Lecturers tread carefully amid sensitive subjects

Prof. Cameron Johnston’s class of nearly 500 social sciences students assembled in the York University lecture hall. He delivered his introductory lecture titled Self, Culture and Society. The day started out like most others, but it soon took an unexpected turn.

Sarah Grunfeld, as reported by Brendan Kennedy of the Toronto Star, heard the professor say the words,“All Jews should be sterilized,” Johnston said.

He went on to explain the statement was an example of a “dangerous and unacceptable” opinion, but Grunfeld, 22, a fourth-year student, didn’t hear the context. She had stormed out and informed Hasbara, an Israeli advocacy group with offices on campus, of the offending words. The group issued a press release and within a few hours it reached critical mass on Facebook.

Johnston’s students were quick to defend him and his statements and he faced no consequences. He later released a statement re-enforcing the point of his lecture, that “not everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

Pablo Ramirez is an associate professor at the University of Guelph. He teaches 19th century American literature and U.S. Latino studies. He said Grunfeld should have confronted the professor before leaving, but feels Johnston could have provided more of a setup for his example.

“I have to provide a great deal of context. I can’t make some simple statement about any kind of subject,” he said. “I have to emphasize that it’s not for its sensational qualities, but the artist or the writer is trying to do something legitimate with the image or this narrative.”

A book that Ramirez uses in lecture is Of One Blood, by Pauline Hopkins. The book, first released in 1902, painted a rich and prideful past for African Americans. It ran counter to then accepted racist attitudes.

Ramirez knew that teaching this text could get him in trouble. He feared the more he discussed racism, the greater the possibility his students might absorb its precepts.

“You have to be careful because you don’t want to the students to feel oppressed, at the same time you want to open up their minds a little,” he said. “It’s a very delicate balancing act.”

Another book that Ramirez uses in lectures is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, it was banned in the southern Untied States for its abolitionist views. Although Ramirez did not censor the content when lecturing, he did face another type of censorship, what the students thought of his teaching style and content.

“Student evaluations carry a great weight,” he said. “If I felt the pressure to censor myself, (it’s) mostly through the student evaluations.”

Michael Keefer, a retired associate professor of Renaissance literature at Guelph University, taught in the same classrooms as Ramirez and faced the same student evaluations. Keefer said he never censored his lectures and instead willingly exposed his students to such things as violence, obscenity and anti-Semitism.

“We need firm principles about how to oppose such things and deal with them,” he said. “But that’s no excuse for shying away from the texts.”

When Keefer lectured about, The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, he wanted students to explore their academic freedom.

“I expected them to apply their own skeptical critical thinking and their own analysis of evidence to everything in sight,” he said, “including my opinions and those voiced in their course texts.”

Keefer took a number of public positions on controversial issues such as the war on terror and the current debates over anti-Semitism, but he kept the classroom an insular learning environment.

“I insisted that my classrooms must be places where students could learn to feel comfortable in risking opinions that they were trying out for the first time, or that they felt might be minority views,” he said.

Ted Fairhurst, a law and ethics instructor at Centennial College, said teachers should impart critical thinking skills and concepts, but do so carefully.

“You are truly on a public stage when you are presiding in that classroom,” he said. “No instructor should be up there saying things they wouldn’t be able to justify if they had to publicly.”

The smart-phones that students carry with them can broadcast to the Internet and social media websites in near real time and the public stage in the classroom is now more public than ever.

Fairhurst, who worked at the CBC for over 27 years, said the social media has redefined the classroom.

“It is fundamentally different when you’ve got someone in there that is twittering,” he said. “It’s a different kind of space.”

Johnston’s situation illustrates the slippery slope teachers face lecturing in a public forum, but Fairhurst said teachers should not get distracted.

“You don’t want to let that immobilize you,” he said. “On the other hand, you have to be mindful and don’t forget it.”