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With a Generous Spirit

I hope this will be taken in the spirit of support and helpfulness with which it is intended.

One thing we should think about as philosophers is why it might be the case that our class has, as the OP puts it, "24 white students and one black student." If I put out a course description and syllabus that led to this demographic enrollment, I would ask myself very serious questions about my course description and syllabus. This wouldn't mean that I've done something wrong, per se (maybe the demographics of the university are that skewed), but it would be a red flag to me that I should consider mixing things up (I'm open to another thread on what mixing it up might mean here).

Another thing that I'd emphasize, which is somewhat related, is that the answer to this question is not just about how we teach particular topics, but instead how we structure and design the class, the rules of classroom discussion, and the way in which we either silence or center different perspectives. Again, there are tomes written about this, but I would strongly discourage thinking about this question in terms of one discussion on one day that might be sensitive and strongly encourage thinking about this question in terms of a broader teaching philosophy and pedagogical framework, one that is clear to students from before the class even starts. Within a safe and supportive framework, difficult conversations can happen in an incredibly productive way. Without the framework, however, there's little that can be done on one day to make it go well, imo.

Again, open to more threads on this and willing to post more sources for those who are interested.


One thing I wonder is why one wouldn't simply approach all classes with the attitude that those most impacted by the topics under discussion are present.

Why not emphasize, in going over discussion norms/guidelines, that we are talking about Real People, and we need to be always respectful and careful with our language? That it is okay to make mistakes, but we need to keep in mind the stakes of our discussion and be mindful of how our ideas impact others?

Why would things change in a philosophy of disability course if one person is visibly disabled? It may in fact be that even if no one looks disabled, there are a number of disabled people in the class.

Or, why would things change in a philosophy of gender class if one suspects that one student is trans? It may, again, be the case that a number of students are trans, just not visibly so. Or they have loved ones who are.

Students shouldn't have to out themselves as marginalized in order to have their identities be treated with sensitivity.

That is, why not always approach discussions with the attitude that we need to be respectful and sensitive to difference, regardless of whether the people most impacted are present?

I think With a Generous Spirit above puts things well. I have to admit that I was a bit put off when I first read this question. I would think that approaching discussions with the attitude that things need to change only if "those people" are present means that the language of the discussion is othering and exclusionary. This is not a very charitable read on my part, and my apologies for that. But I felt like it might be just worth saying how the question comes off at least on my read. It is exceedingly rare that one can be sure of students' identities in such a complete way as to assume that the relevant marginalized identities are not present, and I don't understand why the default would be to assume that they are not.


Original poster here.

"If I put out a course description and syllabus that led to this demographic enrollment, I would ask myself very serious questions about my course description and syllabus."

Things are very different outside the US, I guess. I have studied and worked in three different small (mostly ethnically white) European countries and not once I have seen a black philosophy student or a colleague here.

"I would think that approaching discussions with the attitude that things need to change only if "those people" are present means that the language of the discussion is othering and exclusionary."

Okay, so things should not change then? That's fine, I wanted to ask if people think we should change something when we teach these issues when people most impacted are present.

long way of saying

It can definitely be scary to teach philosophical topics when it is clear that some students have philosophically relevant personal experiences that I lack. And it can be stressful to manage a classroom in discussions where one student stands out to other students as having those experiences.

I agree with everything Generous and Frustrated wrote, but I do think those replies might represent a slightly uncharitable read of the original question. I think we all have had moments of teaching fear in situations similar to those the questioner describes. It is not always obvious how to walk the line between welcoming contributions that come from a privileged standpoint and protecting that same student from other students inadvertently backing them into playing the role of The Voice of Minority Group X. It is not always obvious when to defer to identity-linked claims and when to challenge them, philosophically, in the same we would challenge other claims. Against a background of injustice, the line between respect and infantilization isn't always stable.

The things that help me feel more confident I'm doing better in those situations:

- make sure that your lesson plans draw on some materials that are written by someone in the relevant group.
- if you're lecturing, rehearse with those students centrally in mind. Philosophers too often use toy examples and thought experiments that are pretty offensive when you hear them from the perspective of minority groups. (This is especially an issue when it comes to disability. You don't want to find yourself at the front of the room with some Tiny Tim bullshit surviving in your lecture notes, just 'cause that's how it was taught in grad school. Easy to catch if you rehearse with disabled students in mind.)
- if you're using student-driven activities, game them out ahead of time. Think through what you imagine to be the most likely arc; think through a couple of disaster scenarios. Most students want to be nice, supportive, to learn from each other. Help them out by imaginatively testing out instructions, seed examples, framing questions, etc. to maximize the chances that the activity won't be derailed by well-intentioned ignorance.
- take extra care in familiarizing yourself not only with the most philosophically important work but also the currently socially prominent (like, twitter-trending) work of activists in the relevant group. Key terms and slang, arguments, examples, memes. Knowing even a little bit about these things can in some cases help facilitate communication and build trust.
- if you have the kind of relationship with the student that supports it, privately ask for feedback after the fact. If you have a TA sitting in on class, ask for feedback after the fact. A question like "do you have any tips for me for the next time I teach this topic" can often get an honest and helpful answer.

Of course, these are all things I know I SHOULD be doing all the time, because they're all part of good teaching. When I have students who I know have philosophically relevant personal experiences that I lack, I appreciate the motivational push to do this sometimes daunting part of the job.

I guess this has been a long way of saying: no, there isn't anything you should do differently, but you should enjoy the motivational boost to do things right.

also long-winded

In addition to what the responded quoted by Marcus said, I think it's important to distinguish two types of cases: (a) cases in which students would really like to avoid discussing an issue/certain types of examples and (b) cases in which they ultimately would want to discuss these issues, and might even find discussing them liberating or otherwise helpful.

In cases of having survived sexual assault, I suspect that the majority of students fall into category (a) -- although I once had such a student tell me that they found discussing feminist literature that touched on these issues and named them very openly (including specific examples) to be helpful in finding a perspective on their own experience. In any case, I find the suggestion to limit examples to ones in the reading to be helpful; it may also be a good idea to use trigger warnings to make these sections of a course more navigable to those students.

In cases of type (b), I think it is important to set up the course in a way such that those students have an opportunity to talk about their experience. Of course, I don't mean asking them "What is your opinion as a woman/POC/wheelchair user about that?" Instead, you can pick guiding questions for the course as a whole that make understanding specific experience helpful. For example: Fricker's idea of hermeneutical injustice. Fricker argues that without the concept of sexual harassment, victims of such actions lacked a conceptual handle on the situation -- which lead to an additional form of harm at the time when that concept was not generally available. This is a good topic, because it raises the question what sort of issues we might also lack (or have lacked) a conceptual handle on. A student who has experience with discrimination *can* bring up their own experience as an example here -- if they want and feel comfortable. Making your classroom feel safe and comfortable will of course help with this, too. (I think it can also be helpful to talk about your own experiences, if there are any.)

Speaking of which, I do want to express that I very much appreciate that this blog is a space where one can ask for help with issues like this. I agree with long way of saying that the better way of offering help is to say "here is a good thing you could try", rather than saying "here is what I assume you have already done wrong" or "here is what I dislike about your question". OP wants to teach sensitive issues well, which I think is a wonderful goal and something that we can all use help with.


I failed my Philo of Man in college 3 times. For some reason, I can't get it inside my head. But during the last time I took it, there's one exam question that got to me, made me think, and is still relevant to who I am now. I believe that topics sensitive to, or close to student's hearts are what would make or break a student. It definitely made me a better person, and I thank my teacher for it.

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