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Ask a Senior Colleague- Spring 2018

Section Editor: Elaina Behounek

Thank you to all that contributed in response to the question:
How do you handle difficult topics in the classroom, like gun control?

Response #1: I structure my classes to pre-empt debates that are not based on evidence. How you do this depends on the class.

Taking the time to define and discuss key terms up front is always worth it and saves time down the road.

Including research methods early on can help students take a critical view of difference sources, which can go a long way to avoiding fruitless claims about what different stats allegedly say. For example, in a class on domestic violence, I have the students complete the CTS so they can see for themselves that it is an inadequate measure for domestic violence. I like to use a critique assignment to force students to summarize sources, assess them against materials read in class, and support arguments with evidence.

Having the students discover what the data says themselves is great, because it makes them do the work to answer questions rather than simply being told. For example, when talking about political representation and inequality, students can work together as a class to document the sex and racial makeup of the government, top courts etc. to document for themselves who is making decisions.

In classes on violence, I like to use pie charts based on homicide statistics to unpack the data to ensure that students understand that even the easiest crimes to count are more complex than they look at first glance.

Comparative (international) research is also fantastic for allowing students to get enough distance to think about issues they are personally involved with.

Response #2: I recommend being 'obviously' non-judgmental and letting the data drive the conversation. If such a topic comes up unplanned during class, I would ask students to take a few minutes to write down their thoughts and follow up with asking them what (data, media report, incident, family, friends) makes them think so?  I would ask a few volunteers to share their perspectives. Then I would address the topic more from the perspective of how we form our opinions about controversial issues. For the next class meeting, I will ask the students to bring in some real data from a 'reliable' source to support their viewpoint. I would go prepared with my set of facts and perhaps a handout for the next class.

Response #3: I teach in a conservative state so when I bring up the subject of guns directly students bristle and close their minds. In my own experience, I have found that the best way to approach it is to tell them I will not offer that my opinion but I will provide them with literature. I then remind them that my job is to teach them *how* to think not *what* to think. Then I present them with empirical data and we discuss it in class. When students realize that we are talking about empirical evidence and I have no agenda to push, they relax and are more receptive to the message.

Response #4: I'm in a conservative, avid hunting state and guns are a very sensitive topic and guarded right.  I still cover the issue, but very carefully.

I cover gun control by couching it in school and mass shootings.  I cover it in my Criminology class, which is a mix of theory and current events.  A few classes prior to the topic, before students have really noticed it's coming up or the few eager students have read ahead, I pass out a handout with two question written on it: 'What comes to mind when you hear gun control' and 'What do you think about gun control'.  I do not have students write their names on it and I collect it back from them and compile the results.

When I cover gun control/mass shootings, I lead students through the following discussion:

I open the class to a discussion on why 'taking all guns away' is the number one response (it is every year).  We discuss where that fear came from.  Then we discuss if there has ever been a democratic candidate who suggested repealing the second amendment.  I even encourage them to google it.  I assure them it's only one form of gun control and one that most people are not suggesting.

I switch gears a little and lecture a little on school shootings and mass shootings and unique US factors.  We then have a discussion about the unique US factors and what students think about them.

We discuss the pros and cons of arming teachers/faculty and/or allowing concealed carry on campus.  I then walk them through a hypothetical campus shooting and faculty/students responding and we talk about what would happen when police arrived.

We upend the myth about a good guy with a gun stopping a bad guy and I sometimes give them time to google how often that has happened.  We discuss why it so rare.  I show this clip.  In the future I can sadly show coverage of the Parkland shooting.

I then move back into more popular forms of gun control with US data on high levels of support.

We discuss some of the shortcomings to gun control around state borders and differing state laws.  We talk about this easy to follow article to give them a sense of how differing state laws can undermine gun control laws.  This usually sparks a good discussion that mirrors that national debate: how much should we try when we know it won’t fix everything.

I end the class with a discussion on what they think they solution is or what the future will look like.  There is never agreement but it's a much healthier, productive discussion after covering all the above.

More Perfect is one of my favorite podcasts and they have an awesome episode called Gun Show that follows how the second amendment came to mean what is it today.  I've thought about playing it in class in the future or assigning it as homework.  Students really don’t understand how this 'right' is so new in its interpretation.

Response #5: One of the things I learned early in my career is that it is easier to open students' minds to topics if you present empirical information in an objective and balanced manner. If you don't do this, students automatically close their ears and minds to all information presented. The research and data will always speak for themselves. Another practice I have utilized when I teach relatively small classes is ask students to fill out a survey at the beginning of class on their attitudes towards such things as gun control, the death penalty, etc. Then, I assign students to debate the issue on the side that they oppose. They are evaluated on the research and the arguments they make for this both on paper in an actual debate. This has never failed to work! Students frequently report that they learned a tremendous amount. Although the experience may not completely enlighten all students, they all report that they more fully understand the complexity of the issue, including most importantly, the oppositions side. I hope this helps.

Response #6: Sometimes I avoid them.  I have to balance the need to take advantage of teachable moments with awareness of what I can handle.  If something is too fresh or painful for me to have appropriate distance, I may decide it's better not to engage.  If it comes up in class I might say, "that's really important.  Rather than try to squeeze that into today's agenda, let's come back to it on [INSERT]".

If I do decide to take it on, then I often have short writing exercises where students respond to a prompt and turn them in anonymously.  Then I may pass them back so that another student will read it.  This allows us to then have a conversation about the view, without requiring anyone to "own" it.

Response #7: I usually rely on what issue is raised first. Is it “why do we allow guns,” or “how do we stop mass murders,” or “I like guns and I want access to more, so why can’t I protect myself”? I then focus on that question/comment and bring facts to bear in our discussion. I do not say if I am pro or against guns/gun ownership/etc. I want the students to consider multiple points of view on the issue – not just take my position.

I will often bring up the Second Amendment to the Constitution onto the screen in class. Then work with the students to dissect it. It does clearly say that the “right to bear arms shall not be infringed” … but what about the “well-regulated militia” part? What does that mean? Do we have them? How are they regulated? If we don’t have militias, regulated or not, do we still have the right to bear arms? I let the students discuss these sorts of topics. This usually works well for good discussion.

If the question is about mass murders/school shootings, then I work to bring up data, facts, onto the screen in the classroom. We can then discuss why they are taking place. Eliminate the mental illness model, even though we use terms to describe the shooter as Nuts, Crazy, Insane, and Loco – these are not accurate given the facts we know. We consider the social constructions of killers, shooters, and “gun nuts.” So why do they do it? As a feminist, I bring up issues with masculinity in America and Toxic Masculinity and let the students mentally chew on that.

If the question is more about laws & regulations concerning access to guns I write on the board who we think should have access – usually it’s hunters, competitive shooters, police, etc. Then who do we not want to have them --- usually felons, domestic abusers, terrorists, people with mental illness, alcohol and drug addicts, etc. Then we discuss how we can let some have access, but not others. Often students want to decide who should be able to carry – concealed or open. Also, do we allow certain guns/classes of firearms to be owned by whom.

I guess it’s worth noting that I am a big (6’6” with a large frame, to put it nicely) white guy with a loud voice, so I really never have any problem with students getting agitated/etc. I do work to insure that all voices are heard too.

Response #8: I have used blog posts to newspaper reports on this topic as well as op eds that I can use examples for the range of perspectives and justifications for positions taken.  That keeps students from having to identify their own individual viewpoint.