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Teaching Controversial Subjects.

It Can Be Tough. Set Ground Rules. Be Consistent.

Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash

One of my usual courses is a history of drugs in the modern world. It’s fantastic. The class places contemporary Mexico in historical context. It examines the Atlantic connections leading to the colonial trade of psychoactive agents (“drugs”) and the development of the transnational narcotics industry in the early modern period. It covers the history of commodity chains in the Americas; neoliberalism and its consequences in the region; the rise of drug trafficking; and narco-culture in Mexico.

In short, it covers a lot.

But a topic like drugs has the potential to arouse passions. Each time I’ve taught the course a different mix of students has brought their diverse experiences, politics, and moral stances on the issue. Added to this, we tackle racism, immigration and poverty — all themes that can be difficult to build a constructive dialogue around in the media and popular culture. I’ve always tried to be conscious of these facts. When each new semester begins I spend the first session building a consensus around common ground rules for dialogue. Together we come up with expectations for them as students and for me as instructor. We agree to respect, value, and hear one another’s diverse opinions.

But then it happened.

Photo by Amritanshu Sikdar on Unsplash

Last spring the class was talking about the recent escape of El Chapo Gúzman and Sean Penn’s journalistic escapade to interview the drug lord in Mexico. One student innocently asked if there could be legal problems for the actor’s behavior — in essence, could he be prosecuted for talking to an escaped criminal?

Before I could answer, from the back of the room, another student aggressively shot down the first student. The first student began to cry and was making moves to leave the room. The class sat in stunned silence. The ground rules had been broken. All eyes were now on me.

How do you respond?

Let’s freeze the frame here for a moment.

I have taught hundreds of students since my first college-level class in 2009. These experiences helped sensitize me to my role as a guide to ensure that each class experience remains safe and open to everyone’s voice. My first full-time teaching job was at a place where over forty percent of the student body was Latino at the time. White students had a tendency to dominate class discussions even though Latino students made up a large part of my Mexican history courses.

I learned to encourage a broader participation by asking a question and then saying I wanted to hear from someone who had not yet spoken. Even this small adjustment allowed enough space for the Latino students to add their perspectives. Many began to open up about how their heritage influenced their understanding of Mexican history.

At my current university, a different dynamic has been evident. African American students account for around twelve percent of the student body; White students, seventy percent. This fact speaks to the reality of economic inequality and institutional racism in the south, as fifty percent of my city is African American. The legacies of historical and contemporary racism are therefore evident in the makeup of my classes.

I find that Latin American and transnational history are assets in talking about issues related to race. For many students, Latin America’s relatively unfamiliar geography and history provide a fresh new starting point in approaching the subject. My teaching experiences, aided by my own transnational research interests, have helped me learn to structure the classroom in a way that makes room for each student’s voice.

“A microphone against a blurry background of white and black” by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Let’s restart the frame: all eyes are on me. One student has just aggressivley shot down another’s question. The student is in tears.

What’s my next move?

First, I strongly reminded the class that our dialogue needed to be respectful.

Next, I told the students to break up into groups to discuss the article they’d read.

Then, I followed the student out into the hall and set up a time to process the incident in private.

After that class session I discretely took the aggressive student aside and reminded the individual of rules for dialogue; the student committed to following the expectations for respectful discussion.

The next session the student who had been shut down bravely raised her hand and offered her opinion. No caustic comments came from the peanut gallery. The rest of the term was characterized by rich — and safe — conversations on the transnational drug trade. I believe the students trusted me to make room for all their voices.

It’s tough to teach controversial subjects.

What are some of your strategies?


Stephen Andes is associate professor of history