The other day I was teaching a public speaking class where the students were required to interview another student and then present a two minute speech about that person. All was going well until one of the introductions of a student indicaated that he was a member of a religion that’s been around the US for a long time but is mostly unknown to most people who don’t follow religious news, or are just not very cognizant concerning theology. One student asked what that religion was, and the student tried to respond by not getting into a conversation about religion. However, the questioning student continued, trying to get more information, essentially putting the original student on the spot to have to explain his religion to a group of people who knew nothing about it.
The one thing I could see was that he was very uncomfortable talking about his religion in front of class (the student who interviewed him had only mentioned it as an aside, saying she was exposed to it for the first time when talking to the student and was more intrigued than anything else, and then she moved onto another subject). So, as this student tried to explain quickly and without any elaboration, the asking student still continued to want to know more information.
What I found interesting from the exchange was that the questioning student appeared to be more interested in talking about the religion because it didn’t fit his understanding of Christian religions (although it actually was one of the more Baptist variety). It almost felt like this was about to turn into a “explain your religion so I can see if I approve of it” converation, although there’s no way to know that was the direction it would have taken. Fortunately, the discussion ended quicky, and then we went onto another group of students. At least before it became too uncomfortable.
This reminded me of the many political science courses I’ve taught over the years where one student is an outlier from a completely different political philosophy than everyone else. It is so easy to make just one student very uncomforable, which is something that most educators are supposed to learn is never acceptable. Over the years, I’ve taught courses where I try to take the middle ground of a group presenter/moderator rather than someone with a political opinion. What usually happens is a select few students start to suspect I’m politically opposed to their personal philosophy because they always seem to notice when I’m not siding with their side and giving conversation time to a side they might not agree with (when in reality, they haven’t a clue that my philosophy is so out of the mainstream that they’d be hard pressed to actually try to guess it if they were put on the spot to do so).
Religion is one of those scary topics because no matter how hard you try to avoid it as a conversation, someone always manages to try to pull it back in and then tries to put you on the spot to engage the topic. Students generally feel more comfortable when they can back a professor into a boxed corner. Why? I haven’t a clue. But I find that happens way too much.
For that class, we managed to avoid a political/religious issue that seemed to want to take the stage, which tells me it will likely happen again. All I remember is when I was in class instead of standing up in front of the class, and so many professors took the bait and allowed their classes to become very uncomfortable for a lot of students. What’s amazing is that administrators NEVER discuss this with professors as to how the college/university stands on such issues, so you’re generally on your own until some administrative body decides you took the wrong approach (and then they fire you).
The funny thing is: Even though my class was a success that day, there’s really no way to tell if you’re maintaining the peace as well as providing the correct education. It’s almost a continuous series of trial by error moments that you hope is helping to provide the best education to all involved.