Why is teaching inequality so hard? The Teaching Sociology article Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage by Nancy J. Davis1 identifies three common student reactions to discussion about inequality. This article is tremendous and should be required reading for all sociology teachers. It is also approachable enough that I assign it to my 101 students at the start of the semester to prepare them for the emotions that they may feel over the course of the semester. I’ve talked about the ideas in this article over numerous posts, but the article is so influential that I wanted to focus on it more directly here. This week I will discuss the first (and in my experience most common) reaction, resistance, and next I’ll discuss paralysis and fear.
When physics teachers explain Newton’s laws of motion none of their students say, “Bull. Of course you’d say that. You are biased because of your _.” They just dutifully write it down and try to learn it for the test. After speaking with my physicist friends, they told me that no student has ever stormed out of their classroom in disgust. No student has asked if they could skip a particular chapter because they have a religious objection to it. For some reason sociology instructors aren’t afforded the same luxuries.
Sociology often challenges what students believe is a matter of common sense. When they come to class they are presented empirical arguments that tell them the world is not how they “know for sure” that it is. If physics told it’s students that gravity actually makes things fall upward; it just looks like things are falling to the ground because of your biased worldview then physicists would know a sociologist’s pain.
Students have a vested interest in their worldview. They have used it to make all of their decisions up to now and if they accept what you are teaching they must accept that their worldview is fundamentally flawed and they will have to reexamine everything they’ve been taking for granted. Self-affirming worldviews that inoculate us from feeling any responsibility for the social problems that surround us are SUPER convenient and comfortable. To let them go is frightening. Furthermore, these worldviews tell their holder that they are a good person who does what’s right and that they see the world as it is. If you challenge that you are creating a cognitive dissonance in their head and many students will resist what you have to say.
Resistance in the classroom has many manifestations, but the most common one is the denial of empirical evidence simply because, “that can’t be true”. Resistant students often challenge every idea you present in class, they challenge your credibility, and they try to win other students over to their way of thinking. I love engaging with my students and I don’t want them to dutifully write down what I say as though I am an expert, but if a student and I have gone back and forth in class with the same idea more than 3 times I start to look for the resistance. Often times students are completely unaware of their resistance and they see it as healthy skepticism. However, you have to make clear early in your semester that skepticism is demanding empirical rigor and applying critical thinking. Resistance is denying evidence you believe to be accurate simply because you need it not to be true.
When a student seems unwilling to accept or even consider sociological ideas it is often enough simply to ask them, “You seem to be unwilling to accept that this could even be possible. You seem to want this not to be true. Can you tell me why you don’t want this to be true?” This helps students turn their hypercritical energies toward their own thinking. If students are ready to grow they will see their biases, assumptions, and the emotions preventing them from considering that what you are telling them could be true. They almost certainly won’t have an “aha!” moment in class, but you set the stage for them to have it later, when they are ready.
Dealing with resistant students is also a great time for a think-pair-share. Ask your class to write down their answers to these questions, “What would it mean if it (the sociological idea you are teaching) was true? Just for a moment pretend that it is and write down what that would mean. How would you see the world around you differently and what would you do differently?” Give your students 5 minutes to write down their answers, then have them dialogue with their neighbor about it, and finally use their writing to start a class discussion. This is beneficial in two ways. First, if one student is being resistant to an idea you can bet that they have peers in the classroom who agree with them. Second, resistant students often assume that how they see the world is identical to how everyone else in the class does. Allowing their peers to challenge their thinking removes some of the onus from your shoulders and resistant students may be more willing to listen to challenges from their peers.
Lastly, and this is true for paralysis, rage, and resistance, just by discussing these common reactions you give your students the eyes to identify when these situations arise and the words to name them. After reading this article in my class I’ve had students during a classroom discussion spontaneously say to their peer, “it sounds like you are experience resistance. Why do you think that is?” When you give your students the tools to deal with resistance, paralysis, and rage they will self-police one another and everyone learns from it.
1. Davis, Nancy J. 1992. “Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage” Teaching Sociology 20(3) Pp. 232-238.