In a Volatile Climate on Campus, Professors Teach on Tenterhooks

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” a guide to spreading kindness, is an odd choice for a political science syllabus. But Shannon Mariotti sees the need. Her seminar about race and class alienation invites contention; course readings swing between Tea Party and far-left perspectives.

The 13 students represent the stew of political views at Southwestern University, a liberal arts campus in mostly red Georgetown, Tex. Dr. Mariotti pushes buttons, but prudently. She wants reactions, she said, somewhere “between nice and angry.” She hopes the book — from step one (“Learn about compassion”) to 12 (“Love your enemies”) — will teach students “to develop compassion and empathy” for opposing, even distasteful stances.

It is not her only Zen move: As students settle at a long conference table, Dr. Mariotti taps the timer on her iPhone. Classes start with silent meditation. “All you are supposed to be doing right now is to breathe in and breathe out. Every time you think of something,” she said, “just let it go.”

Dr. Mariotti designed this upper-level course in response to political divisions at Southwestern, divisions that have fractured friendships. “The only way that kind of polarization in politics will get better is if we can find a way to talk to each other in a way that is sympathetic, but not wishy-washy.”

These are fitful times on college campuses. Tumultuous current events — the revocation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA; the Charlottesville attacks; the Black Lives Matter protests — have brought both relevance and volatility to academic debate. Inside classrooms, professors feel newly exposed. They want strategies to manage testy exchanges and challenges they don’t see coming.

At Reed College this semester, instructors abandoned the stage during the first meeting of Humanities 110, a required freshman course on early Greek and Mediterranean civilization. “We cannot have our class if we have students interrupting the teaching,” Prof. Elizabeth Drumm announced as a student grabbed a microphone and talked over her. Others joined onstage. One protester held a sign: “Don’t teach us white supremacy.”

At George Mason University, “a fervent Trump supporter” last summer in Jeremy D. Mayer’s course on the presidency sparred at the start of each class. One session, he dismissed an article Dr. Mayer had cited as fake news, with: “The Washington Post hates Trump!” It was “very frustrating,” Dr. Mayer said. “How can you have a class that touches on current events when you don’t have an accepted, fairly standard source of information?”

Even content in fact-heavy courses like biology looks less neutral with hot-button issues like reproduction and genetic testing. It’s why Scott McLean, kinesiology professor at Southwestern, is careful when teaching a unit on health insurance. “I really try to present two different sides,” he said. The class movie night showing “McFarland, USA,” about children of migrant workers who excel at cross country, no longer looks like “a free dinner and getaway from the books.” And so a professor who specializes in the mechanics of body movement must now prep for queries about immigration and DACA.

Today’s students bring a multiplicity of personal identities to campus — their sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, religion, political leanings — and they want to see that reflected in course content. The values in readings, lectures and even conversations are open to questioning. All good — that’s what college is supposed to be about — except that now the safety screen around the examination of ideas has been pulled away. Higher education is increasingly partisan, and professors must manage these disconnected ideologies, which are sometimes between themselves and their students.

An English professor at Northern Arizona, Anne Scott, did end up on Fox News. After she deducted one point from a first-year student’s paper last spring for using “mankind” instead of “humankind” — she said she had told the class that “inclusive” vocabulary is required — the student contacted the website Campus Reform. She received more than 400 emails, rude voice mail messages and dropped calls. This semester, when the student’s name appeared on the wait-list for a course she was teaching, Dr. Scott said, “I was terrified.”

These clashes are affecting curriculum. After meeting with a professor to plan a spring course on fascism and anti-fascism, “we decided it was probably not worth it,” said Lori Poloni-Staudinger, head of the department of politics and international affairs, who has also received threats. The class won’t be offered. “People are more guarded,” she said. “They are watching what they say.”

As campuses grow more racially and economically diverse, navigating strong emotions has become a coveted skill. Anita Davis is in a newly created post of director of diversity and inclusion at the Associated Colleges of the South, a consortium of 16 institutions that helps professors with “hot” conversations. “They are struggling to handle tense, confrontational, challenging moments,” she said.

Tools she shares are new to professors focused on conveying content. On the first day, she urges instructors to work with students to create ground rules for class discussions, including what to do when talk gets heated. She shares tricks like asking students, before peers pounce, to rephrase or repeat a provocative utterance (often it’s less harsh). If someone suggests that people who ride busses are poor, instead of calling him “classist,” she said, a teacher could reframe: “Let’s talk about the labels that come up when we talk about social class.”

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