Lunchtime colloquia will meet in 2017-18 on varied weekdays (see below) and different formats from 11:45 am-1:30 pm. We usually meet in MHRA 1607, the Research and Partnerships conference room on the first floor of the Moore Humanities and Research Administration Building’s research wing. Colloquia will be led by colleagues from varied disciplines, but with a shared purpose: to explore life around the Atlantic Rim in ways that will spark new approaches, provide useful responses to work-in-progress, and reflect on the shared project of transatlantic studies.
|“Why We Need Freer Discourse in the College Classroom and How to Create It”||Dr. John Rose
Professor of Ethics and Political Science, Associate Director of the Arete Institute at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University
Dr. John Rose, the Associate Director of the Arete Institute at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University, was the featured speaker at a lunchtime colloquium hosted by UNCG’s Atlantic World Research Network on October 19th, 2021. Dr. Rose, also a professor of political science and ethics at Duke, gave a presentation called “Why We Need Freer Discourse in the College Classroom and How to Create It,” which explores the transatlantic legacy of free speech in relation to ordinary college instruction. Americans live in a time of deep political polarization, and its effects can be seen in the college classroom, where students often no longer feel comfortable dissenting or even speaking on hot button political issues. They fear being ostracized or cancelled for saying the wrong thing. Dr. John Rose teaches a course called “How to Think in an Age of Political Polarization,” in which he strives to create real discussions where students feel free to speak on behalf of all sides of sensitive political issues.
To begin his presentation, Dr. Rose gave a flyover of the three things he’d be discussing: the problem he’s identified within college classrooms and American culture at large, the strategies he’s using to ameliorate the problem, and the results that he’s observed. He remarked that people have lost affection for their own political party—and this on both sides. We may think that being more educated makes us less susceptible to the effect of polarization, but studies show that the exact opposite is true. The more educated a person is, the more likely that person is to resist, and highly educated white people report the strongest levels of contempt for the other side. There is viewpoint “purity” existing on both sides, meaning each side can’t tolerate the other, and that people aren’t supposed to have mixed feelings about their own party. Similarly, said Dr. Rose, the university system can at times foster a very narrow set of views. Dr. Rose said that there’s a vicious cycle of university members being caught up in their own bubbles, reaffirmed by others who share the same views, and eventually being shocked to see the results of voting polls in the country. Furthermore, political differences have extended to areas of life that are not historically political, such as sports. Political differences are all the more likely to cause rifts between family members and friends. And, when it comes to the ways people categorize how they’re defined, politics now reigns higher than religion.
In his own classroom, Dr. Rose took a survey and found that 68 percent of his students admitted to self-censoring when it comes to politics, even among friends. Dr. Rose remarked that his students acquire this fear from personal connections, such as friends of theirs who have experienced a cancellation of some kind. Cancel culture, or the trend towards penalizing people for saying certain supposedly “regressive” things which can result in the loss of career or social status, makes it extremely difficult for a person to come back afterwards. In order to foster open discussions of politics in his classroom, Dr. Rose asks students to assume goodwill from and towards one another. He also comes up with ground rules for the classroom, which is not as much a legal contract as it is a pact made with one another.
When asked, “How do you know students will do this [be in conversation about both sides of hot political topics] and not verbally attack another?”, Dr. Rose said that he knows his students are ultimately there to support one another and work together. Morality, he asserted, is much more powerful than legality. His overall tactic in the classroom—the cause of all causes—is to get his students to love their enemies (or at least their perceived enemies). To “love” is to will the good of the other, to want to see others flourish and become better versions of themselves. All of this can be difficult, especially in a country in which people of one side wish for the “other” side not to exist. Dr. Rose then cited Martin Luther King Jr., specifically his sermon on loving enemies. Proposing an idea that comes directly from this sermon, Dr. Rose wants his students to understand that there is a mix of good and bad within each of us personally—not only good or evil running through political parties. He remarked that hate distorts the reality of the hater, and that people can’t see straight when they hate. Ultimately, if a person wants to change another person’s opinion on a matter, that person should love the other person; as MLK said, we should love our enemies, because “love has within it a redemptive power.” Ultimately, Dr. Rose’s class is not about politics, but love, and about helping students become better, more loving human beings.
One colleague talked about how she feels distraught about the university’s language surrounding “efficiency”—which works against the basic humanity of human interactions. She also remarked that the Netflix show The Chair does a good job of portraying the fraught dynamics regarding speech and cancel culture within university departments in the humanities.
A second colleague then shared that she is teaching a class on “The Archeology of Power and Politics,” which has a focus on the entire world. It compares power based in economics, ideology, and archeology. She said she’s having a difficult time with it because she likes to teach by example, but there is no safe example at present. A third colleague asked what an instance of a “dangerous” example might be, and the second replied that she’d like to talk about the ideology behind Fox News but finds this dangerous because she knows that some of her students subscribe to it and would feel vehement if she discussed it. She also said that certain students want to talk about race in archeology, but that there is no way to discern race with certainty in archeological findings because they’re prehistorical. There is no actual evidence to discuss race from this time period, but students get frustrated because they can’t talk about it. The third colleague said that it might be good for her students to hear that the study does not extend to this area, because there are always limits in a study’s knowledge.
A fourth colleague then said that professors should model intellectual inquiry in their classrooms. She shared that her courses are not in English, so there may be less controversial questions because everyone’s more constrained by conversing in a foreign language. Thus there are limits to a study’s knowledge, and gray areas, too.
A fifth colleague remarked that in teaching he is trying to think about the truth, and the fact that we need room for interpretation in the classroom. He said that “we teach this thing called critical thinking,” or marshalling evidence for one’s arguments, and that the better we teach this, the more well-educated white people we produce—who as Dr. Rose said earlier are the chief offenders in angry, polarized thinking. He then asks, what would a class called “How to Feel” look like?
Dr. Rose said that the students who are the most dogmatic seem to be the least curious. They are lacking a desire for knowledge; instead, they act as if their knowledge is already complete.
The first colleague said that she wants to bring pleasure and magic back to the classroom, specifically pleasure in knowledge as opposed to stress revolving exclusively around intellect. She wondered how professors might combine cognition with imagination to help their students flourish. She said that ideology has become black and white, right and wrong—but that we need to embrace pleasure and play.
The third colleague told a story of differing perspectives in his own classroom, when he was teaching Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Some students couldn’t imagine the father determining the course of the daughter’s happiness. A South Asian student in his class said in response that she is in an arranged marriage and is very happy—at which the classroom fell silent. This colleague then asked if anybody had something to say, and somebody asked, “How could you possibly be happy?” The student replied by saying that she knew her husband since she was a child, and that they were friends, and that her parents know her well and are wise. She finished by asking, “By the way, what’s your divorce rate in the US?”, and the room erupted in laughter. The professor noted that this student helped other students to face past cultural attitudes that still thrive in the present, and to treat diverse viewpoints with respect, even while disagreeing.
A sixth colleague remarked that stories themselves are especially touching, and that they can enact change. Stories can explore issues of hierarchy, racism, patriarchy, and others, and create great discussions, but that sometimes stories aren’t enough—that action is required.
The fifth colleague then posed the question to Dr. Rose, “How do you deal with feelings in the classroom? Stories are full of feeling.” Dr. Rose replied that he tries to encourage goodwill toward all, and doesn’t let conversations end with a person saying, “My feelings are hurt.” Instead, he tries to help his students continue talking through the issue at hand in a respectful manner.
The sixth colleague said that it can be very difficult to discuss political issues in this country, but that they are an opportunity to teach, explore, make mistakes, and then admit and grapple with these mistakes. It doesn’t work just “not to talk about” something—it is better to try, and potentially fail at trying.
This colleague concluded that this is a conversation that we need to continue. Dissent is critical—it is bound to happen in life—and we need to practice it in the classroom. Finding better ways to speak is a good thing, and we need to keep pushing for it. Even when we might fumble with it in the classroom, it’ll be worth it for the practice, for both university faculty themselves and for their students.