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I recently had an experience while overseeing student presentations in a course I am teaching. While the concrete situation could be handled without much ado due to some special circumstances, I thought the general problem interesting enough to ask for opinions here.

The case is the following: In a course for first year students, all participants are tasked with presentations of a course relevant topic. As part of the preparations, students are encouraged to make the presentations as lively as possible. One student had included a couple of biographical slides (encouraged), but one of the cartoon figures of a key person was drawn in the unmistakable style of "Der Ewige Jude" from national socialistic propaganda. From context, it was clearly unintended. The student had just googled for images, and this came up. The presentation as such had absolutely nothing to with history, and this was just a biographical introduction slide.

Obviously there is a learning opportunity here, but how should I handle such a problem? In particular since the course as such has nothing to do with European history. Some potential issues I already considered:

  • Having such a figure on a slide could be quite offensive to other students, and as such, the mistake should be addressed.
  • But by addressing the issue, I risk derailing the discussion about the course topic in question completely.
  • By addressing the issue in plenary, I risk discouraging the student from making lively presentations in the future.
  • By addressing the issue in private, I risk giving the impression that I don't care about such issues.

Let me stress that I am talking only about unintended use. Had the student started regurgitating anti-Semitic propaganda, I would have engaged immediately.

How can I turn such a situation into a positive learning opportunity, without discouraging the student, and without drawing too much attention from the main topic?

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    The conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once, but you can use the chat as long as you wish. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 21 at 13:07
  • Everything gets recorded on student phones these days. It wouldn't take much for the ultra-woke crowd to publish an excerpt from the presentation. The student or even you might get into all sorts of problems. To tackle it in class, you could attribute it anonymously to "a student" and briefly discuss the importance of checking sources diligently. You dont even have to show the picture - just describe it. – chasly - supports Monica Apr 23 at 10:17
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Derail the discussion, then re-rail it afterwards.

Keeping the class on topic is useless if students are too uncomfortable to learn. You are obligated to intervene, once you have learned how to do it. Here's the method I was taught:

  1. Interrupt. Example: "Sorry, I'm interrupting."
  2. Question. Example: "Do you know what stereotype does this image represents?"

The purpose of questioning is to allow someone to indicate that they are ignorant, or to allow themselves to correct an error. In my experience, students usually realize they did something wrong and correct themselves.

  1. Educate. Explain why something is offensive/discriminatory/whatever. Example: "This image is in a style that was used to depict [identity group] as having [trait]. It is a dishonest message and disrespectful."

Once the issue is addressed, direct students back to the usual learning activity.

without discouraging the student

Prejudice is inherently discouraging. Your students can't learn ethical behavior without being discouraged by awareness of unethical behavior. Hopefully, the "Question" step will at least reduce the hostility of the interaction.

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    +1, I will add that all three steps can be done in less than a minute; properly addressing this issue does not necessarily imply a lengthy discussion of race relations. – cag51 Apr 20 at 15:02
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    +1 (and more) just for "Keeping the class on topic is useless if students are too uncomfortable to learn." – Greg Martin Apr 20 at 20:45
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    This is quite aggressive. It would be more empathetic to skip question 2 and start point 3 with "You are probably unaware that...". This student will probably be remembering this presentation with a cringe for the rest of their life, even the second hand cringe is bad. – Clumsy cat Apr 21 at 8:46
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    @AnonymousPhysicist guess I interpret the question "What stereotype does this image represent?" as implying that the student does know, because it makes no sense to ask if the student doesn't have an answer. Implying that they know the answer and used the image anyway seems like an accusation of bigotry. If we assume the student didn't know then they get to save face without saying anything. In this situation I actually think it very likely the student didn't know as needs to be told asap so they don't make that blunder again. – Clumsy cat Apr 21 at 10:32
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    I would perhaps instead ask, "Are you aware of the history of this image?" – rrauenza Apr 21 at 15:32
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Having such a figure on a slide could be quite offensive to other students, and as such, the mistake should be addressed.

Yes.

But by addressing the issue, I risk de-railing the discussion about the course topic in question completely.

You are also teaching the students to give presentations. Choosing your illustrations is an important skill in preparing a presentation. Choosing an illustration that isn't nazi propaganda is a vital skill, even if it's rarely taught explicitly. You would not be derailing the discussion, you would be doing your role as a teacher.

If you are worried about derailing, and you are certain that the student made a mistake rather than a fascist statement, then you can talk about it during a feedback/questions time at the end of the presentation, rather than addressing it on the spot. Do not necessarily assume malice, but be firm in that showing such an image is not acceptable.

You can make this into a general point about choosing sources carefully, which is undoubtedly worthwhile. This will also help taking the "pressure" away from the specific student, as you will not be talking about the specific mistake but rather the general mistake of choosing a wrong source.

By addressing the issue in plenary, I risk discouraging the student from making lively presentations in the future.

I don't see how. Asking a student to be careful in choosing illustrations is rather unlikely to discourage the student from choosing illustration at all. And if that's the case, well, it's better to have no illustration than to have nazi propaganda.

Students make mistakes. If they did everything perfectly, they wouldn't be students, they would be masters. We, as teachers, correct these mistakes. A student who takes a well-meaning correction personally and stops trying has a completely wrong attitude. While you can certainly try steering students away from that attitude, at some point it ends being your responsibility. You can bring a horse to water...

By addressing the issue in private, I risk giving the impression that I don't care about such issues.

Sure. But the important point isn't your own personal image that you project to your students, it's what your students actually learn.

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    "If you are worried about derailing, and you are certain that the student made a mistake rather than a fascist statement, then you can talk about it during a feedback/questions time at the end of the presentation, rather than addressing it on the spot." This won't work. The class is already derailed by the image; class is for everyone, not just the presenter. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 20 at 10:30
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    @AnonymousPhysicist That's not necessarily accurate. The student themselves did not notice. Others might not have noticed. If the class was relatively small, it's possible that no one but the instructor noticed. Given the possibility that one or more of the other students did notice and was offended, it's important to address it publicly enough that they do not have cause to feel that the environment is hostile, and it's important to ensure that the other students also learn that this sort of thing is unacceptable, but simply having the image there does not necessarily instantly derail. – Ben Barden Apr 20 at 14:55
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    You are also teaching the students to give presentations. Choosing your illustrations is an important skill in preparing a presentation Another important skill is dealing with stressful interruptions, though hopefully these won't usually be due to the student's own choice of materials. – Chris H Apr 21 at 11:21
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    Unfortunately I think most students would take this personally, and there's probably no way around it. Mistakes like that are likely to make them upset, ashamed and damage their confidence significantly. I think it would be worth considering the student might need extra reassurance and support afterwards if public intervention occurred, and to prepare for it. Especially if this is early on in their course of study, an incident like that could drag down their self esteem for the rest of the year, or longer. – Crazymoomin Apr 21 at 14:33
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    @N.I. I don't think maturity is a major consideration here. Anyone of any age in that position could be very upset by such a transgression, be they a new student or a new hire. Do you want to see an otherwise bright and highly capable student drop out over a cultural misunderstanding? – Crazymoomin Apr 22 at 10:38
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I agree with the procedure indicated in Anonymous Physicist's answer, but do not think that is the question you should ask. You did not share the exact image but I'm going to assume here that to someone not aware of the historical context, the image could be considered a nondescript cartoon drawing or something (obviously if the image was a whole nazi propaganda poster it's a different story).

You have to realize what the likely effect the question you ask is going to have on the rest of the class: If you, as the instructor, ask a question and the student is forced to respond with "I don't know," that student and all the others in the room are going to going to interpret that as "this is a thing you should have known." This makes "what stereotype does this image represent?" the wrong question to ask, since now students will go and look at their presentations and try and find out if any of their images represent any stereotypes, real or imagined.

Instead, you should ask a question more directly linked to the student's actual mistake: "Do you know the historical background of this image?" It forces the student to answer no to a question that they actually should have known the answer to, and at the same time will make sure everyone else in the class goes back and checks whether their images have unfortunate historical background.

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    "he wrong question to ask, since now students will go and look at their presentations and try and find out if any of their images represent any stereotypes, real or imagined." Why is that wrong? – Anonymous Physicist Apr 20 at 22:16
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    "they actually should have known the answer to" I would not assume all undergraduates are informed about fascism - maybe they just moved from a country that was not involved in any conflicts with fascists. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 20 at 22:17
  • @AnonymousPhysicist "maybe they just moved from a country that was not involved in any conflicts with fascists" IIRC isn't Hitler often thought of as a "good guy" in India, because his war against the British was what allowed them to overthrow their colonial oppressors? timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/… – nick012000 Apr 21 at 1:59
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    @AnonymousPhysicist its wrong because they'll find them. A picture of Curious George is either just a cartoon or a racist depiction of a black person depending on whether you're looking for stereotypes or not. Also they should know what the background of the image is not because they should have sufficient historical knowledge, but because putting the image in their slides makes it their responsibility to know the background. – DreamConspiracy Apr 21 at 2:41
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    @nick012000-I'd just like to point out that the article you shared is widely off the mark with respect to popular perception. Its largely the opposite. Also, your understanding of the historical period in question appears very misguided. Happy to discuss in chat if you're interested. – AppliedAcademic Apr 21 at 5:58
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Maybe you could interrupt and say something like "So Bloggins, sorry to interrupt, but can I just ask where you found the image possibly please? Just asking because although I'm pretty sure you didn't realise, it's in a style that used to be found in Nazi propaganda, so it's definitely not something that's appropriate in a presentation. Where on earth did you find it?" And then go from there, and explain how to find appropriate images in future.

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    -1 This is passive-aggressive to aggressive which is not ideal in confrontations as it might push the student into a defensive corner, where all learning abilities are shut down. – infinitezero Apr 20 at 22:43
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    This could work: whether it does or not depends entirely on tone of voice, relationship/rapport with the class, etc.. – Ben Bolker Apr 21 at 0:11
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    @infinitezero On the contrary, this is the only one here that (if I were the presenter) wouldn't make me feel singled out in an unfair light. In a light tone, the "where did you find it" takes the weight of "you mistakenly put nazi propaganda in your slideshow" off of me and onto, say, google images. – Redwolf Programs Apr 21 at 3:20
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    @RedwolfPrograms In the answer it's not "where did you find it" but "Where on earth did you find it". That's quite a difference. – infinitezero Apr 21 at 3:46
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    "So Bloggins, sorry to interrupt, but can I just ask where you found the image possibly please? Just asking because although I'm pretty sure you didn't realise, it's in a style that used to be found in Nazi propaganda". This is enough. The rest of it ("this is not appropriate in a presentation, where on earth did you find it?") would make the student feel bad by emphasizing the mistake on their part. – hb20007 Apr 21 at 11:45
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One strategy for the future: try to head this off before it happens. You can do that in a context that does not call attention to the particular infelicity.

When you assign the presentations, devote some class time to describing what makes a good one. Along with the standard advice (pacing, make it lively, no slides dense with text, not too many slides, ...) you can talk about making sure clip-art images are appropriate. Perhaps tell this story about what happened in a previous class.

If time permits, you could arrange to see previews of the presentations. Critiques of drafts are more useful than critiques of the actual presentations. (That's true for written projects too.)

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Slide pre-submission

Consider discovering the problem early:

  • Have the students submit their presentation slides some period of time before they present.
  • Give the presentations a once-over.
  • Mail each student (or group of presenting students) some high-level comments; and in extraordinary cases, like this one, point out something that would be inappropriate to include.

Pros:

  • No need to improvise and act at a moment's thought.
  • Student is spared the unpleasant experience of being chided, or being associated with the Nazis (however indirect the association maybe).
  • You are spared possible corridor talk about the Nazi presentation in Prof. Nabla's class (you know rumors don't need much grounding in facts).
  • The students get to fix other potential issues in their presentations, which is useful for first-time presentors.

Cons:

  • It's a lot of extra work :-(
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Consider asking students to go back and create a brief bibliography of source for items used in the presentation...if it is appropriate for the course work. Be sure to ask for a second or third order search to determine the original source of the material.

Then, consider if the addressing of original source can be done in a way to enhance the original instructional intent WHILE addressing the ethical and useful sourcing of material used.

Hopefully this can be done without singling out anyone...as that could push a person from casual indifference to a reaction of alignment against the perceived insult....especially if their home-life or social circle is bent to accepting the unethical dogma.

Shine light without creating what we fear. Give haven to those who are not committed to the shadow so they can reflect the light you offer...though more aggressive tactics can be argued with great validity.

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    I think this is too roundabout a path for this circumstance. – Bryan Krause Apr 20 at 21:39
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    OP said "in the style of", not "reproduced from". – Daniel Hatton Apr 21 at 7:13
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Another potential issue you didn't mention is the principles of Free Speech and Freedom of Belief. Some people consider Free Speech to be an important human right, and the idea that there are 'things you cannot say' to be extremely offensive and dangerous, in precisely the same sort of way that National Socialist propaganda against Jews was dangerous. Authoritarian regimes enforce a set of social norms on what people are allowed to say and believe, what is socially acceptable, what is moral and ethical according to the regime's definitions of morality and ethics. Those who don't share their norms are considered dangerous influences on society, and need to be silenced, suppressed, driven out, and eventually destroyed. The target for the National Socialists happened to be the Jews, but other groups can and have been targets too. The danger in such propaganda is not about any specific oppressor or target (e.g. National Socialists versus Jews specifically), but in the general phenomenon of any groups, viewpoints, beliefs, etc. being held 'unacceptable' and excluded by society, and Freedom of Speech being persecuted and punished. (Note there is a critical difference between opinion and action. Acting on beliefs where that harms others may indeed be punishable.)

Given that in this case the student was unaware of the context, there can be no suspicion that this was an attempt to marginalise a particular group, and it should therefore be made very clear that the student is not under any moral cloud for having done what they did. It would certainly be appropriate to explain to everyone the historical context of this image and the effect this is likely to have on people who recognise it, but Free Speech includes even offensive speech. (We all hold beliefs that some other people find offensive or wrong.) There may be circumstances where evoking such a reaction is the intention, and appropriate. (For example, in an essay warning against the dangers of totalitarianism...) But it is even more important to explain the point that Academic Freedom requires that there be no forbidden ideas.

Full treatment of such an important topic shouldn't be inserted into the middle of another discussion as a digression. That does neither subject justice. It should certainly be dealt with as a topic in itself, and its importance emphasised. But assuming it has already been presented previously, it would be pedagogically beneficial to briefly link back to it when the issue arises elsewhere, as here.

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    It may be legal to be a jerk, or to insult people, but that is not the same as passively letting it go without objecting to it. And there's always the pseudo-paradox about tolerating intolerance...? Currently, to my perception, the problems are more about peoples' self-realizations that they do have implicit biases... and, second, should actively object when other people behave badly to others. – paul garrett Apr 21 at 22:12
  • Academic Freedom does not require that there be no forbidden ideas; it merely requires an open-minded approach to new ideas, and the occasional revisiting of old, discarded ones. Too many “academics” run poorly-designed “here's justification for my prejudice” studies which, while laughable to experts in the relevant fields, are cited by non-academics as justification for their prejudice – several countries' politics are currently seeing the aftermath of this. – wizzwizz4 Apr 21 at 22:40
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It might be good to reflect on what would have happened if the same mixup happened in a job context. Say, if the official twitter representative for say MoonBucks Coffee tweeted such an image (by mistake).

I do not think real life would be as forgiving as the university setting, so highlighting that this is a learning opportunity where honest mistakes are treated as such, and not cause for termination. If the discussion is uncomfortable, then this is a very mild consequence, compared to what the hypothetical MoonBucks person above would experience.

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