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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Censorship and the Leftist-Leaning, Liberal Teacher

Every semester, I assign a research paper in which students must select a current, controversial topic, research it, arrive at some sort of opinion about the issue, and write a persuasive essay that expresses their stance and attempts to, if not convince a reader to agree with their point of view, at least acknowledge that their point of view is valid and worthy of consideration.

Students often immediately select a topic with which they are somewhat familiar and already have some sort of relatively firm stance. I encourage them to explore the topic - in fact, that's part of the essay requirements – to research multiple perspectives and acknowledge the opposition, and concede the valid counter-arguments to their own stance. Sometimes, students start off with a particular stance and in the process of research, change their point of view. The process of intellectual inquiry and discovery can be an exciting one – something I thrill to witness.

But the assignment has a serious pitfall for me. And that pitfall is the kind of arguments students craft about gay marriage and abortion.

One semester, I had a student whose paper was in support of gay marriage and his main argument was this: Because the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) considers homosexuality a disease, and we do not prohibit people with diseases from marrying, we should not prohibit gays from marrying either, as then we will be discriminating against the disabled.

Sigh. I conferenced with the student and explained that the “fact” he cited was outdated – current scientific and medical research concludes that homosexuality is not a “disease.” The DSM was revised years ago in light of this research. As the student was relying on old and irrelevant data (when recent data was available), I explicitly directed him to continue his research. I also mentioned that the argument he was using to support gay marriage was an argument that would alienate and insult the very group of people he wished to support.

He did not listen. He did not heed my advice, and turned in a paper that although technically adequate was seriously lacking in thorough, academic research and logical, critical thinking.

Other students have turned in essays which argue the case against gay marriage or abortion based on faith alone. And faith-based arguments are not acceptable in an academic environment; nor, in my opinion, are they acceptable n our political system either.

Of course, I also receive essays in which students advocate for gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. And I scrutinize the students' arguments on those essays as well. They must support their points, their arguments, with solid evidence and rational thought. Many do not, nor do they always acknowledge the valid counterpoints of their opposition. And I call that to their attention.

But invariably, the essays which argue against gay marriage or abortion are usually either faith-based or demonstrate seriously flawed critical thinking and argumentative skills – gaping holes in the argument, or a lack of acknowledging (and understanding) an alternative perspective on the issue.

I try to grade objectively, wisely. I conference. I tread lightly on students’ religious beliefs while still trying to hold them to the academic standards of reasoned, intellectual inquiry and debate.

And I typically fail. And students become frustrated. Because I am asking them to examine their beliefs under a microscope and critique them; because I am asking them to consider what is to them an alien point of view. And because though I am not necessarily asking them to change their stance, I am asking them to change how they support that stance. And I do ask them to reconsider how they think and how they feel.

I ask my students to engage in this task because this is what intelligent, educated, rational, critically-thinking beings do. Analyze. Critique. Reassess. Examine. Not just the “facts” of the issue, but the assumptions underlying our opinions and those of others. It is a most disturbing practice – one that, if pursued with discipline, can shake our convictions and deliver us to a new understanding, or lead us to a new insight that further reinforces our previous beliefs and makes us better able to arugue our points in thoughtful, rational, and persuasive manner.

And all of that is an extraordinarily difficult and uncomfortable task for any human being. And yet, our intelligence demands that we do it.

But this semester, I banned all gay issues and abortion as topics for the research/persuasive essay. Because right now, I cannot tolerate reading essays which vilify so many of my loved ones, or which declare that women who have abortions (of which I am one) are habitiualy careless and thoughtless, or severely psychologically disturbed.

Though I am relieved not to have read such essays this spring, I am troubled that by banning these topics, I am denying my students a learning opportunity; denying them discussion, conversation, debate. Denying them a chance to re-vision their thinking, to explore ideas, to arrive at new conclusions.

But right now, this semester, I am not wise enough, noble enough, caring enough to allow for that opportunity. I simply no longer wish to read essays that so assault my sensibilities and cause me anguish.

And in that regard, I am no better than any student of mine who argues solely from a faith-based perspective and refuses to see, or acknowledge, an alternative point of view.

And yet, for this semester, I can live with that.


Blogger disguised said...

Thanks for the link and compliment, Bird. Mighty kind of you. I'm happy to say that, when I told students my stance after, they were surprised. But oh, I hate biting my tongue--it disallows part of "me" in the classroom, part of me that personally engages with the students. Yet it's really kind of ridiculous to think that, even though we take an approach of coach, that students don't feel that power dynamic, and it's very difficult to subsume being part of the conversation with the students on a personal level--because I do so love just conversing with them.

April 27, 2006 11:21 PM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

Wow! Another powerfully written essay. You never cease to amaze me. There are so many thoughts running through my mind right now, I hardly know where to start.

First, I, too, feel that thrill when my students "get it". Whatever the "it" is. It is very thrilling to have them discover something about themselves of which they were not consciously aware.

Second, (cliche time), my mind's already made up, don't confuse me with facts.

Third, if you don't take care of you, you can't lead very effectively.

Fourth, I encourage both you and disguised to continue your quest to aid your students in opening the door to their own humanity. As I tell my students in my real estate classes, they will learn more than just real estate principles in my class.

Fifth, it is rather infuriating and sad, to observe folks refuse to question their beliefs. We all have to be careful that we don't fall into that trap more frequently than we do.

I know it is rather crass of me to link to my own writings, but I have done it to you before. So here I go again. You might want to visit Things I've Stumbled Across Along the Way. (I have updated it to make it easier to navigate)

Keep up the good fight and continue to...

Serve well! Live fully! Do good works!

April 28, 2006 4:35 AM  
Blogger K9 said...

/bark bark bark

i hear ya bird

i have the same aggrevation when for example over at aunty's no matter how i try and frame the argument outside of religion, those who disagree wtih me try to characterize the points as blind faith which is not true at all. the whole time i am talking about action and behavior -whatever inspired or justified it was secondary. i really dont have an issue with islam until in its name you are here blowing up people and choppin off heads. and even then i am ragging on the ones who did it. it isnt a wholesale condemnation as it is so conveniently characterized by the very ones who will not address the points. grrrrrrrrrrr. its frustrating!

btw did you ever share mine and the rev's rap's with your fledglings? id love to know how that "flew"


April 28, 2006 2:11 PM  
Blogger lettuce said...

sensitive and thought-provoking post. I discuss some of these issues with under-gradates - many of them coming from either a clear "faith" perspective, or an anti-religion perspective. Good discussions - but some of them are so not willing to listen.

It is hard sometimes.

April 28, 2006 2:18 PM  
Blogger disguised said...


Check out the terrific article called "Troublemakers" on The New Yorker's site. (You'll have to search on the title or on pit bulls.) You'll see...

Good stuff on what you were just saying. And seeing as you're a dog...

April 28, 2006 10:33 PM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Oh My Bird, lovely thang....the method is good pedagogy, when done altruistically. Very dangerous when it is done riidin' on an agenda. AN' it's hard to know that sometimes.

Jes' wonderin', you say, you do it to git 'em eo exmaine their beleifs under a microscope, and to "reconsider how they think and how they feel"...so when was the last time you did that same exercise, darlin'? Put your assumptions under the microscope?

Real gently now, I am offerin' to take your assignnment on gay "marriage" , to use facts to show why there is and can be no such a thang--and it might be a surprise to yer to know I doan have no religious points to make a'tall on the matter. And it won't be hurtful in regards to yore loved ones either, any more that a rainy day when ya hoped to go the the beach is meant hurtfully...

But, I do 'preciate that you need a semseter off from that topic--so if ever, you knows whar I am.

On abortion, honey, doan worry over it--it is wrong, of course, but I am real real shur that you didn't have that understandin' when yer done it. Doan fret.

But please doan suggest it for
others. Truly, the science is strong on the abortion breast cancer connection--it is a massive cover-up that is being uncovered even by abortion proponents.

May 01, 2006 3:11 PM  
Blogger Pete Bogs said...

they've got your number - you liberal college professors indoctrinatin' young minds into your fold with sex and drugs... damn Bill Clinton!

May 01, 2006 6:53 PM  
Blogger CROAK said...

This is a perfect explanation of what true 'education' entails. I believe you have expressed in this post the most clear account of what creates, encourages and defines an educated person.
Your personal anguish did not come out of a dismissive stance but one of being too much, too often, too worn out by the directives you gave being overlooked.
I admire this piece so much as it illuminates the purpose of learning.. how to research, form an opinion, back it up with logically thought and argument and then express it in writing so as to convince the reader of their sincerity and the reasonableness of the topic.

This is wonderful...it is more than your heading, it the reason why education is so important to enable the freedom to think and act in the wider world.

Thank you

May 02, 2006 10:52 PM  
Blogger Blue said...

Bird - as an undergraduate & mature age, I am struggling with fellow students who cannot grasp the fundamental concepts behind coherent, logical arguement.

To make matters worse, a lot of students in my course do not have english as a first (or even 2nd) language, which makes it even more difficult to communicate with them.

As a student I appreciate the integrity with which you approach your class. As Jack commented above, unless you take care of you, you will not be able to take care of your students & help them to develop. I wish we had more academic staff with your integrity at the institution I am studying at.

May 13, 2006 6:28 AM  

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