Sensitive Issues: A Classroom Dilemma

Teaching Non-Traditional Subjects

In one of the first lectures in her course on the history of the Old South, Assistant Professor of History Catherine Clinton '73 was asked a question about the exploitation of female slaves by their masters.

"Sometimes you get such inflammatory and explosive questions in a course," Clinton says. "Luckily I had a lecture about that topic later in the semester, but it's a problem. The subtleties of neglecting a group, or neglecting the dynamics within a group are such that you really have to try to be sensitive on many different levels."

Clinton says that sensitivity to the issues raised by students is one way a professor can help defuse the potential controversies that come with teaching topics such as Afro-American and women's history.

Her experiences dealing with students' reactions to controversial subject matter closely parallel those of many other professors who teach in non-traditional disciplines. Interviews with instructors this week revealed that the teaching of sensitive issues in the college classroom-and the question of student input--are problems that do not lend themselves to a single solution.

"In this subject matter you don't want to short-cut candor and truth, but between those complicated goals there's a lot of space for creativity, and that's the problem," says Professor of Government Martin L. Kilson, Jr. "You're not talking about Ming art or ancient Greek drawings, you're talking about something that's up close for a lot of people."


President Bok and Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence have recently made public statements reaffirming the instructor's ultimate sovereignty in the classroom. Their defense of academic freedom--and the limited role administrators may play in the classroom--came in response to charges that a history professor made specially insensitive remarks in course lectures last semester.

Three students in February brought a complaint about Winthrop Professor of History Stephan A. Thernstrom to the Committee on Race Relations, a non-disciplinary, advisory body of the College. In response, Spence read his brief statement on academic freedom to the full Faculty at its March meeting. The students then met with Thernstrom and gave him a written statement of their complaints about his portion of Historical Study A-25, "The Peopling of America," which he co-taught with Adams University Professor Bernard Bailyn.

And while Spence, Thernstrom and the students decline to discuss the specific charges against Thernstrom, the case has sparked a public discussion of how sensitive issues are presented in the classroom.

The professors interviewed say they must always be conscious of the sensitive and controversial aspects of the subjects they are teaching. But the faculty members are unanimous in endorsing the ultimate right of the professor to determine the content and presentation of lectures.

Academic freedom--one of the most revered principles at Harvard and other universities--is difficult to define within the context of teaching sensitive issues, they say. And they add that the relative newness of scholarly discussion about those issues often exacerbates this difficulty.

"Very explosive controversies persist about the American past, and we're still debating our interpretations of those eras," says Clinton, who has taught courses on and written about Southern and women's history.

"Black history and women's history are very similar in that some people still consider them unusual and new and not yet paradigms of historical study," says Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies and History David W. Blight, who teaches courses on Reconstruction and modern Afro-American history. He says the newness of these fields leaves unresolved questions about what it is and is not appropriate to teach in the classroom.

Bok and Spence in their statements clearly delineated the University's stance on academic freedom. "The fact that opponents could voice their concerns did not mean that the University would undertake to censor what professors lecture on in the classrooms," Bok said.

But if academic freedom issues appear clear-cut, the deeper questions of how a professor should handle student complaints and how he should approach a potentially volatile topic are much murkier. Several of the professors interviewed say they must develop their own personal style in presenting controversial historical issues.

For example, Blight says teaching about slavery is especially difficult. "The only thing you can do with slavery is to look it in the face, to try to keep some scholarly detachment and yet to tell the truth about it as we find it."