Speaking Your Mind
Should professors reveal their views on controversial topics?
When I was teaching introductory physics classes, where the topics were backed by an overwhelming scientific consensus, my personal views weren’t an issue. My goal was to make students aware of that consensus and prepare them to use the basic principles of physics in their future work. I felt comfortable saying that I accepted the scientific consensus, even though large classes invariably had students who, for various reasons (religious or otherwise), did not accept that Earth and the universe are billions of years old, that the speed of light is an invariant, or that the rate at which clocks tick depends on their state of motion.
But things were not always so clear cut in my philosophy of science courses, which focused on more controversial topics, such as whether a scientific worldview is compatible with belief in the supernatural. Social sciences faculty and others may face a similar challenge when discussing topics like race, gender, and sexuality, which can be the source of intense debate, with strongly held views on all sides.
When I served as director of my university’s teaching center, I organized a faculty discussion focusing on how much we should tell students about our own views. A faculty member recalled how one of her college instructors had skillfully guided class discussions so that no one knew his views on controversial topics. Her instructor claimed that because of this, students were more willing to express their views, since they were not agreeing or disagreeing with the authority figure. My colleague felt that other educators should follow this model.
Another of my colleagues was in the political science department and specialized in the American elections system. He followed the model of not sharing his viewpoints to an even greater extreme. He kept his political sympathies not only from his students but also from his colleagues—even in his own department—because he felt his viewpoints would reach students through the campus grapevine.
Underlying this approach is the belief that students may fear that going against a professor’s views might result in penalties or that agreeing with the professor could be viewed as an attempt at ingratiation to get better grades. In my experience, very few teachers would penalize students simply for disagreeing with them. But that doesn’t matter, since all it takes is one teacher, or even one rumor, to poison the well for all of us.
I am not convinced that maintaining strict neutrality is a good thing. On the practical side, I am not sure how many of us have the skill to pull off what the professors I mentioned above did. It seems enormously difficult to spend a whole semester leading discussions on topics I care about without revealing, at least indirectly, my own positions on them. So many of us will betray ourselves, by word or tone or nuance, despite our best efforts at concealment.
But I am also not convinced that concealing my views is good even in principle. Those students who speak their minds irrespective of the instructor’s views won’t care whether or not I reveal my views or whether or not they agree with me. And isn’t it better for students who do care about my views to know exactly where I stand rather than for them to play guessing games?
My students seemed to agree. When I raised the question with them at the start of a seminar course, they favored professors not hiding their views on controversial topics. Otherwise, students would spend far too much time looking for clues to instructors’ opinions and getting distracted from the real questions they were supposed to be discussing.
A more serious concern is that one purpose of classroom discussions is not to try to change people’s views but to better understand why classmates believe whatever they believe. One of the best ways to achieve such deeper understanding is to hear the basis for other people’s beliefs. By probing and questioning the reasoning of others, and by having others ask you questions about your own beliefs, participants on all sides of a discussion (both students and faculty) can benefit by achieving a deeper understanding of their own beliefs. Some of our views might change, but that is an incidental byproduct of discussions—not the goal.
In this light, I saw my role as modeling this behavior for my students, which required me to reveal my views and demonstrate how I use evidence and arguments to arrive at my conclusions. I let students follow along with my thinking as I explored topics such as whether scientific progress is headed toward truth or whether human beings are merely the accidental byproduct of the evolutionary process and have no special status among living things. I felt, or at least I hoped, that students benefited from hearing my views, just as I benefited when they explained the reasoning behind their beliefs.
The fly in the ointment is (as always) the issue of grades. I tried to never think negatively of students who held views opposed to mine and did not let their viewpoints influence how I graded their work. But I was not the one being evaluated. Students might have concerns about a professor’s objectivity.
This is why I spent a lot of time at the beginning of my courses establishing rapport with students to build trust that I would objectively gauge their performance. For example, I had students work together to decide on the rubrics used to evaluate papers and discussions. I also built trust by, among other things, meeting with each student privately within the first two weeks of class, going to class early, staying for a few minutes afterward, and finding opportunities to talk informally with students so that we got to know each other better. Because of the relationships students built with me and with each other, they were never uncivil in class discussions. The benefits of that effort extended well beyond the question of revealing my own views, because earning the trust of students also created a congenial and productive classroom environment.
Illustration by Brian Rea