I recently debated with a few of my colleagues about what it meant to cultivate a “comfortable” classroom environment and whether or not that is a desirable thing to do. As a young instructor of record, I strive to strike a balance between maintaining an authoritative presence and an inviting demeanor. I joke with my students, I’m sort of goofy, and I invite them to think through ideas with me. All of my classes are discussion based and I only occasionally lecture and, when I do, it’s for less than 10 minutes. In a humanities course that promotes and encourages critical thinking skills, it’s important for me to make the students feel comfortable enough to question their previously-held conceptions, think about media and ideology, and re-think the way they engage with the world. I do this very self-consciously—I perform a certain way in front of the classroom to help facilitate this process. I am conscious of this process but I doubt that my students always are. Somewhere around week five, most of them suddenly feel more comfortable and are opening up about their experiences and their reactions to the class texts.
In speaking their mind, though, they often speak the first thing that comes to their mind. These things are often not very well-thought out or very reflective of the general intellectual development I have attempted to cultivate over the course of the semester. Sometimes these comments reflect a latent racism, sexism, or homophobia. Sometimes these comments inadvertently work to alienate other students. In the debate I had with my colleagues, one said that students shouldn’t feel comfortable in your classroom so that they will monitor their responses and think before speaking, which encourages them to pull themselves up to your level. I disagreed with them at the time. Recently, though, a student offered an off-handed reaction to a text that relied on racist stereotypes and it made me reevaluate my teaching philosophy. I won’t recount the specifics of that comment here, though. A pregnant pause followed the comment as I debated the way to handle the comment. Do I casually reframe and redirect the comment? Do I address the ideological implications of the comment? How do I continue to create comfortable classroom spaces and encourage students to think more critically about their previously held conceptions about the world while not shaming them when their conceptions make the classroom not safe for other students? What sorts of strategies do you all employ to help students open up but encourage them to police their comments and behavior?