Problems with Pleasantness

Recently, one of my grad teachers offended someone during class and a complaint was made.  The teacher made an apology during class and then broke down into tears because she felt so bad about offending someone despite her efforts not to.  We took a short break to allow her to compose herself.

How did she offend someone?   She does work very hard to qualify any remark about any race or culture to say that “obviously it does not apply to everyone.” Just like anyone, she has natural biases that she is probably not even aware of.  I was not offended by whatever remarks she said, but I’m a white male so last week’s discussions about treatments of Blacks and Lesbians didn’t really focus on me.  In fact, it was probably due to the fact that one of my classmates from a foreign land (Ghana) who expressed his negative views on homosexuals and the teacher tried to be polite and said something like “I can understand why you might feel that way because of where you are from.”  Some other students may have taken that to mean that she supports his views.  In this class, I believe there are two culprits at work that will cause students to be offended by her and neither is the teacher’s fault.

The first culprit is the class itself:  Multiculturalism and Citizenship.  I don’t believe that it is possible to talk about the different races and cultures that are present without offending someone.  We often study tendencies of certain subgroups to learn a certain way or to have a particular learning style, but this is always qualified with a  remark about average minorities, or only applies to some.  We might read about how Native Americans avoid making eye contact with an elder or authority figure because it’s disrespectful and someone will call out that their experience with Native Americans is different, so that statement is obviously not true.  Despite the fact that we are studying information gleaned from thousands of hours of tests to try and identify common patterns among some sub-cultures, which could not possibly apply to everyone, some students in my class (who are all teachers) want to continue to point out that all of these generalizations are racist and we should approach each student individually and ignore all of these studies.  Is that true?  Probably, to some extent, but it probably does not hurt to be aware of these tendencies so that you are not taken unaware by these student’s attitudes should you run across them.

Why are we all taking this class, then?  It’s required for the Master’s program.

The second culprit is “pleasantness.”  Our teacher tries very hard all the time to not offend anyone.  She qualifies every statement.  She apologizes for remarks that might sound off.  She never makes any bold statements for fear of making someone uncomfortable or upset.  And she started the class by telling us that if we are ever upset by something she says to let her know, because that is never her intention.

So, we have certain expectations.  We expect that nothing she says will be controversial or one-sided or, for that matter, interesting.  So, without fail, she says things that people disagree with all the time, because it’s impossible not to do that, and then people get upset with her.  She’s not going to get around that problem as long as she continues to try and please everyone.

I don’t have that problem.  I begin my classes by saying this:  I am going to try to make this class interesting.  I plan to challenge your thinking.  I will argue with you to try and make you think about your opinions and how to defend them.  Often, you may decide I am mean and I may make you upset.  I am not here to build your self-esteem.  If you disagree with my statements, argue with me.  In short, I do not make the claim that I am nice, nor am I fair, but I will be entertaining and interesting.  If you feel that I am doing you wrong, sue me.  Then, I will change my class to be as uninteresting, boring, and “non-upsetting” as I can, if that’s what you really want.

With that expectation in mind, students never complain.  I’ve set them up with the idea that I plan to upset them, so they don’t get upset by being upset.  It’s all about perception and expectations.

At least, that’s my thinking on this.  By planning to upset everyone, everyone feels treated fair.  It’s hard to work it the other way around.

I am the language lover and these are my thoughts.

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1 Comment

  1. renaissanceguy said,

    February 1, 2008 at 1:20 am

    Great thoughts. We’ve come too far down the Multicultural PC road to be able to have any real dialogues on race or other such issues. I find that sad.

    I like your approach. Keep it up!


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