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When teaching a course on a topic that might be controversial, what are the responsibilities of instructors to facilitate an open learning environment? If the instructor has a strongly held opinion, is it appropriate for the instructor to structure the course and the readings around this opinion? Does the instructor have a responsibility to structure the course in a way that is agnostic about the topic? When selecting the readings and the lecture schedule, does the instructor have a responsibility to give equal time to opposing viewpoints, if those opposing viewpoints plausibly have equal intellectual merit?

I'm familiar with the notion of academic freedom for instructors, where instructors should be protected from external influence (from outside the academy: e.g., from politicians) in their ability to shape their courses and express their findings and opinions. Is there a corresponding responsibility to protect the academic freedom of students, by structuring courses so that they do not make students feel uncomfortable expressing views that disagree with the instructor's?

Are there any guiding principles or resources for how these issues should be navigated? What are the social norms within academia? Are there any lines that, if crossed, might lead to disapproval from a significant fraction of fellow academics? I'm mostly familiar with engineering/science/mathematics courses where this sort of issue rarely comes up, so this is new to me.

  • I don't see how this avoids being a duplicate of the question linked to in the question. The standard "guiding principles or resources" are described in the top-voted and accepted answer to that question. The question raises some tangential points (rights of students, social norms), but these seem scattered and unfocused. – user1482 Nov 13 '13 at 0:48
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    @BenCrowell, that link doesn't answer my question. That question talks about what privileges are owed to instructors (and what is the impact on a professor of taking controversial opinions). I am asking about what instructors owe to students, and what the social norms are in academia. It's a different question. (FYI, I'm not asking about the guiding principles of academic freedom; I already know them very well. Rather, I'm asking about the guiding principles of teaching a course on controversial subjects, in a way that respects our students.) – D.W. Nov 13 '13 at 0:53
  • @BenCrowell, by the way, thank you for the comment that the question seems scattered and unfocused. Do you have any suggestions how to make it more focused and less scattered? I'd welcome any ideas or suggestions! – D.W. Nov 13 '13 at 0:54
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    @D.W. a motivating case might help make the question clearer. I would imagine in philosophy courses this could come up as the difference between materialism and a variety of Platonic idealism. Or economics courses where there are several current and intellectually reasonable "schools" as it were. – BSteinhurst Nov 13 '13 at 3:47
  • @D.W. Sorry, I think I just didn't read the question carefully enough the first time around. Please disregard my original comment. – user1482 Nov 13 '13 at 6:19
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If the students are being assessed by you, some (most?) will start to tell you what you want to hear in order to get the highest grade. This is rarely what we as educators want in our students. We want to build within them critical thinking skills.

Controversial issues are common in some fields. For example, one of the subjects I teach is Business Ethics and I have clear beliefs and values in this area. Is it OK for me to focus on the arguments in favor of my view and discount competing arguments? No, it is not.

Can I tell my students my opinion? Opinions differ on this but I believe it is OK, as long as it is done very carefully with LOTS of evidence that my opinion is wrong. Again, students must be taught to think for themselves, including how to critically evaluate what they consider right and wrong. If I just make my points then it is not education, it is indoctrination and that is not what higher ed is about.

As far as social norms, I would say that if you are trying to get your students to 'believe' anything, then you are doing it wrong. If you are trying to get them to think critically, then you are doing it right. If the students feel they must agree with what you say, you are doing something wrong. If they feel like they are getting balanced information and a class ends up with many different opinions, then you are doing something right. If everyone is thinking the same, then nobody is thinking...and that's not good for anyone.

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  • I am confused by I believe it is OK, as long as it is done very carefully with LOTS of evidence that my opinion is wrong. Also, should the first want in will start to tell you want you want to hear in order to get the highest grade. be 'what'? I like your answer, but I hesitate to upvote. – scaaahu Nov 14 '13 at 2:10
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    @scaaahu My point is that it is being 'untrue' to the spirit of seeking the truth if we are unwilling to state what we consider true (when many truths are possible). However, it is a slippery slope and it is very easy for a teacher to become a preacher of his 'one true way' as opposed to opening the eyes of the students (should be our goal). So, if we, as educators, share what we believe, we should only do so if we we also give plenty of counter-evidence showing clearly that, while we do have our views, we also see the value in other views. Also, thanks for catching the typo- I've fixed it. – earthling Nov 14 '13 at 22:37
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Although I cannot say how the principles of, or basis for, university education are formulated everywhere, one guiding principle in the system I work is that courses/teaching should be founded on science. In the term science lies objectivity, that is to show both pros and cons for a specific idea. this does not preclude one from having personal opinions we all have. One example:

In my university a scientist, known for controversy, decided to run a course on divining rods under the pretext they were serious and work. Now, one can have an opinion about this but when trying to look for a scientific background, the best one can say is absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The university clamped down very hard on this because it broke the founding principles of university education due to a lack of critical discussion.

So, a person's opinion should not taint the material so as to skew the picture based on unscientific principles. If one runs a course that uses sound scientific principles to criticize a view point, the exercise to evaluate the criticism may be sound in itself. The issue therefore lies in openness about any "one-sidedness" of the course. The role of a university teacher/teacher, is after all to provide objective critical view of materials.

One way to look at this is to compare with research. If we try to push a view uncritically, our peers are likely to suggest rejection of that article. To not approach teaching with the same serious rigour is, I would argue, unprofessional. The problem maybe lies in that there is no peer review of course materials.

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  • I am unsure whether the supposed objectivity, the term "science" carries, is a sufficient guideline for controversial issues. If you look at debates about e.g. alternative medicine, people express different opinions about the content of "objectivity", "evidence" and "criticism". A recent popular case in Europe was prof. Walach who advocates a so-called "weak quantum theory" to defend homeopathy. Maybe, you could specify more precise what objectivity means in science? – non-numeric_argument Nov 13 '13 at 9:21
  • The continuation of the second sentence is fairly clear to me. If you advocate something, you are not weighing pros and cons and providing the information without bias. – Peter Jansson Nov 13 '13 at 15:40
  • Although I agree with you (especially in the given examples), I don't think that this argumentation is sufficient because pseudoscience actually claims that the "orthodoxy" in science is biased in their basic concepts. Therefore, I think it would be good to make very clear and transparent what concepts like objectivity and evidence mean in science. I know that this is tedious and it might seem too obvious to scientists. – non-numeric_argument Nov 13 '13 at 17:41

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