Ethical issues in teaching sensitive issues - Pam Lowe


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Presentation given at the HEA Social Sciences learning and teaching summit 'Teaching ethics: The ethics of teaching'

A blog post outlining the issues discussed at the summit is available via

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Ethical issues in teaching sensitive issues - Pam Lowe

  1. 1. Ethical Issues in Teaching Sensitive Issues Dr Pam Lowe
  2. 2. Ethical Issues in Teaching Sensitive Issues Background Sensitive Issues in the class room Being Sociological Emotion work and dealing with distress Towards an ethics of teaching sensitive issues
  3. 3. Background In at the deep end…. Teaching began as a PhD student Final year course on sexualities (rape, child sexual abuse, porn…) No discussion, mentoring, or general support as a new teacher Contrasted sharply with my research work on domestic violence with an emphasis on safeguarding both informant and researcher….
  4. 4. Background ‘To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin’ (hooks 1994: 13)
  5. 5. Background Funded in 2013 by the HEA to: Undertake qualitative research across disciplines and university sites 10 Staff interviews: 4 pre-1992 & 4 post-1992 22 students were involved in the research (u/d and p/g) Thematic analysis undertaken
  6. 6. Sensitive subjects in the classroom? Both staff and students agreed that it was an important part of degree education This could be related to the discipline But was also part of a broader educational agenda
  7. 7. Sensitive subjects in the classroom? Sociology as a sensitive discpline: I can’t understand why one would take sociology if they weren't interested in thinking about societies problems and I don't think you can even understand something as a problem. I mean you might already construct all of these things as political or problems or whatever but many of them don’t and I think its part of our job within sociology to sociologise you know, to make the connections between personal problems and social problems….if they don't like that, they really should be doing something else. And it is uncomfortable and challenging but it's tough.
  8. 8. Sensitive subjects in the classroom? Student views: So, I think that (…) it's definitely made us more confident like for me definitely it's definitely made me more confident it's made me realise that there is no limit to what I can question and not to take anything for granted. We touched on things that, for me, I thought I had a set opinion about it, and I could write about it, then you start looking at it from a different perspective and your realise that actually it is not how it is even you think you know about it. A degree is for life…….
  9. 9. Sensitive subjects in the classroom There was also broad agreement that defining ‘sensitive’ was difficult: Issues of identity (eg gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion) Issues of experience (eg rape, abortion) Political issues (eg terrorism, party politics) How sensitive a subject was would depend on the individual.
  10. 10. Sensitive subjects in the classroom Biography makes a difference to how students come to understand sensitive issues Can be challenging Can be silencing Power relationships are often central understanding issues
  11. 11. Sensitive subjects in the classroom Staff were conscious about the potential impact on students Staff endeavoured to make safe spaces for students to discuss the issues But this was not always easy to do in practice
  12. 12. Sensitive subjects in the classroom Understanding the impact I think, the teaching sensitive issues to be sensitive to how your students are feeling about those issues. Because they're not just paper stuff. They're not just academic, they're personal.(…) It's about people's experiences. Everyone in that class will have a view and a feeling about it. You know, and therefore, what a missed opportunity if you don't get them involved. (…) how can I get them to open out? It's something that I think the best advice is to work it through with your group. (…) And to actually build up, to actually build on the relationship with your students. And with each other.
  13. 13. Sensitive subjects in the classroom But control isn’t always easy to maintain: We put them into pairs and they were discussing a role play, where they had to play partners (…) Discussing the division of domestic duties and what basis they would make the decision about who would look after the child and who would go to work. And erm, I hadn't realised that the two people who I had put together had just started a relationship. And at one point, there was obviously some heated debate (…) And the woman just marched out of the room in flood of tears. And I was like, I genuinely didn't know what to do, and it transpired that they'd actually had any discussion about this, and erm, clearly she hadn't expected her boyfriend to be so chauvinist in his views about children and various things. So that was a bit difficult to handle. So things like that can come up like that.
  14. 14. Sensitive subjects in the classroom Students also reported being shocked at some classroom discussions: I genuinely thought that everyone in our group had a very broad and open mind but then when she started coming out with comments like 'It's ok like, you can't be raped in marriage, it's not possible' and everything like that, you know, 'your husband's wish is your command' kind of thing and you know, you just, even from a human perspective just like how can somebody think like that? Especially when they're a student as well, and for me, that really threw me off. It's like oh my god are we all educated? Are we all educated illiterate? Like, which one are we?
  15. 15. Sensitive subjects in the classroom The role of experience in the classroom was often a tension Many staff believed that it was important to be open about their own positionality and drew on their own experiences in illustrating teaching Some students preferred this, but others felt it was inappropriate Lacked confidence in challenging staff
  16. 16. Sensitive subjects in the classroom Student views on positionality… It came up in (module name) about abortion, and I don’t agree with that, but I didn’t feel as if I could share that at all… To be honest, with a lot of lecturers they are more interested in you critically analysing rather than your agreeing with what they think It is like Marxism, it is easier just to submit…..
  17. 17. Being Sociological One of the difficult aspects of teaching some sensitive issues is to keep the students within the discipline For example, abortion needs to be addressed sociologically rather than a moral question So discussing social understandings and issues of power and control, equality and discrimination
  18. 18. Being Sociological One of the ways that staff to this is through focusing on the topic academically, stressing the importance of literature: I do think because of the nature of what we do as sociologists, I do think that there is a strong link to the individual and individual experiences. (…) I still have to be supportive even if it is something I completely disagree with, I’ve still got to support the student’s learning experience (…) I tend to go back to the research because I think that is an authoritative space to operate from And it protects people, I think. If you bring it back to the literature it protects, it helps keep people safe.
  19. 19. Emotion work and dealing with distress Teaching and learning sociology involves emotional labour But sensitive issues need a specific recognition and ethics of care It’s so powerful (…) it should come with a health warning, a political health warning. (…) I remember [as a student] the rage, the outrage of making the connections about my mum being poor being a girl (…) when I finally made those connections, and I did though sociology I was so angry (…) sociology itself, if it doesn’t touch you then you haven’t read it properly. (…) we need to recognise the emotion, the emotional component
  20. 20. Emotion work and dealing with distress All of the respondents spoke about the role of emotions in teaching and learning. The emotions experienced were extremely varied Staff were conscious of both their own emotions, but also how to manage the emotions of others – not an easy process
  21. 21. Emotion work and the ethics of care Teaching involves emotional labour Well obviously I think I get quite emotional, I'm not crying but I think I get quite enthusiastic and animated and adamant about certain issues. And emotions can be raised amongst the students as well. I mean often they have very heated debates that can turn into quite uncomfortable arguments at times. Because you are sometimes addressing people's sub conscious views about things or prejudice that they've never really expressed before. Suddenly it comes alive and there’s a shock in the room or, or, I have to be careful to mediate the emotion.
  22. 22. Emotion work and the ethics of care Staff view on balancing emotions and learning Erm, so that's one thing I've learnt is that, try, if you're gonna bring in, introduce difficult and sensitive topics, you probably need to allow the students to kind of feel their feet first erm before they do that. If they're already feeling vulnerable, then probably something like this probably wouldn't yield good results. (…) I'm constantly you know scanning the kind of landscape and looking erm to see whether people you know are engaged or are horrified.
  23. 23. Emotion work and the ethics of care Staff recognised the ethics of care they had for their students and tried to ensure that there were support mechanisms in place Often this involved: Signposting difficult topics in advance Mentioning that absence was acceptable Monitoring emotional responses Being available outside of class to discuss issues Flexibility in assessment
  24. 24. Emotion work and the ethics of care However, there were fewer resources for staff to deal with their own emotional responses Those which did exist tended to be informal Institutional lack of care for staff welfare.
  25. 25. Emotion work and the ethics of care On trying to teach terrorism….. And that is where the wheels fell of the bus so to speak. And that really surprised me as I wasn’t prepared for that. And like no-where in any of the teaching manuals or the advice that we got just it say how to deal with these things. And what surprised me was that the students got really passionate about this, but passionate in a way I didn’t expect at. Emotional, right (…). And the discussion was really weaving off the intended course and then escalated (…) And then I thought I don’t know how to deal with this (…) And the one piece of advice (…) was that maybe you should get a post-it note and part the issue on the Board for later (…) And I just thought, I’ not really equipped to deal with this.
  26. 26. Towards Ethical teaching Practice In practice, often require students to reflect on difficult issues and challenge viewpoints How can we educate as a practice of freedom? Is it possible to both care for ‘souls’ and expect academic discipline?
  27. 27. Towards Ethical Teaching Practice Dealing with sensitive issues is a routine classroom practice that is important for educational development Staff are mindful of both challenge students to think critically, but that this potentially leads to a loss of classroom control Learning is an inherently emotional exercise yet teaching is not often recognised as emotional labour An ethics of care is extended to students, but staff do not necessarily receive support in doing this
  28. 28. Towards Ethical teaching Practice What does good practice look like: Students – signposting, support? Staff – recognition, training? Institutions – disciplinary based approach?