Editorial: Classroom Conversations Cripple Dissent

At a liberal arts institution that prides itself on small class sizes and a low faculty-to-student ratio, the dynamic among students and professors in the classroom is a crucial component of student life at Skidmore. Within Skidmore’s classroom microcosm, likemindedness tends to dominate the way students think. And the seemingly universal views that students share are often reinforced by faculty members as well. Since we are a primarily liberal, democratic school, progressive professors often express their personal ideals and political thoughts in a way that suggests they believe all students in the classroom will inevitably share their views on issues like race and politics. Subsequently, our community tends to only embrace one way of thinking.

That kind of classroom dynamic can be a hard place for students with opposing political and social viewpoints to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts or opinions, particularly if they feel like they will be dissenting from their professor or may risk social ostracization. The Editorial Board believes that Skidmore students and professors should strive towards a more evenly balanced and challenging classroom environment.

In our editorial meeting, we discussed examples of students feeling like they had been silenced in the classroom, either by other students or professors. One student mentioned a sociology class in which they discussed race relations. The class was discussion-based, but most questions the professor posed were often met with silence. Eventually, many students admitted to feeling afraid of saying anything provocative or offensive, lest they be met with backlash from their fellow students. This fear completely destroyed one of the main purposes of the class, which was to stimulate discussion and educate one another on power dynamics and racial tensions. Similar issues occurred in board member's Academic Council meeting when she witnessed a clash between two minority students over the professor’s use of a racial slur as a legitimate piece of evidence for addressing race relations. No other students felt comfortable speaking up for the rest of the meeting, out of fear of being socially ostracized or judged for being considered offensive.

Eventually, many students admitted to feeling afraid of saying anything provocative or offensive, lest they be met with backlash from their fellow students.

Another student mentioned feeling attacked and silenced in a business class when the subject of Walmart’s business model came up. Decisively critical of large corporations, the students in the Board member’s business class jumped at the mere mention of Walmart. He felt immediately attacked with vitriol before he had a chance to make his point about how Walmart could be considered a socially aware corporation, considering the efforts of the Walton Family Foundation. Students refused to even acknowledge the possibility that someone might have constructive points to make about a large corporation like Walmart.

Another Board member mentioned an incident in history class when their professor reserved the final 20 minutes of class time to discuss incidents of sexual assault on campus, as well as the Department of Justice’s sexual misconduct policies. The Board member felt as though they could not express any form of disagreement with the DOJ’s current policies, since the professor had made clear that they thought positively of the policy, and that their opinions were to be taken as fact. The professor created a situation in which were a student to dissent, they would be viewed as discrediting victims of sexual assault. While a student should not feel comfortable devaluing victims of assault, they should feel comfortable questioning a DOJ policy without risking their social standing.

Professors and students alike should all have the opportunity to express their diverse views and opinions on subjects in the classroom, political and otherwise. If professors feel comfortable expressing their personal views to students, the Board believes that is appropriate. However, no professor or student should be engaging in dialogue in a way that silences or discourages potentially opposing viewpoints. In the same way students are often expected to justify or explain their opinions in the classroom, professors should be willing to do the same. We all need to learn how to treat one another’s opinions with respect and without judgement, rather than jumping to the attack if we disagree with somebody, or just staying silent.

It is our role as students to ensure that people of all viewpoints and perspectives have an opportunity to speak up in class discussions, so that our conversations are not so hiveminded. And, it is the professor’s role to facilitate challenging dialogue. Regardless of professors’ own opinions, they should be prepared to challenge all of their students equally, even playing Devil’s advocate when necessary.

Let’s put an end to the one-sided conversations and the echo-chambers of opinions in our classrooms. Since we are a school that boasts open mindedness, we should practice being more flexible in an academic setting. As a liberal arts institution, we should always be working towards achieving an ideal classroom environment. Open, respectful, challenging discussions among students and professors may be idealistic, but it is the standard that Skidmore should be striving towards. 

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