I'm reluctant to offer advice to Richard on this issue of "offensive"
opinions in the composition class, simply because no two incidents are
the same. Sometimes postions we experience as offensive are deeply
held, other times they are merely received and unexamined opinion - the
unopened baggage our students bring to school. In the latter case,
exposing the idea to others, as Marcy and other have suggested, can
have a powerful "curative" effect. In the former case, neither we nor
the other people in the class are likely to have much of an effect,
especially if the "offender" feels outnumbered and cornered, which
often hardens rather than softens positions. In many cases, I suspect
these are passing opinions, tried on for size, designed to shock, thrilling
because different or radical, and usually not carefully examined for
implications. And to some students we are jailers, and their opinions are
chosen to conflict with our own. (In this regard, I think we might be a bit
more suspicious of those students whose opinions agree with our own,
since they are often the most adept at playing "guess what teacher
wants to know", or at "preaching to the choir," as Susan put it.) How
would we feel if we were confronted with our own late
adolescent/early adult opinions? I know I'd be deeply offended if faced
with some of the opinions I held when I was 20 years old.
But I am intrigued by the responsibility we all feel (or perhaps we
don't ALL feel it) to change the minds of students whose opinions differ
from our own, and I wonder if the problem has more to do with the role
we take on in the writing (or other) classroom than it does with some
sort of onus on us to improve the world. What is our place in the
discourse of the classroom? Are we arbiters of taste, ideology, fact?
Where are we positioned in the flow of written and spoken classroom
texts? Do they flow to us? Through us? Who/what are the texts for?
How do we read/hear them - that is, what is our stance toward them?
Here, I think, our role as evaluators complicates the issue, as it does all
our issues. I'm curious to know whether we feel the same impulse to
"correct" offensive writers/speakers in the public sphere - the
out-of-classroom sphere. As people-in-the-world, do we feel a
responsibility towards those whose discourse offends us that is similar
to the responsibility we feel as people-in-the-classroom? Do we react in
a similar way? Should we? (I'm going to fail Lucien Bouchard for that
offensive comment about the "white races"!) In other words, is our
ideological activism in the classroom, where our power allows us to act
on and enforce our ideologies, matched by a similar activism outside the
classroom, or do we feel some greater need to act in the classroom
because we're paid for our role there? If there is a disjuncture here
between our in- and out-of-class selves, does it matter? I realize we
have a particular role in the classroom, but what is it about that role that
impels us to feel we must correct students' opinions before we set them
loose on the (gullible?) world? Okay, okay, enough rambling.
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