What can we learn from controversy? What can we learn from controversy in the classroom?

Recently there have been several incidents that have occurred involving the teaching of a particular graphic novel, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, that have helped bring this controversy to, again, to the forefront of thought in certain academic circles.

There have been recent discussions, particularly and recently at Duke University, surrounding resistance of individual and groups of students to reading Fun Home because of part of the subject matter contained within it. What they primarily appear to be offended by though is the fear of encountering something that may upset them or may go against their beliefs or thoughts about the world. There are several articles discussing this matter at some length, but perhaps the best one, taking into account the controversy and how others are handling it, is a piece from Inside Higher Ed by Colleen Flaherty entitled “No So ‘Fun Home’.”

What about other kinds of controversy? What about the controversy in the everyday classroom?

Well, how does one deal with it? To start, I want to attempt to look at it in three parts:

1.Encountering controversy

Whether one likes it or even anticipates it, controversy can and does often arise in the composition classroom. When one is engaging students in topics that might range from simple and innocuous such as price of gasoline to discussions about abortion, religion, and politics…sometimes it is inevitable.

Of course, the fact that I was talking about gasoline may not be something that is without controversy, but I just enjoyed the fact that what followed was and is often a metaphorical kind of “lighting” the gasoline on fire.

Now, there are instructors, and I don’t fault them at all for this, who shy away and do an end-around on the whole problem by limiting the topics students debate, and more particularly, and often controlling the topics students can pick from when writing essays or research papers in the class. This is part of a choice in how one approaches the classroom. So, no judgment here from me.

However, for myself, I firmly believe that the college experience, particularly the composition classroom, is exactly the place not only the grant students the freedom to explore issues they are interested in (controversial or not) but also a place to debate those issues and arm students with an understanding of how to engage not only those who agree with them, but even more so, those who might disagree with them. This can be done.

There is a key term that I think fits and best describes how one should comport themselves in the classroom – whether teacher or student – and whether instructing or debating: Decorum.

Any standard examination of this word, any attempt to look it up and you will discover that it basically, without providing a completely formal definition involves behavior and etiquette, propriety. It is basically an ability to maintain and behave by expectations. So, in the classroom this might mean a teacher or instructor helping to moderate debates, keeping individuals in mind of being respectful, and modeling that respect to the students in turn. For students this would mean acting in an appropriate fashion to the classroom environment and abiding by the instructor’s model and protocols for engagement.

In more rhetorical terms, it has developed into “a governing concept” that serves as “an overarching principle of moderation and aptness” (“decorum”). So, some good basic advice for anyone conducting a classroom, remember, you set the tone and you set the decorum for how things are conducted. You should also communicate these to your students upfront and then regularly remind them.

2.Consequences of controversy

Let’s just get this out of the way…we live with a generation coming up and entering college now who are extremely coddled. This is an idea laid out in greater detail by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” out now in the recent issue of The Atlantic. The article addresses the ways that American higher education is under threat from slipping into a well-spring of controversy brought on by the development and promotion of cognitive distortions in students, faculty, and administrative that is hurting ALL parties.

The article lays out different cognitive distortions and provides recent examples of them on college campuses. They summarize these distorters in a list at the end of the article:

Common Cognitive Distortions


A partial list from Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn’s Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders (2012).

  1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
  1. Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
  1. Catastrophizing. You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
  1. Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
  1. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
  1. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”


  1. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
  1. Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
  1. Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
  1. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?,” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”
  1. Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
  1. Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought I’m unlovable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”

The authors offer up words of advice, moving forward, particularly the thought that “Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control” (Lukianoff and Haidt). Agreed, but not always the easiest thing to do, especially for graduate students and new instructors.

Now, if you are following and have laid out for your students a sense of decorum or conduct in your class. That is not enough, you have to practice it, have it tested, and rise to the challenge of modeling it too.

To answer this assertion of “modeling” it as the instructor, let’s turn to “Dealing” section of this.

3.Dealing with controversy


Now, I know it may not be “politic” to say, but I don’t feel people should shy away from talking and dealing with controversy in the classroom. Honestly, it will find a way to show up, you might as well be in control of it.

Now, this is not to say that I advise you stand up in front of your class and yell, curse, and/or impose your personal world beliefs on the class. I believe that the classroom can and should be a place where individuals are able to have a voice, to express themselves, to share their views but to do so in a way that is respectful.

Here comes that wonderful word, I feel, the responsibility of the instructor to both practice and enforce it, again: decorum.

So, how can we model our decorum?

Well, let us take the recent controversy with Kim Davis, the Kentucky Clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and is now in prison claiming that “doing her job” and “following the law” violates her Christian values and say that I wanted to discuss this with my class as a lead in to argumentation. Then, let’s say that I start off by polling my class on whether they know about the situation or news of this, and if they do, and then move on to asking them whether or not they support Davis’s stance.

Now, here is where I would throw on the breaks.

Rather than asking, let’s say I start by asking if someone agrees with Davis on this matter, I might ask that same question but offer up the option that students only answer if they feel comfortable.

Now, if someone does say they support Davis, and let’s say I don’t, and then it would not be good form for me to allow others in the class to lecture her that she is wrong . . . or me for that matter. Rather, I might take her side, ask her to provide reasoning for her position or if its simply her opinion (she’s entitled to that). The main rule of thumb would be, that as a model for decorum, I want to present my students with not only an environment but also a representation for the kind of interactions, especially involving controversial issues, that I want to see take place.

Controversy should not stand in the way of dealing with topics. As a former professor and colleague of mine put it, “Handled with respect and care [with] preparedness and civility, controversy can provide some of the most amazing teachable moments.” I whole heartedly agree.

Till next time…