’Uncomfortable learning’: a new log?

Though the “Mark Hopkins and the Log” ideal is often seen as the paradigm of Williams classroom education, many professors now identify the concept of “uncomfortable learning” as an equally important standard.

“Uncomfortable learning” – wherein students must step out of their comfort zones, acknowledge their differences and defend their opinions intellectually – was the concept professors most often cited when asked about their teaching philosophies in terms of working with a diverse student body.

With the ultimate goal of promoting class discussion and examining different opinions, professors labeled the College’s diversity – political, religious, cultural and social – as a major resource in the classroom. To fully work with this diversity, most recognized the importance of a varied curriculum, the necessity of objectivity on the part of the professor and the value of text as a filter for communication.

“Students may not [always come] from different backgrounds,” said Tess Chakkalakal, assistant professor of English. “But they do have different opinions and want to express them. . . [and] the text becomes a place where we can negotiate these differences.

Describing literature as “a medium to speak to each other,” Chakkalakal said “there’s a tendency to try to identify with a text. . .[and] when that doesn’t happen there’s a type of discomfort. . .an atmosphere of discomfort which is ultimately productive.”

Though not all agree with the concept of uncomfortable learning, most professors acknowledge it as a movement predominant amongst the various schools of learning on campus. “I like my students to be comfortable,” said Scott Wong, associate professor of history. “But ‘uncomfortable learning’ is the buzzword [about challenging] students and [making] them think as they haven’t before.”

But whether or not professors labeled their classroom as an “uncomfortable” place, most all agreed that one of their primary goals is to expose students to different opinions and to occasionally reconcile them.

With philosophies ranging from department to department, many considered their subject to be a unique filter through which students could approach these personal and ideological differences. With these different types of analysis in mind, most professors said promoting discussion and identification of different opinions is a top priority.

“Any time you have the opportunity to encourage viewpoints and strongly held opinions, I think one should encourage that,” said Gary Jacobsohn, chair and Woodrow Wilson professor of political science

William Wagner, professor of history, further emphasized the importance of creating a forum for different viewpoints, stating that part of a classroom mission is “to ask students whose opinions are at odds to respond to each other.”

Further, most professors hoped to have students not only respond to each other, but also relate their positions. “I really try to push people towards empathy – the ability to understand how things look from the other side,” said Marc Lynch, assistant professor of political science. Wong cited a similar philosophy, in which students must fit their differences into a greater whole, with a primary goal being “to get students to see that they’re part of a picture. . .part of a larger American or global history.”

Additionally, many stated that it is the College’s responsibility to make sure a variety of opinions and perspectives are presented. Citing the importance of a diverse curriculum, Gail Newman, professor for social responsibility and personal ethics, and former head of the Multi-Cultural Center, stated that it is the College’s duty to “[bring] into discussion voices that aren’t necessarily included elsewhere.”

“Williams has a pressing need to keep discussion open,” she said. “I feel very strongly that the intellectual realm is a site where we can engage with things that are difficult to engage with, emotionally [and] personally.”

Other professors also emphasized the necessities of a diverse student body to accompany a diverse curriculum. To Bill Darrow, professor of religion, discussion of world spirituality is “always enhanced by as wide a mix of participants as possible.”

To take advantage of the College’s mix of students, most professors work to expose their students to as wide of a range of opinions as possible. However, to achieve this goal, professors must generally distinguish between different types of diversity and perspective, encouraging students to offer what opinions they would like to, and typically forcing them to back them up intellectually.

While singling a student out as a representative of their cultural or racial background is typically considered unacceptable, most professors state that they do not mind calling a student on previously expressed political or societal opinions. “I would see nothing problematic with calling on a student who has expressed a point of view previously in class,” Jacobsohn said.

Thus, personal opinions become fair game for class analysis. “Every position, once thrown into the public sphere, is open for debate,” Lynch said.

But while encouraging students to debate and acknowledge their differences, most professors also cited the necessity of separating personalities from personal opinions. “It’s not the identity of the person, it’s what they’ve said,” Lynch said, who also emphasized separating people from affiliations, stating that he works “to get people to distance themselves from political identifications.”

With this separation of students’ identities from their opinions also comes the necessity of balancing opinions to encourage all students to participate in discussion. “Teachers need to create an environment where they make clear that all views are welcome,” Jacobsohn said.

In order to accomplish this objective, he and others stressed that a professor should offer an impartial front, remaining willing to hear different viewpoints, as well as to give readings and assignments dealing with different perspectives. Many professors also go a step further, pushing all opinions and subsequently playing devil’s advocate if the discussion becomes one-sided.

Other emphasized the importance of cultural sensitivity in making the classroom a place for all students to feel welcome to express themselves. “Teachers have to be extra attuned to individual differences in the classroom,” said Newman, who also mentioned that to teach one must be “aware and not [have] preconceived notions” as well as “open and curious about the people in your classes.”

“Whether we like it or not, there is perceived to be a kind of ethos at Williams,” Newman said. “I think we have to acknowledge that people who are not from the real of perceived ‘Williams’ background [may feel marginalized]. . .[and] an intellectual discomfort cannot be achieved if people feel too marginalized.”

In accordance with the respectful environment most professors strive to create, many praised Williams students for their general classroom etiquette. Darrow, for example, characterized Williams students as charged with an “openness and general willingness to learn.”

Chakkalakal agreed, stating that “the student body that I have engaged [is] remarkably open to new ideas.” Further, she said most Williams students seem driven by “a real hunger. . .not simply for differences, but for a forum to find the means to express their opinions.”

In this regard, most professors said that they had rarely encountered hurtful expression or communication amongst students of different beliefs or backgrounds. “I think Williams students are very good at respecting each other,” said Lynch. “I’m alert to [the possibility of offensive speech], and it happens, but I’ve almost never had that problem.”

Darrow furthered this opinion, stating that he is somewhat surprised by the lack of openly hostile opinions, and that he has “never heard any bigoted expressions.”

“I hope the students that take my classes are representative of the student body,” he said. However, with this concern also came a hope that the actions he has witnessed are genuine. “In terms of our educational mission, if people feel [extreme or hurtful opinions], we should be hearing that and dealing with that,” he said.

Others also shared the worry that students might be holding back their opinions. Many suggested that Williams students can be so polite that they become unwilling to share their opinions and beliefs. Jacobsohn claimed that Williams students can be “if anything too polite and deferential, often [shying] away from confrontation.”

Such nervous tendencies are further exaggerated when students are dealing with contentious political issues. On the topic of abortion, Jacobsohn stated that “I know students have very strong opinions on that issue. . .I’m usually struck by the fact that they usually. . .do not present these intensely held opinions.”

Goldberg, assistant professor of history, agreed that students often show the same hesitance with religious beliefs as political beliefs. “The culture in the classroom at Williams is not one in which students feel comfortable talking about their spiritual beliefs,” Goldberg said. “I would be happy if students talked about how to reconcile religious beliefs with history. . .[but] students are somewhat reticent.”

Wagner offered a similar perspective, stating that the nature of history classes often leads students to distance themselves from discussion. “For better or for worse. . . both the Soviet Union and communism in society have become historicized,” Wagner said, who is a Russian history specialist. “They are simply things which happened in the past. . .[and] that produces a very different discussion.” Because of these delineations, he ventures that he “wouldn’t really have much of a clue where the majority of students lie [politically].”

Such matters of opinion come into concern with far less frequency in the math and science classes of Division III. “The nature of scientific inquiry is such that you’re building a logical stature based on observations, and [the beliefs] of students don’t enter into it,” said Heather Williams, professor of biology.

However, science professors do encounter matters of belief on an individual basis; for example, vegetarian students occasionally will not consent to performing dissections, or other experiments on animals. According to Williams, conflicts of ideology and assignment are rare enough that the College has no specific policies regarding them. “In general, it’s a student’s sincere beliefs, and a student is willing to look with a professor for opportunities that are still productive,” she said.

Thus, division III professors often encourage individual opinion in the same manner as professors of the arts and humanities, acknowledging that students’ different beliefs and perspectives often make them tackle academics in different manners.

Wong further emphasized this presence of diversity in the classroom, stating “I think it’s fallacious to think that students aren’t going to bring their backgrounds into the classroom. . .they’ll bring their opinions, their positions and their past experiences.”

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