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Protest — The N-word had just been spoken. One group of students just got up and left. Another group of students stayed and defended the instructor. It can be difficult for both students and teaching staff when the ghosts of the past haunt today’s auditoriums. But what is prudence and good practice in teaching at university in 2023?
For some words, there is never a good reason to use them.
Words that are so heavily burdened by their history that it can never be justified saying them out loud – not even in an auditorium where the intention of the enunciation of them is to learn more about their problematic history.
This was what had a number of students leaving a lecture on the international master’s degree programme in Global Development at the University of Copenhagen earlier this year.
The theme of the day was European colonialism. And to emphasise a particular point, the teacher had chosen to show centuries-old advertisements illustrating slavery in class. This is according to Diana Yehorova, a student of Global Development from Ukraine, who was present at the lecture that day.
»We were told before the lecture, that some unpleasant pictures would be shown. Then we had to go through a lot of power point slides that contained some really racist ads from the 19th and 20th centuries that portrayed black people in absolutely horrific ways,« says Diana Yehorova, who describes the lecture as »long and painful.«
The instructor’s academic point in choosing the material was to demonstrate how the same basic racist template can be found across several centuries of advertisements, and that it to a certain degree still exists today, explains Diana Yehorova.
»But we didn’t need to see so many horrific images to get this point. Of course, it is important to talk about colonialism. But as master’s students we would probably have expected a slightly deeper analysis of how colonial structures work,« she says.
Things went completely awry between the instructor and the students when the instructor reached the final illustration of the presentation. On the image was a text with the N-word which the instructor chose to read aloud — including this word — which resulted in a group of students walking out of the lecture in protest.
»At first, no one said anything. There was an uncomfortable silence. I think we were all in shock at what had just been said,« Diana Yehorova says and continues:
»That word has been banned years ago. And when you’re teaching a class with a lot of international students, don’t say it. Never. You don’t know who’s sitting in the room and how it will affect them. It was not OK,« says Diana Yehorova, who herself considered leaving in protest, but opted to stay anyway:
»I decided that it would be more constructive to stay and see what the instructor had to say, but I have great respect for those who chose to leave the lecture. The instructor didn’t really understand what was happening until those of us who remained explained.«
»There needs to be a space for provocation in a lecture hall as a means to start a debate«
The room now split into two factions. One faction had been offended by the instructor’s use of language, and another faction that reckoned that they had overreacted and overdramatized the situation.
Shortly after the incident, a student from the first group contacted the University Post and requested that this story be told. The point being that no teacher should ever use that word in a teaching context again.
The University Post has been in contact with several students, but only Diana Yehorova has wished to be interviewed on the record. We have also spoken to the instructor, who has seen this text and confirms the course of events, but who also does not wish to go on the record.
Economics professor and Head of Studies for Global Development John Rand does, however. He was bombarded with enquiries from students on both sides of the debate shortly after the episode.
»I received emails from students who wanted to complain and felt offended by the incident, but also from students who defended the instructor and thought that the first group of students overreacted,« he says.
»Some students could understand the instructor’s pedagogical approach. Others, however, found it was way out of line, and chose to leave the room in protest and subsequently make an official complaint to me.«
The complaint was discussed with students, the instructor, the Board of Studies on the programme and at a group meeting of instructors, where the focus was on how to ensure that sensitive issues are handled without offending anyone in the room. And then, of course, how you as an instructor can go to work without ending up in the middle of a ‘shitstorm’.
»In conversation with the instructor in question, we came to the conclusion that you could have done without some of the images, and the actual reading of the word, without compromising the main point of the teaching. We have therefore agreed that the specific lecture will be adjusted slightly,« says John Rand. He says also that the strong reactions came as a surprise to the instructor and that he has since then apologized to the class.
And even though the students, the instructor and the study programme management would perhaps rather have avoided this experience, John Rand believes that the conflict has set off an important conversation. A conversation on how teachers can navigate communicating important points in controversial topics without offending students in the room from very different backgrounds and who therefore also experience words and situations very differently.
»There has at no time been any question of removing this topic from the syllabus, because it is extremely important material that we, of course, have to teach on this study programme. I also think there needs to be space for provocation in a lecture hall to be able to start a debate. But this should, of course, be done with respect,« he says.
The students who complained about the incident were almost exclusively from the US, says John Rand. He believes that historical and cultural backgrounds are of importance in how individual students experience a specific teaching situation. This has become particularly evident in recent years.
»In the US, it is completely unheard of to use the N-word under any circumstances, not even in a lecture about colonialism. I think that this is one of the reasons why this group of students reacted so strongly. And it’s extremely important to be aware of how differently your words as an instructor are received in a lecture hall. This is something that we constantly practice,« says John Rand.
Could one solution be to completely remove texts and images that include that word from the syllabus?
»No. I think this has be an individual assessment. If specific guidelines are to be drawn up for language use in teaching, then it is up to the university’s senior management to consider it. But I think that it would be very wrong to make guidelines that in this way censored the instructors,« says John Rand.
The most important thing is that an auditorium is a space where provocation and debate are welcomed. But it should also be a place where you, as a starting point, always feel safe in being present regardless of your social and cultural background, and no matter whether you are a teacher or student, John Rand emphasizes.
»It’s very important that we don’t end up in situations where some students do not attend lectures because they find them uncomfortable. And it is, of course, the instructor’s job to create this safe space.«
It is not the first time that the head of studies has received inquiries from students who have been offended by the use of language in teaching on controversial topics. There have been complaints and debates about everything from gender, race, sexuality to economics and war, says John Rand.
»In recent years, we have had many discussions on what we should and can teach. This case concerning the use of the N-word has probably been the most significant debate we have had. But we have received inquiries from students who did not believe that their teachers had been considerate enough,« says John Rand, and offers an example:
»This has included references to gender and equality in economics – for example. There was a specific incident where an instructor accidentally said that women ‘choose themselves’ to work in female-dominated subjects, which was something that offended several students.«
As economics professor, John Rand teaches courses himself which include addressing gender differences in economics. And these kinds of lectures require a lot of preparation, he says.
»I spend a lot of time preparing how to present my points from a linguistic point of view, so that I don’t risk offending any of the students. This includes making sure that I have slides that are more detailed and have more text than what I would normally use, so I always have something written down to stick to,« he says.
He himself has been reprimanded once or twice by his students.
»At one point, I accidentally called the situation in Ukraine a ‘conflict’. My students were very quick to explain to me that of course this is not a ‘conflict’, but an outright ‘war’ or ‘invasion’,« says John Rand.
Criticism and feedback from the students is always welcome, the head of studies emphasizes. And he adds that international students often bring new perspectives to the teaching.
»I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing that we get criticism as teachers. It’s only good that we’re being challenged, and I’m usually hugely impressed with how our instructors respond to these challenges. This also applies to the instructor who chose to use the N-word in the specific teaching-related context.«
Atreyee Sen is an associate professor of anthropology and a member of the Board of Studies for Global Development, which handles student complaints. She has been directly involved in the complaint about the N-word, and like John Rand, she believes the incident has contributed to an important conversation.
»It is important that a lecture hall is a safe space for both students and teachers. Debate is good, but we need to respect each other and have an understanding of the cultural and political backgrounds we each bring with us when discussing sensitive topics such as race,« she says.
Are there any words you should never use – not even in a teaching context?
»The N-word is heavily historically loaded, so if you want to use it, you have to be really careful. In this specific case, the teacher read the word aloud from a historical text, and I think this is different than if the word had been used directly against or about someone,« says Atreyee Sen.
In her experience, it can be difficult for instructors to keep track of where the exact boundary on offensive language is. And like many other instructors on the programme, she has experienced students who have contacted her with a direct criticism of her language use.
»I often do lectures on the political and cultural circumstances in Ukraine. Here I say that the country has quite progressive LGBTQ values, but still struggles with racism. There are many Ukrainian students at my lectures who find it difficult to hear me say these things about their country that is currently being invaded,« says Atreyee Sen and continues:
»There was also a time when I talked about Britain’s colonisation of India at a lecture. It was the week where Prince Charles was crowned King and there were some English students who were offended that I brought up the subject at that time. There will always be that kind of tension in a classroom, especially on a programme like this, where students meet up from so many different backgrounds.«
Atreyee Sen has personally had some good experiences with opening a lecture on a controversial topic by saying – several times – that the room is a safe space, and that everyone has the opportunity to comment on the teaching, both during and afterwards.
»But no matter how many times I say it, there will always be topics that are complicated. I don’t think you can teach without offending someone, but it is important that you as an instructor are aware of the different backgrounds that the students have,« she says and pauses for a moment.
»In general we are currently seeing a generation of students who are enormously aware of the cultural, historical and political conditions around the world, and this requires that we as teachers become equally attentive and considerate in our teaching.«
It should be uncomfortable to go to university sometimes
One way of doing this, according to Atreyee Sen, is to start the teaching by clarifying what the values are that we should follow.
»Then the students are constantly aware of the framework and context in which things are being said – even if elements arise in the teaching that they find offensive,« she says.
However, Atreyee Sen does not need more specific guidelines in this area.
»I think academic freedom is very important. If the guidelines are too restrictive, then that freedom may be compromised. But at the same time I think it should be a requirement that teaching staff are aware of which topics are particularly sensitive. It needs to be the instructor’s own responsibility to stay up to date on this,« says Atreyee Sen.
If the students speak up, and if the instructors are at the forefront of trends and accept criticism, then this will ultimately contribute to a strong and rewarding teaching environment, the associate professor says.
»The era when an instructor could lay down the law is completely over. The students constantly challenge us, and I think that’s only positive, because it makes us all smarter.«
Degree programmes with a wide selection of international students are not the only ones at UCPH that are currently working on making the classroom safe for both students and staff.
The Student Council launched a testimony and idea-gathering scheme In the spring, where students could provide input on how UCPH can be more inclusive and diverse. Several students stated here that teachers were unable to create a good and constructive debate when they have to teach controversial and sensitive topics.
In June the Student Council presented the Rector’s Office with three specific recommendations for a more inclusive and diverse UCPH, including a recommendation to send all instructors on a compulsory course in handling sensitive or controversial topics in teaching.
»In the Student Council, we do not want to end up in a place where it is not possible to talk about things. The proposal to introduce a compulsory course for instructors is therefore an attempt to slow down the trend that is moving in this direction,« says Malte Sauerland-Paulsen, chairman of the Student Council.
»We have been contacted by students who have found it uncomfortable to be in class. But also by teachers who find it extremely difficult to create a balance where no one is offended and at the same time present important academic points.«
In the Student Council’s view, teaching and academic freedoms should eclipse most other considerations. This is why the proposal for a compulsory course for instructors in not a wish to introduce censorship, Malte Sauerland-Paulsen emphasizes.
»We have a healthy culture of disagreement at the University of Copenhagen, and this is something we should continue to have. In the vast majority of places, both students and teachers are open to meeting each other in academic dispute. But as it is right now we have reached a point where some instructors feel they have to censor themselves.«
Malte Sauerland-Paulsen is a philosophy student and was himself a recent witness to a debate about a choice of topics and the use of language unfolding on his own study programme.
»In the philosophy programme, discussions about which texts should be included in the syllabus and what should be covered, are sometimes loud discussions. And even though I’m proud of the culture of academic criticism that we’ve created in this subject, we need to make sure that this culture doesn’t end up with teachers censoring themselves for fear of offending someone,« he says.
Being a teacher is not necessarily easy, admits Malte Sauerland-Pedersen. He points out that students risk missing out on important classes if they feel uncomfortable about certain topics.
»If the alternative to saying something wrong is that nothing is said at all, then we have serious problems. We don’t want a university where our instructors censor themselves.«
The Student Council has no specific recommendations on what a course in safe teaching environments and handling controversial topics should consist of. They leave that part to experts in the field, says the chairperson:
»It was important for us not to get too specific about exactly what the course should contain. We just want it to become a basic pedagogical tool at UCPH, so you as an instructor can ensure that a classroom feels safe for everyone.«
However, he has one tool that can create a safe classroom space, namely that the teacher can give a so-called trigger warning. The trigger warning is either pronounced or shown before potentially offensive content is said or displayed.
»In our philosophy programme, for example, Aristotle is part of our compulsory syllabus. Many of his texts are characterized by the fact that he is actually a huge sexist, and before we start a lecture about him, our teachers usually just say: ‘Hey, there are some things in this text that will sound fucked up today, but our focus is on something else’,« says Malte Sauerland-Paulsen and continues:
»And of course, the students should also remember that it can be uncomfortable to go to university sometimes — and it should be. But it’s important that this is reduced as much as possible, and that everyone can participate.«
A version of the course requested by the Student Council is, in fact, already in the pipeline at one of the university pedagogical centres at UCPH, namely TEACH, which as part of UCPH’s action plan for equality and diversity 2022-2023 is currently working on creating a course to help instructors set up safe learning spaces.
»We are sometimes contacted by teachers who are interested in being able to take part in, and handle, sensitive or controversial topics in the classroom. In the past, we have been able to provide some pedagogical perspectives on an informal basis. But we have not had a specific learning offer that in a more coherent way provides for the instructors,« says Peder Hjort-Madsen, who is director of TEACH.
»Our experience is that a number of societal discourses have changed in recent years. This can lead to some teachers being uncertain about how to talk about, say, gender, ethnicity, colonialism or sexuality in class without offending someone.«
The course was set up on the initiative of the UCPH staff of diversity consultants in the cross-faculty HR unit. They reckoned that a course in creating safe teaching spaces for both instructors and students should be an element in the realisation of UCPH’s action plan for equality and diversity.
»We were asked in the spring of 2023 whether we wanted to do a course. We found this really interesting, especially since we have had prior requests for it,« says Peder Hjort-Madsen, who explains that the course is currently in the start-up phase.
»In connection with the development of the course, we would like to enter into a dialogue with the students about what they think is important in this issue. We will, as far as possible, try to integrate their input in the final course,« says the centre director, and continues:
»As things stand now, our goal is to have a pilot ready by the end of the autumn to see if it meets some of the instructors’ needs.«
It is far too important a theme to be on one course
The course will not only focus on language use, but will offer pedagogical tools for setting up an »inclusive and appreciative learning environment«, says Peder Hjort-Madsen, who can also reveal a bit about what instructors might be able to learn on the upcoming course.
»From a pedagogical point of view, there are some approaches that could be relevant in this type of context. For example, by working with a polyphonic classroom space where students have the opportunity to participate in full-class debates as well as in smaller groups,« he says and continues:
»The instructors will be able to learn how to facilitate a space where students have the opportunity to ask critical questions in a teaching situation that at the same time remains appreciative and respectful.«
The course will not provide a finished list of correct answers on how to talk about different topics. But it will to a greater extent prepare instructors in handling difficult situations with different pedagogical tools, the centre director says.
»And then it is important to mention that the responsibility lies with the institution as a whole. There is no point in wagging fingers at each other when someone makes a misstep. Bad intentions are very rarely behind things. We should see this as an opportunity to start a process where everyone learns more about how we can talk about things – even the difficult things.«
The course that is currently being developed at TEACH, will be an offer to instructors, and will not be compulsory.
The University Post has contacted the UCPH Office of the Rectorate. It states that there are no current plans to introduce compulsory courses in this area.
Prorector for Education Kristian Cedervall Lauta says, however, that management is focused on the handling of controversial topics in teaching contexts.
»This is an important and highly topical subject. We see a demand from our instructors who wish to upgrade their qualifications in relation to these skills. The ability to handle sensitive and controversial topics as an instructor should be integrated in the general pedagogical education and the continuing education of university instructors,« the prorector writes in a written comment. He says:
»It is far too important a theme to be on one course.«
Back on the Global Development programme, the teaching group continues to discuss how they can navigate controversial topics.
And according to John Rand, the continued knowledge sharing between instructors is the right way to go.
Do you think that instructors who teach controversial topics should be sent on a course?
»Then it would have to be because the instructors themselves joined forces in setting up a course to share the experiences they each have. I don’t know who would be better qualified to provide that advice than they themselves,« says Rand.
»They’ve all, after all, faced these kinds of challenges a few times over the years.«