“Can I say that in class?”: The answer is complicated — and it should be

by Drs. Rosa Mikeal Martey and Ryan Claycomb

Rosa Mikeal Martey and Ryan Claycomb headshotsEvery professor and student wonders at some point, “Can I say that in class?” The answer is complicated – and it should be.

Like many public land-grant institutions, especially those in swing states, Colorado State University is a politically contested space. Nationwide, critiques of classroom speech come from both the left and the right, usually drawing on the importance of academic freedom and free speech. The subjects we teach in the College of Liberal Arts at CSU and in liberal arts programs on other campuses take up these debates and the topics that often spark them explicitly; our faculty and students from all walks of life and vantage points explore questions about ethics, politics, society, and culture.

At its core, the liberal arts tradition prizes open inquiry. This means establishing a learning environment that supports a robust exchange of ideas in a manner conducive to free discussion and debate. Maintaining academic freedom for both students and faculty is a matter of preserving open inquiry while creating a respectful classroom climate that is conducive to learning for all of our students.

This is no simple undertaking subject to universal rules or doctrines. Because classrooms are complex systems populated by human beings, each a complex individual, every teaching choice has multilayered effects and depends on careful consideration of the nuances and potential consequences. In Fall 2020, the divisive political climate and unprecedented changes to our lives resulting from the Coronavirus have made addressing contentious topics in the classroom both more challenging and more vital. But skillful consideration of such issues is developed over time and requires a range of resources.

And so, a group of faculty charged by CSU College of Liberal Arts Dean Benjamin Withers undertook the process of researching how to best prepare instructors to navigate current tensions. To create a classroom climate that supports critical engagement, inclusive discussion, and effective learning, we realized that faculty need to understand university policies and the norms of their fields. But they also need examples of best practices and opportunities to talk through thorny questions with different people—something that is even harder now that so much of our work is remote.

Our team developed a series of faculty discussion and training sessions, created a collection of recommended readings, handouts, and trainings, and established a network of faculty available to talk through questions and considerations around pedagogy. The tools we collected help faculty and students examine both the reasons for and consequences of their course design and classroom management style. Our online collection is available here.

We learned a great deal in creating those resources. Some of those lessons include:

  • Policies are important, but they don’t tell the whole story—The faculty manual, the Student Conduct Code, and CSU policies on the First Amendment, anti-discrimination, and more create a framework for academic freedom. But a student’s right to take “reasoned exception” to classroom content can come into conflict with a faculty member’s deep knowledge of the field. As a result, maintaining open inquiry for all students requires careful and deliberate classroom management that takes nuance and specific contexts into account. Our group came to understand that a tense political environment influences both critical thinking and empathetic teaching, and that individual rights must be held in balance with personal harm. These realizations led us to design training sessions that emphasize identifying priorities and understanding faculty and student rights amid complex dynamics.
  • Inclusive classrooms are preconditions for open inquiry—Instead of pitting notions of inclusion and justice against the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry, we see them as fundamentally intertwined. Maintaining open discussion and debate demands inclusion through deliberate efforts to integrate a spectrum of scholarly viewpoints into the classroom. Both students and faculty can uphold their rights and responsibilities for open-mindedness and free inquiry while recognizing the importance of respecting other views and individuals. We believe that academic freedom is best understood as the outcome of a robust exchange of ideas in an environment that welcomes all students.
  • Faculty can and must rely on our own expertise—Our college includes disciplines that explicitly examine today’s political tensions and issues, from policy, public opinion, and the economy to media representation and ethical considerations. We recommend that faculty consult their fellow faculty experts expertise on intergroup dialogue and effective deliberation and participate in ongoing campus trainings. We also created directories of faculty studying the issues relevant to such discussions so that faculty can find the latest in scholarly research.
  • Care and wellness have to be part of the equation—As we prepared resources and training around academic freedom and inclusive teaching practices, we heard from faculty that feeling overwhelmed and burned out would be real possibilities. We included on our website and in our training a collection of easily accessible wellness resources from across campus to support our faculty and staff along the way.

The website and programs we created for these tense times can help faculty implement an inclusive classroom that fosters academic freedom. Readings, guides, tips, and trainings support a deeper understanding of the issues and consequences of our classroom climate, but they are only a starting point.

This project showed us that the most important tools for faculty and students are those that help them think through why, when, and how they offer ideas, opinions, and perspectives. Ultimately, it is the discussions that emerge from our expertise, experiences, and challenges that form the heart of genuine learning – and that type of dialog is what the liberal arts is all about.

Dr. Rosa Mikeal Martey is Professor of Journalism and Media Communications at CSU. Dr. Ryan Claycomb is Professor of English and Interim Assistant Dean for Student Success in CSU’s College of Liberal Arts

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