Columns / Discourse / November 4, 2015

On classrooms and being offensive

Today, I write in favor of voices that think prejudiced thoughts. Too many gobs are stopped, or rather, have stopped themselves, just short of persecution.

In my time as a teaching assistant for an all male, freshman writing class on literary depictions of war, I have at times seen the opposite happen. These young people have skipped readings, born familial tragedy on their shoulders, slaved over essays, shirked essays, refused to speak in class and fearlessly aired their opinions. Some of which were, as we like to say, problematic. And thank God for that.

The students are less inhibited in this regard than any other class I’ve experienced at Knox. I think this is because it is a room full of largely (but not all) white, cis-gendered males who have limited exposure to Knox’s environment.

The only woman in the room is Professor of English Natania Rosenfeld. So when Natania leads discussion into the choppy waters of humanitarianism, rape and race in war, we tend to dive into a milieu of revelatory, terrifying and obvious observations. The sharp-toothed rebuttals, social conscience and political correctness common at Knox is less present than in other classes. Offensiveness can bloom in the space where paranoid political correctness used to be.

This experience has convinced me that if there is any place to be offensive in the world, it is the classroom.

One of these classes have left me shaken, upset, flashbacking. This is a state I welcome because it allows Natania and myself to hone in on educational chinks. This process has been one of the most enjoyable in my life. And, for the record, I like these students and think they are quite open-minded; I am simply using them to make an argument.

It is not the sharp-toothed and socially conscious who are responsible for the discomfort and silence that emanates from many classrooms as difficult topics are broached. It is the fault of those of us who are too scared of saying something politically incorrect because we are hyper-aware of the privilege (or scared of not being aware of the privilege) that comes with being white or cis or rich. Or, we are just plain shy about being corrected.

Ideally, we should enter every classroom assuming that the community has good intentions regardless of what prejudice may leak from its mouth. The proper response to these opinions is not to walk out of the room (do that if you must – I have), to assault or to spread hyperbolic rumors about people. I am convinced that these utterances are usually not acts of overt aggression; hopefully, they are an opportunity for us, the community, to fulfill our obligation to gently or rigorously check the individual. And the individual should not fear this; they should be eager to expand and reevaluate their worldviews.

I must assert that the line between the checked and the checker is not determined by demographic/identity. All of us think shitty things and all of us think good things.

Personally, I hope I say every prejudiced opinion I have during my time at Knox and I pray that y’all will correct and forgive me every time. I would rather learn such lessons here than in the professional world. Why pay so many thousands, travel so far, to run 25 miles of the marathon that is a liberal arts degree? Dialogue is essential to education and I posit that every individual has a moral obligation to engage in it.

Political correctness can only take us so far before it begins to inhibit. This is not to say that political correctness isn’t a step forward from where we were last. But political correctness has become a veil that protects internal prejudice and I say we expose it.

I believe that radical, even hyperbolic voices can be the most powerful locomotives of change. This is the kind of deconstructive discourse I am trying to engage in and I hope you will respond to me in TKS or individually: dawhite@knox.edu.

Alex White

Tags:  cisgender classrooms humanitarianism identity politically correct

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  • Barbara Ferris

    This is the most bigoted racist post ever. The only bigot here is Alex. To state all the students are bigots only because they are white, heterosexual, masculine acting, athletic males. I think you, Alex, need to be more accepting of others.

    As a concerned parent, I will NOT put up with labeling lies. Since my son is a minor at age 15; I have the legal and moral right to stand up for him. Hopefully, you will NOT lower my son’s grade just because his parent expressed their concern over false labeling. My son actually likes the class and the professor. They had a good relationship last year. I also do not think the parents of the other students would appreciate your false comments.

    Lastly, It is also against the law to SMOKE in a classroom. Second hand smoke hurts others. Especially when a student has bronchitis and you are directly blowing smoke at him while he is coughing.



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