About 15 years ago, I was teaching an undergraduate course focused on the ethics of communication. This was one of the core courses in a sprawling discipline that addresses all sorts of human interactions from our internal monologues to mass persuasion. In an effort to help our students understand the power and responsibilities of our communication practices, both personal and professional, our curriculum included this course to provide a framework for thinking through the ethical issues that are part of all communication. It was a challenging but rewarding course.
This morning, as I read that Boise State has suspended its mandatory course on diversity amid concerns the potential discomfort some students may feel, I remembered my experiences in Communication Ethics. The narrative about the course at Boise State is one we’ve heard countless times over the last several years, with assumptions about discomfort, blame, and even accusations of disloyalty. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not really buying the stories of classrooms that call out certain groups, asking particular students to absorb that blame. Reports of that kind of behavior usually end up being a misquote, or a selective piece of conversation that doesn’t fully represent the full discussion. These stories generally reflect a politicization of higher education that distorts the real work going on in classrooms all over the country. Nevertheless, there are moments when our conversations about diversity and equity do lead to tough realizations about our own biases, no matter what culture or group we feel we represent. At some point someone will feel uncomfortable.
As I think about the conversations that are really going on in many classes, not just a mandatory course on diversity, I am remembering the most profound experience I had when I was teaching that communication ethics course. We had lots of the usual debates around honesty, ends vs. means, situational ethics, and ideal vs. real world ethical challenges. They were fun, but they stayed a little abstract. There were no real risks in the classroom version of these decisions, so students participated but were not necessarily transformed. I hoped it was going ok, but I wasn’t thrilled. Then we came to the chapter about stereotypes, and the conversation shifted.
Stereotypes come up in communication classes all the time because they are ever-present and generally relevant to the topic at hand. You cannot consume media without noticing stereotypes. You cannot conduct research in communication without wrestling with decisions about categories of analysis, which leads to conversations about stereotypes. You cannot produce communication thoughtfully without considering stereotypical messages. All of this is true, but there was still a kind of detachment in our approach to this topic. You see, my students knew that “stereotyping is wrong” and so felt that they could just dismiss the conversation right there, with that morally absolute but practically impossible sentence. I needed to find a way to break through.
I had an idea, and I took the risk. Instead of starting the conversation about stereotypes with an introduction to the topic and the usual discussion of archetypes vs. stereotypes, I invited my students to participate in an exercise. I asked everyone in the room to write down five stereotypes that they felt had been applied to them. I suggested that no matter who we are, something applies, and it is likely that we had experienced a moment of discomfort because of this. Students began writing and so did I. Then, when everyone seemed done writing, I shifted the assignment. I asked everyone to look at the five they had listed and consider when they had used those stereotypes to categorize others. Eyes looked up, uncomfortable giggles ensued, and there was a hesitation to begin. I reassured everyone that I was not collecting those pieces of paper, nor would I ask them to report on what they wrote. I got busy addressing my own list.
This proved to be an incredibly powerful moment in this course. The simple “stereotyping is wrong” no longer worked as a dismissal. I did share some of mine to help mitigate the shame everyone was feeling. It became clear that stereotyping is what we are in the habit of doing and it needed to be examined. It also made everyone understand that we all have work to do. This was an invitation to engage, not an accusation and assignment of responsibility. What I hoped for was that the engagement would help us determine our responsibilities and, ideally, our next steps.
My little exercise is one of many that my colleagues have developed to help us have rich and informative conversations about power, oppression, and what a just society might look like. These conversations happen in biology and chemistry, history and art, or education and accounting (and everywhere else), because the truth is, we find assumptions that stem from stereotypes everywhere. In many ways, stereotypes are the easiest path to discovering structural problems around power and influence. These conversations frequently lead to moments when some of us realize we have held ideas (categories/stereotypes) that may be supporting a less than just society. These are hard moments, and they sometimes lead to discomfort. But these conversations aren’t about blame or about marginalizing anyone: They are about discovery and, in the best cases, finding a path forward.
It is easy to find a bad sentence in a textbook or a syllabus or a lecture. As far as I can tell, social media demands bad sentences on all topics, especially those that might divide us. Selective information dominates the headlines about equity on college campuses. This selectivity is easy fodder for outrage and a clear misrepresentation of what we actually do.
What is much harder to do (and absolutely rejected by news and social media), is to take the time to see words and ideas in context and navigate the challenges to our world views that they might represent. This is the challenge and the luxury we have in the classroom. We are not speaking in tweets or 10-, 15-, or even 60-minute increments; we are using a semester and even a full four years to think about these things.
I am sorry to hear that the course at Boise State was suspended because I cannot believe that stopping the conversation is an appropriate answer. We need to have lots of these conversations, not to oppress but to enlighten. These conversations take time and continued exploration. They are the very opposite of headlines, and must remain so. These conversations are education.