Hello everyone, very nice to meet you, and welcome to the philperc! I’m one of your trusty Team: Ethics bloggers (we need color-coordinated shirts or something).
Every quarter, I teach bioethics to pre-med and science students, and every quarter, I ask them to take seriously the ethical obligations that come from power imbalances (especially those between doctor/patients and scientists/non-scientists). With the recent conversation floating around about the difference between “teachers” and “professors” (see here and here) it is clear that there is still work to be done in thinking about our own roles.
One idea that often gets lost when we talk about pedagogy is the very real disrespect our topics and methods might present to those in dialogue with us (especially our students, who stand in asymmetrical relationships with us).
He stood in front of the room, puffing his cheeks and holding his rounded arms out in front of him, waddling from side to side. This was clearly meant to be comic relief, an imitation of the hilarity that is a fat person, I suppose?
I was then, as I am now, unapologetically fat, and as my teacher mimicked a fat person on tip toes and joked about the effort required to shove him onto tracks, I looked around the room and realized I was having a very different experience of this lecture than my classmates. They were giggling and taking rushed notes, going about this lecture like all the others that came before it.
This lecture did not feel like all the others to me. It felt personal. I couldn’t put myself in the place of the pusher in this case, or a disinterested third party. No matter how hard I tried, I could only picture myself in the role of the pushed.
As I listened to my professor and classmates trivialize the choice to kill this man (“Would he bounce? Haha!”), I turned off. I went from admiring and respecting my professor – this had been my favorite class! – to cool detachment. I didn’t speak again in that class, for the entire quarter.
What is disconcerting at first gets easier with repetition.
Most of us have worked with thought experiments for so long and in so many ways that they become nothing more than logic puzzles. We focus on the structural elements of our arguments and the justification for our claims. The content is no longer meaningful.
That’s a problem. People who teach ethics/action/mind/etc. are teaching about real content that connects to the real world. It is not permissible to treat our teaching without care around this fact.
My classes include discussions about abortion, rape, sex, disability, sexism, and racism. It is very easy for me to fall into old habits when lecturing an article like Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” – I know the paper inside and out and have lectured it many, many times. And for me, it is a fun piece to work with, one of my favorite series of lectures to give.
And yet, sitting inside my lecture hall, every quarter, will be students that have personal experience with abortion, some of them painful experiences. I will have a significant number with personal experiences of sexual violence, even as I discuss how the violinist case does or does not parallel rape cases, and whether or not a rape survivor is both morally and causally responsible for their rape. They will listen to some of their classmates try to defend the view that because of the choices some rape survivors made (what they wore, who they were with, whatever), that they – at least partially – deserved what happened. I will correct them, but the exchange will happen, and survivors will hear. I will tell the real-life story of Kitty Genovese and her violent death, a story rooted in a time and place (most notably: a lesbian in pre-Stonewall New York, a time and place where homosexuality was criminal and where violence against women was often dismissed). Students will, every quarter, forget the fact that she was murdered to focus on the sensationalism of rape, asking questions about the details of the attack. Every quarter.
Many students will not consider this a “fun” series of lectures.
This is not just the classroom of a bioethicist. Many years ago I taught a class on free will, perhaps one of the most abstract theoretical classes I’ve taught. In the middle, a student who had fled from a famously brutal and oppressive state approached me. She was an expert on coercion in ways that I can’t imagine. She would (and could) not approach our cases in abstracted ways, and it felt like the worst kind of disrespect to ask that of her.
Familiarity and repetition seduce us sometimes – and for many of us, luck and privilege means we have the luxury of abstraction. That luxury comes at a cost.
When we ask students to set aside all personal experience and context in order to meet us in our comfortable dialogue, we are asking them to do something that carries a price. To quote Elizabeth Barnes, “It’s a strange thing – an almost unnatural thing – to construct careful, analytically rigorous arguments for the value of your own life, or for the bare intelligibility of the claims made by an entire civil rights movement.”
(Also: don’t stop with this quote. Read her whole damn post here. It is MAGNIFICENT.)
I am not suggesting that these cases should not be taught through the lens of argumentation. Indeed they should. I am suggesting that we aim to do it better. I suggest that we need to recapture something some of us have lost: our sense of reverence.
I use this word “reverence” with great consideration. I mean to invoke both the respect and affection that the word implies in its common usage, but also the awe. When we teach about these cases and engage in dialogue with people who occupy extraordinarily diverse perspectives and experiences – people who do not have the luxury of abstraction -- we owe them our humility. Despite our careful argumentative strategies and conceptual knowledge of our topics, many of us (though certainly not all) are treading in areas that we will never understand as deeply as people who live them.
Our unconsidered attempts at approaching cases through our stripped-down lens of argumentation can mean, at times, forcing the very people who have been marginalized, oppressed, or harmed to justify the claim that they are fully deserving of equal moral consideration. And by pretending to treat these questions as if they are not personal, not morally loaded, we legitimize oppression as an option worth taking seriously.
In other words, in carelessly fumbling around these conversations, we side with the wrongdoers.
Let’s not do that.
I certainly do not have all of the answers in how to lecture with reverence, but I am explicitly committed to the principle. As someone who teaches in particularly triggering areas, I take explicit steps to not harm the students I am charged with helping.
To this end, I have started an “Opt-Out Program.” This is my version of trigger warnings. Every weekend, I send out a content warning to my class about any charged issues I am going to talk about in lecture the next week. I include the content of examples and thought experiments, because they matter. I als0 include warnings about any sexism and racism found in analytical cannon work I assign (hello Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Locke, Hume, and so many others; I’m looking at you!).
I do my best to report on common triggering topics, but I am also happy to report on any topic a student requests. Students then have the option to respond privately to my email telling me that they’re “opting out” of that days’ lecture. No need to tell me why, and no need to justify their choice.
I offer to ask their classmates for notes and pass them along (without revealing the opting-out student’s identity), and people who use the program have the option to be matched with an undergraduate volunteer tutor from our Bioethics Society who has taken my class before. I grade on participation and attendance, but no penalties will be given to anyone who misses lecture while using the program.
Thus far, a few students take me up on the program when particularly difficult topics come up, but many more have told me that knowing these topics were coming allowed them to prepare themselves and stay in lecture.
I do it because I think that taking my students seriously as peers in a moral community means treating them with respect, and that means giving them the tools to make decisions for themselves about their own well-being. I also do it because for me, it is an act of humility. I don’t personally know what it’s like to go through some of the experiences I speak about (although I do personally know what it’s like to go through some of them). Trigger-warnings – and actionable ways for students to use them – are part of my attempt to teach with humility. Treating the material I teach in the same way I might treat plant biology is a foundational kind of disrespect.
But reverence doesn’t begin and end with trigger warnings. Genuine reverence requires deeper action.
Some of the debate around trigger warnings concerns whether professors will be able to understand/detect all possible triggers, and whether this is too much to ask of faculty. This whole line of reasoning strikes me as shallow and misplaced.
No one is asking anyone to identify any/all possible triggers for our students. What is being asked of us is to understand and respect that words are not neutral, and they have different impact depending on who is saying what.
Taking our obligation to respect our students seriously means learning about the first-hand experiences of the people/cases we use as objects of our philosophy. This means learning from the people who belong to these categories, themselves. It means not treating people’s genuine suffering as nothing more than fodder for our work. It means not using the tools of our discipline to talk over or in place of others.
Surgeons have unique obligations to patients because their tools are sharp and dangerous. Philosophers don’t wield scalpels, but we are far from harmless. We owe our students care in how we wield our tools.