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Clash of cultures — It was predominantly American students who walked out from a lecture after the teacher had read the N-word aloud from a slide. This calls for an official statement from the University of Copenhagen making it clear that when you study in Denmark, you may have to confront repulsive aspects of reality.
The University Post recently published a story about a lecture from which a group students walked out in protest. The topic was European colonialism, and the teacher had chosen to show some advertisements from past centuries which illustrated slavery.
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Before the lecture, it was announced that some unpleasant pictures would be shown. When the teacher came to a slide that contained the N-word, he chose to read it aloud. The result was that a group of students decided to walk out in protest.
The excellent article in University Post includes interviews with a number of people who fortunately all make a point of saying both that unpleasant topics should be addressed in teaching, and that this needs to be done in a considerate way. A course in how best to achieve this is being developed. So far, so good.
Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think
The incident demonstrates that the university has managed to handle the problem much better that in past cases here and abroad. Nevertheless I would like to call for an official statement from the University of Copenhagen – or even better, from all Danish Universities – which is a little more precise. The following principle should be made clear:
International students – especially American students, who were in focus here – need to be informed, in a sensitive and non-confrontational manner, that the Academic code for what can be shown and addressed in Danish classrooms differs practices found in American universities.
I think it should be said explicitly that there is nothing so repulsive that it cannot be taken up in a Danish university class.
If students cannot bear being confronted with evil as part of their education, the university cannot help them get better at fighting evil. This is also reflected in the Chicago Statement: it is not the point of university teaching to make people comfortable, but to make them think.
This is not in conflict with initiatives to ensure that international (and, indeed, all) students are treated personally in a sensitive and considerate manner. Such measures, in fact, should include efforts to enable them to confront issues that take them beyond their comfort zone.
What must be avoided is a situation where nervous management representatives order teachers to avoid this kind of protest at all costs.
A sensitivity policy can easily be interpreted (by nervous management representatives) to entail that teachers must design courses so as to avoid any risk of students taking offense
The point is that experience (including international experience) shows that a sensitivity policy can easily be interpreted (by nervous management representatives) to entail that teachers must design courses so as to avoid any risk of students taking offense. To guard against this risk, explicit policy guidelines should be put in place, specifying that complaints cannot under any circumstances be made against course materials because students find them offensive. Complaints can only be motivated by insufficient measures taken to introduce the material in question with proper safety precautions. Such precautions could be of the same type as when TV announcers warn that upcoming material may be hard to watch (as the teacher actually did in this case)
In contrast to the views of some otherwise sensible interviewees in the article I think fairly explicit and inflexible rules might be best. If rules are not clearcut, the verdict will depend on an assessment of the actual situation. And in cases of this kind, there tend to be two radically different assessments in play.
The University of Copenhagen at one point got into trouble because the guidelines used a wording that could be interpreted to mean that if a student complained about being subject to offensive treatment, then an offence had to be assumed to have taken place. We do not want this type of situation to arise again. If teachers are not to find themselves in a situation essentially without any legal protection, clear rules are needed