that creates an excluding, offensive or demeaning experience can spur vocal opposition and protests.

Some of the faculty panelists said they prepare students for sensitive discussions by warning them the debate is “not going to be pretty” but will do real work in opening minds and expanding views. They stressed the importance of faculty preparation and thinking about content, and they shared advice on ways to engage all.

Those faculty members who participated in the Friday forum — which was attended for a time by new UI President Bruce Harreld — seemed to agree the student experience and climate could be improved on the UI campus.

“Do we have an environment at this institution where when students first come to your class, they feel like they’re in a safe space? I think the answer is no. Not yet,” said Kenneth Brown, professor and associate dean of the Henry B. Tippie College of Business. “I think we have a lot of work to do institutionally to prepare students so when we begin a class that might be controversial, we don’t have to spend multiple days and multiple weeks setting up that trust.”

Friday’s panelists also included students and alumni who spoke about their time on campus and stressed the importance of acknowledging the different backgrounds and experiences in each classroom.

Julius Carter, a UI law student who earned a bachelor’s degree from Iowa in 2007, is black and gay and said he’s noticed subtle bias. The names in word problems and in textbook examples, for instance, are Samantha and David — not Jamal and Teesha, he said.

About 50 people turned out for the event.

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