Avoiding silent students: the “tough question” pedagogy

July 6, 2018

Colleges and universities are often regarded as the breeding ground of intellectual thought and discovery, where the tightly-held worldviews we formed in childhood are encouraged to clash and interact, drawing upon one another to form the truths of tomorrow. Unfortunately, however, colleges do not always meet this laudable goal. If an academic atmosphere encourages self-censorship, students become unwilling to share their views with their peers and the potential for robust debate is lost.

Pedagogy that supports freedom from speech rather than of speech is something that the American Association of University Professors advocated against in their 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The AAUP stated:

The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion . . . should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.

Professors should adopt a pedagogical approach that permits students to learn from and engage with all opinions, creating a classroom without walls or boundaries to constructive discourse. When students do not encounter this atmosphere, they may refrain from speaking in class or asking difficult questions, which prevents them from fully engaging with the material and in the exchange of ideas that should be a part of every student’s educational experience.

FIRE conducted a nationwide survey on expression on college campuses, which revealed that 54 percent of students have self-censored at some point during their college career. That means that more than half of the student survey respondents have, at least at one point, not felt comfortable sharing their views on campus, indicating the damaging potential self-censorship encourages with regard to dialogue between our peers, professors, and administrators.

One experience from my first class in my first year at the University of Texas at Austin highlights what happens when students do not feel as though they can participate in class. Once, after I asked a question, one of my professors told me that “my thinking” was, “exactly the kind of mindset [we] will not accept and are trying to counteract.” At first, I was confused, and I started to ask myself whether I had managed to defy the universal law of academia, that “there are no stupid questions” by asking one. I found myself asking fewer and fewer questions as I worried about how my professor and peers would react. I fell into the trap of self-censorship. And as a result, I was deprived of the opportunity to fully engage with my peers and my professor, and they lost the opportunity to learn about my perspectives on the material.

Rather than resorting to self-censorship, students must stand strong. College students are inherently able to deal with speech they disagree with like the mature young adults they are; they should laugh at it, ignore it, respond to it with more speech, and just keep on trucking. Students should use free speech as the empowerment tool that it is, not shy away from controversial ideas or promote the censorship of others. Students are capable and resolute, and don’t require a cushion around the slings and arrows of a liberal democracy any more than any other citizen. To assert your rights as a student is to resist the temptation to self-censor and promote a dynamic culture of intercampus dialogue.

All students should reap the benefits of their free speech rights, including the ability to think, believe, and express themselves freely; but they are unable to do so when they believe that they must stay silent. Once we engage in robust debate and encounter opposing ideas on campus, our attitudes may come out the other side a little more empathetic, a little wiser, and changed for the better.

Jane Cook is a rising senior at the University of Texas at Austin.