Friday, April 29, 2011

The value of dissent

Contemplating the journey (Sagrada Familia by Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona)*
In my Psychology of Human Sexuality class on Wednesday, we had an intense discussion about sexual assault.  We talked about a number of commonly-held beliefs about sexual assault, including the issue of whether women are "asking" to be raped when they dress in sexy outfits or when they invite a man into their home.  One of the students (I'll call her Pat -- not her real name) was of the opinion that women should be held accountable for such choices.  She argued that women should be aware of how these behaviors will be viewed by others in our society, and stated baldly that she had less sympathy for a rape victim who had dressed revealingly.   I (along with other students) challenged her assumptions regarding the cultural meanings of any given behavior and made the case that nothing justifies assault.  She acknowledged some of our points but was unpersuaded and stuck to her opinion with considerable passion.

It would be easy for me to see this interchange as a teaching failure -- I failed to convince Pat to give up her belief.  I failed to persuade her that such beliefs reflect a cultural mythology that justifies rape through victim-blaming.  Certainly, I find such rape myths deeply problematic, part of a larger societal system that normalizes sexual assault and silences victims who believe they are somehow at fault for their victimization.  Yet while I am utterly opposed to Pat's beliefs about rape, and I strive to eradicate such myths at every opportunity, I still consider this discussion a success.

Why?  Because, even though it was abundantly clear that I didn't agree with her, Pat felt comfortable expressing herself in my class.  She spoke out without fear of being belittled for her opinion.  That tells me that I have created a space in which we can have honest, vibrant intellectual debate.  Given the controversies that surround much of the material we cover in class, I expect that there will be divergent points of view among the students.  It is important to me that I not quash these differing opinions, but rather create a climate in which students feel able to express themselves and engage in the discussion, even when they are in disagreement with each other or with me.  In fact, I encourage students to disagree with the readings and with me, as this encourages critical thinking skills and enhances understanding of the key issues.  The students who embraced one or more of the rape myths provided an excellent opportunity for the other students to formulate reasoned arguments against such beliefs.  Indeed, other students argued with Pat (and with each other and with me), but the discussion remained respectful even when strong emotion was involved.

Respect is the key element.  I strive to create a classroom in which we respect each other, in which each student's contributions are valued.  We can disagree, even be impassioned in our disagreement, as long as we remain respectful of each other.  I take my student's comments and perspectives seriously.  I invite them to think about the issues and to weigh in on debates in the field.  I try to create a sense that we are all collaborating in the intellectual enterprise -- to be sure, I am the acknowledged expert and I take the lead in discussions, but we are all contributors and I want my students to take ownership of the intellectual work we do.  Even when a student's belief is factually incorrect, or when their comment is somewhat off-topic, I don't dismiss or trivialize their contribution.  I find a way to weave it into the main point or connect it to the psychological theories we are discussing. 

The product of our discussion in Social Psychology about the complex web of factors that influence aggression (4/27/2011)
In the end, my job is not to make my students agree with me.  I frequently remind my students that they don't have to agree with any of the theories we discuss; they merely have to understand them.  As Bill Beattie states: "The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think - rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with thoughts of other men."  It is far more important to me that my students gain the ability to think critically than it is to get them to agree with any particular viewpoint.  I hope to move students from uncritical acceptance (or knee-jerk rejection) to thoughtful consideration and questioning.  I do not strive to convince my students of the rightness of my opinions, only of the importance of critical thinking and of relevant evidence.

As I have said before, college is not merely or primarily a place to learn facts; it is a place of change, of transformation.  Of course, I cannot say how a student will be changed (or not) by their experience in my class.  The transformation need not be immediate; change often takes time.  It may be months or years before the ideas in a particular class have a demonstrable effect.  All I can do is provide relevant information and diverse perspectives to try to get students excited about learning and engaged in critical thinking.   Those goals were well-met by our discussion, in which the students were enthusiastic participants, providing diverse perspectives, experiences, and relevant information.  Maybe I didn't change Pat's mind, but in many ways, that is irrelevant as a measure of success; indeed, her dissent provided a crucial springboard for a more sustained, in-depth discussion.  And who knows what change might emerge in the future as a result? 

"My idea of education is to unsettle the minds of the young and inflame their intellects."
              -- Robert Maynard Hutchins

"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education."
              -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Transformation at the Butterfly Conservatory (American Museum of Natural History, NYC)

 *I love this photo of one of the spiral staircases at the Sagrada Familia -- it gives a sense of the winding path we take in life, often into darkly unknown recesses.  The Sagrada Familia itself has been a work of many decades, reminding us that we must be patient when we undertake great tasks.


  1. What a wonderful post! It is easy to see why yous tudents value you so highly!

    Have you ever touched upon the class aspect of what is considered provacatice dress in your discussions?

  2. ediT: YOUR STUDENTS value you so highly. I had so much trouble getting my comment up, I failed to proof it!

  3. And here I thought you were just using some interesting regionalism (like "youse guys"). ;-) Thanks for your nice comment!

    I was trying to introduce the issue of class and attire, but I'm not sure it came across (it was such a vibrant discussion that it was hard to keep a thread going at times!). After class, I reiterated the idea that the meaning of attire is different across social groups, so that something might be seen as "sexy" or risque to one person but not to another (I don't even like the term "provocative" as it implies that one is provoking a response and seems to make the wearer responsible if there is an assault). I mentioned the film "Working Girl" in which there are clear class differences in standards of attire. At the beginning of the film, she is dressed in a flashy way as a secretary (big jewelry, big hair, more revealing attire) but in order to take a higher-status job she has to take on the more demure attire of the middle class (less revealing, less flashy). In fact, I said that the rules for women's attire are very complicated -- sometimes I wish there was a published rule book somewhere! [There are class differences in men's attire, as well, but men are rarely seen as dressing "provocatively," so the issues are somewhat different.]

    In other words, given that there are different meanings of attire and behavior across social groups, it is highly problematic to presume consent based on implied meanings of behavior or attire. Consent should be based on explicit verbal consent for a specific sexual act, not on assumptions we make based on someone's attire. In addition, focusing on women's attire puts the onus of responsibility for preventing assault on women rather than men, which is also highly problematic.

  4. I have the overwhelming urge to give this response an "amen." : )

    When I was 18 or 19, I got "all dressed up" for my Dad's wedding. I had on too much bright make-up, my hair was HUGE, my dress wasn't revealing but it wasn't "demure" either. I had on pink highheels. Looking at a picture of that day, my choices (to me)NOW scream "working class." To others, I am sure I looked "cheap." It only drives your point home.

    After all, I was dressing up for my FATHER'S WEDDING. I was planning on spending the hanging out with my new little brother (then age 10), my grandparents, and my aunts.

    It's interesting to me NOW how often the class aspect of this issue is so often missed.

  5. Ah, youth! I had similar tendencies in my adolescence, I suspect -- I recall some very bright make-up choices, if nothing else.

    As to why the class aspect is ignored: I think we are resistant to discussing class issues in the U.S., as we just don't like to acknowledge issues of social class. That is then compounded with victim-blaming in this case. It is only by implying that there is a single, objective standard of "decent" attire and behavior that we can then blame women who do not adhere to the standards of decency. Think of the reaction of Europeans who reacted with scandalized horror (and lewd glances) at the scantily-clad "natives", who must be Jezebels to dress thusly, with no acknowledgment of cultural differences in standards of attire. And so it continues . . .

  6. AHhhhh! A professor found my blog..! AAHHH!

    Ahem. That's out of the way now. I have to tell you I've kind of missed your class now that it's over! Most of my classes this semester at UW-Madison aren't nearly as "provocative" and exciting as yours. :D

    (And yes, you are really good at shaping open spaces in a classroom setting that allow for expression of ideas, even if some of us *ahem* have some really strongly held opinions.)

  7. Welcome to my blog, Ari! Not many of my students find it . . . ;-)

    I'm glad you found my class to be open to the expression of ideas -- that really is important to me. Yesterday's class involved a spirited discussion of whether bestiality/zoophilia is intrinsically coercive or whether the animal could be viewed as genuinely consenting in some cases, and how consent could be discerned if so. How many classes get such great material to discuss? ;-)

    I hope you are enjoying UW-Madison -- I've heard good things about it, and certainly Madison is a terrific college town. Do keep in touch and let me know how you are doing.

  8. Oh, I'd have to give that one a big old Hell No. I wonder if certain subgroups of people are more likely to have that response. For instance, every attentive parent knows that in the early years, MANY behaviors that are merely exploratory or developmental could LOOK sexual to anyone inclined to interpret them thusly. It's one of the reasons we're so crazy and protective (that, plus media manipulation plus instinct)....