Course Design and Dealing with Challenging Student Questions

Luke Hanna 

September 2018 | Edited September 2019
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After listening to the concerns of new instructors, I have noticed a lot of young sociologists who fear challenging questions or remarks from students.

Here I would like to write about the fear of students questioning the authority of their sociology professors. Early in their teaching careers graduate students, instructors, and professors may fear students who openly question ideals that are inherent in the field of sociology. I have had colleagues who talk about students who question “white privilege,” for example, or others who question the legitimacy of the gender pay gap.

 

First, let me get the obvious point out of the way, instructors who are women or of a racial minority group will likely have a different experience than my own in this area. The only explicit examples I have been witness to, where students have verbally and openly questioned the legitimacy of sociological content were in a course where the professor was both a woman and a person of color. Nevertheless, I have established these three skills to help all sociology instructors reduce the likelihood of being publicly questioned and prepare yourself to respond in case of students questioning course material.

 

One last note, it is not all-out bad to have students question sociological material. This can often provide a setting for the coveted “class discussion.” It is simply a matter of being prepared and poised enough to turn those discussions into teachable moments.

 

Teach Theory within the Context of Philosophy and History

First and foremost, if you do not teach theory well, it can either leave far too much room for interpretation or seem as if theory is irrelevant. Either of those cases can lead to students outright questioning the legitimacy of sociology.

 

This is why contrary to how textbooks are designed, I do not compartmentalize theory, methods, and the history of sociology. In fact, if students are to leave sociology classes with a true understanding of the field, this should be a core element in curriculum. I use a strategy where I introduce research paradigms, primarily positivism, constructionism, and transformativism. I then introduce some elements of the philosophy of science with epistemology, ontology, axiology, and methodology.

 

We then go into a history of sociology which at least includes William Sumner, Lester Ward, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, W.E.B. DuBois, and C. Wright Mills. I also work in some information about the Chicago School and some contemporary feminist theories. Regardless of the sociological figures the professor chooses as the most significant, talking about these people and their ideas within the context of their writing and within the context of the field is one of the best ways to prepare for challenging questions.

 

As one example, I had a student argue that affirmative action should be abolished in favor of a merit-based system. The student recognized that it may lead to racial inequality at first but that eventually people from racial groups would adapt and in the end, we will have equality. In some ways a question such as this may be difficult to answer without an immediate emotive response or some concern for how other students are interpreting the question. At the end of the day, teachers are public speakers and it can always be uncomfortable to be questioned publicly. Nonetheless, my answer to the student was easy because I had given students enough information about theory, methods, and history to explain that those type of ideas are similar to early sociological theories that  have fallen out of favor because of scientific advancements.

 

My point being, that it is unlikely for undergraduate students to come up with questions that have not been addressed in the history of the field. It is a matter of preparation and teaching theory, methods, and history as they are, intertwined mechanisms that constitute the foundation of sociology.

Create Multiple Communication Platforms

 

There are a variety of benefits to having a multidimensional classroom. Primarily, it accommodates students with different personalities or different learning styles and abilities. I will write more in the future about my own personal strategy, but this is about how having multiple communication platforms can reduce anxiety about hard to answer public questions.

 

Again, I have heard young instructors or teaching assistants talk about their fear of the “stubborn Trumper” or someone who outright questions basic sociological assumptions. Obviously, dealing with any situation where people disagree, the first step should be empathy. There is no point trying teach someone something if you do not know what is restricting them from learning. So, give students multiple platforms to share their interpretations of sociology, and then give them correction as necessary. Especially if you have online communication platforms, it can assist in giving you space and time to adequately respond to challenging questions.

 

Take for instance two examples. First, you have a classroom of 40 undergraduate students. You have designed your class so that the only method of engagement are class discussions. Now lets imagine that amongst those 40 students of 18-20 year old students there is one student who is a 23 year old Army vet with a tendency to dominate class discussions and occasionally say racist or at least “anti-sociological” comments with little concern for questioning your authority. In this case, you will likely have some sort of uncomfortable one-on-one conversation with the student, report the incidents, or have a really uncomfortable and emotionally taxing semester.

 

Now, if there were an online platform designed into the course, then the instructor could simply cut down on the unproductive classroom discussions and give students public writing prompts in a discussion board. Hopefully, this would give other students equal voice in the class and at best assist the student into softening positions on certain matters. At worst, it gives the instructor an online platform to take their time in responding to the challenging questions (and provide documentation for exchanges).

 

In my classes I use three platforms of communication, in addition to email. I have in-person space for discussion, I utilize discussion boards built into Blackboard, and I use Twitter.

 

In-class discussions tend to be better when students are already connected on social media. I use discussion boards as a place for students to post instruction-driven blogs for their classmates to read but Twitter is a great place to filter and mediate ideas that conflict with sociology. First, if a student’s post is “unsociological” then I just do not retweet the post and send them a private email, explaining my reasoning. Second, if an idea is outdated or unpopular, Twitter sociologists are good for producing teaching moments.

 

You do not Have to be Right 

 

Frankly, the discipline of sociology does not have a strong history of being “right.” We have periods where sociologists have supported eugenics, outcast the views of women, and ignored minorities. The discipline of sociology is dominated by academics and academia only exists in its current form because we still have questions to answer. Some of these questions are new and exploratory, but many of these questions are deep rooted philosophical debates where no one really knows the answers. This is why we produce theory.

 

A great deal of the anxiety felt by students questioning an instructor’s legitimacy may be connected to the intensity in which many sociology teachers have aligned their own values with the contemporary views in the discipline.

 

One of the best ways to deal with this anxiety is a skill best served for those who have also successfully achieved the first skill in this list, “Teach Theory within the Context of Philosophy and History.” If you can direct opposing viewpoints to a historical discussion, then dealing with challenging questions can be as simple as, “Interesting question, Talcott Parsons used to think something similar, but people like C. Wright Mills have more recently suggested this viewpoint, here are some suggested readings for understanding the differences.”

 

In some ways this suggestion is simply saying, “answer the student’s question,” but it requires thinking about sociology in a way that is not quite absolute in its values. If sociologists from history questioned our understanding of society, if we still do not have “laws of society,” then it is acceptable for students to question the legitimacy of our understandings, we just have to be prepared to direct student attention to the core philosophical debates of our discipline. If we truly believe in the science of sociology then we should trust that the logic of sociological content will demonstrate our current answers. If we do not have content available, then that is a disciplinary problem that we need to solve.

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