Thursday, October 26, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Teaching Controversy

I don't generally think of myself as a rabble-rouser, but I wonder sometimes if my students perceive me this way. I know that I do sometimes speak passionately about topics I care a lot about, but I also try to listen at least as much as I speak. The challenge: sometimes the curriculum involves content that is (or could be) controversial, particularly if there are a variety of viewpoints present among the learners.

I had a bit of that feeling in my geography class today. We are examining Latin America right now, and today we were focusing on Mexico. In particular, we were thinking about contemporary issues in Mexico--and, since we are here in the U.S., about Mexico's relationship with the United States. On the docket were things like NAFTA, drugs, and migration. Migration, in particular, has the potential to be politicized very rapidly, so I wanted to handle with care.


I'm afraid I stirred the pot a bit. I could tell from my students' body English that I had upset at least a few of them. The problem was that I critiqued the idea of building a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, as has been suggested loudly by some contemporary American politicians. I explained my position: I suggested that there is no way this wall is going to actually get built, for at least three reasons:

  1. The border is too long, and over treacherous and forbidding terrain. The border between the U.S. and Mexico is almost 2000 miles in length; parts of it are separated by rivers, or deserts, or mountains...which brings up point #2.
  2. The cost will be absolutely prohibitive. The U.S. government would have to buy up a significant amount of land right along the border (much of it is currently privately held), not to mention the cost of actually building the structure.
  3. Even if the wall were actually built, I don't believe it would actually stop illegal immigration. People are ingenious, and if they are determined, they will find a way. About a decade ago, I remember reading the news of a lengthy tunnel connecting Tijuana and San Diego--running right under the border crossing--which was being used for smuggling drugs and people into the U.S.  A quick Google search will bring up plenty of reading material for you about how many of these tunnels exist.
(Ugh...I worry about being perceived as "that liberal professor" sometimes. It's weird...I think of myself as being politically moderate, a centrist...which means I probably am a bit left of many of my students, if they are towards the conservative side of the political spectrum...)

Summing up, I suggested that such a wall would be a political statement at best. And...unfortunately...I don't think this was well received by some of my students at least. I use Padlet in this class to get my more reticent students to speak up. And shortly after this exposition, a new card popped upon today's Padlet. Here's a screenshot:

I took the bait. I reminded my students that the Great Wall of China was built over a L-O-N-G period of time (hundreds of years!) and largely by slave labor (that doesn't sound so great...) and that was a defensive measure, not a social and political statement (as I perceive this to be.) I humbly suggested to my students that this is, however, a perspective I hold personally, and it's informed by my own experiences, beliefs, study, and thinking. In this regard, I'm pretty-sure-most-of-the-time about my thinking...but always-open-to-revision and somewhere-on-the-road-to-sanctification.

After making this point, I turned the conversation a bit, and reminded them of our main emphasis in this course. The title of the course is "World Regional Geography: Peace and Justice on the Global Stage." We've been talking about fostering shalom in the world this semester. "Shalom" is often defined as "peace," but I think it's a lot more than just the absence of conflict. Shalom is more about wholeness, and justice, and making things right. I wrapped up by asking them if they have ever actually talked to immigrants from Mexico, whether here in the U.S. legally or illegally. Only a few expressed that they have. We were running out of time--always an issue!--and so I offered a few concluding thoughts. I encouraged them to remember that my deep hope for this course is NOT to tell them what to think, but to help teach them to think about these huge world problems. On the board, I jotted four reminders:

These are words of encouragement that I think all of us need to hear when we are encountering (potentially) controversial topics in the curriculum, such as the huge problems we are tackling in this course.

I encouraged them to remember that most of these huge problems require a lot of study to understand the nuance of the situation. People often make bold claims and paint with a broad brush.

I encouraged them to recognize that most huge problems are not the black-or-white issues that people might like to make them out to be. Hard as it is to live in shades-of-grey, I invited them to explore these issues from this perspective.

I encouraged them to ask a lot of questions, even if we don't always have good answers, or answers we can agree upon. A willingness to wonder--to accept that questions are good!--is essential for real learning to take place.

I encouraged them to check their own assumptions. All of us have blindspots. All of us have presuppositions based on our deeply held beliefs. Learning often means being willing to admit that we don't know it all, that we might understand part, but not the whole.

I'm trying to help my students learn how to think. It's been a fascinating semester for me so far, and I know I have learned a lot already. These words of encouragement for my students are also words of encouragement for me as the instructor, teaching the course for the first time. I don't have it all figured out just yet. But I'm willing to keep learning...


  1. Thanks, Dave. You raise important topics for your students consider. You back up your thoughts. You model for them careful thinking. That's what professors should do!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, my friend! I'm always thinking...and trying to help them do the same. :-)

  2. Thanks Dave. This is an example of excellent teaching. The problem for many conservative evangelical and Reformed teachers is they think it is only right to hold strong opinions, usually informed by a political or personal perspective rather than Scripture. Helping them to see that the way of truth is not always like that is our challenge.

    1. I am grateful for the feedback, Phillip. It's a challenge for all of us to check our assumptions and humble ourselves enough to be willing to listen--and to admit that we might be wrong. But I think that holding all things up to the light of Scripture, as you suggest, is key. "How are we going to live?" is an essential question!

  3. Education is the process, sometimes painful,of the opening of the mind to new ideas! What did they imagine Jesus' position might be?

    1. We didn't get to that point...maybe we should open this can of worms again. :-)

  4. I've had a similar experience with a unit/section on climate change. It becomes quickly evident that what seems a geography/science question is politically charged and students are not yet trained to examine all of the facts or to discover nuance. Their worlds will have a political slant depending on the home they live in (my children do!). I love how you teased this open while remaining respectful. In a time when civility and respectful dialogue is waning, you modeled what it is to learn in a more truthful and Christlike community. I'm thankful for your work and influence as well as the learning and sharing you continue to do, Dave.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Kevin. It's an ongoing dance for me, helping them learn to think! I have a framework for this I'm developing--hopefully a future post, or maybe even an article for CEJ or the like to help us all think about the different ways we engage with controversial topics in the classroom.