So, I’ve had an unusual experience this week.
I’m teaching in a summer school at another institution, and I put up a photo of the UKIP “breaking point” poster (google it), only to have several students lay into it, about its veracity, legitimacy and loads more.
In these situations I like to let things run a bit, because it often conveniently sets out points for subsequent discussion. And this did that.
However, very quickly it became a bit personal. And then a bit more.
I intervened at this point, asked for a bit of self-reflection on it and then trying to get things moving again. At the end of class, there was some apologising.
Now, it’s been a long time since something like that has happening in one of my classes. Whether that’s because I don’t discuss subjects that are heated, or because I manage my classes well, I have no idea (literally, it’s not false modesty).
What I do know is that I feel like I should have not let that situation get out of hand in the first place. Engagement and dissent is good in a classroom, but not if it goes beyond the bounds of civility.
My problem is that I’m not sure why I misjudged matters and left it a bit too late to intervene.
The students are a bit different to those I usually have in that I haven’t taught any of them before, so I have nothing to go on except what I found when I walked into the room an hour or so beforehand. But that’s not usually a problem.
They’re also into their sixth and final week of classes and I can imagine it’s the point where one tires of listening to the opinions of others in what is a pretty small group. But they had worked in small groups well beforehand.
Even the subject matter wasn’t the most contentious of the day: euroscepticism tends to abound with bear-traps, so I am very aware of the dangers.
Whatever the reason, I’m conscious that it has happened and that we have another day of classes together. The question will be how to avoid a chilling effect on debate – the bit after this incident was noticeably quiet – while still communicating a message that personal insults aren’t acceptable.
As I say, I’m a bit bemused/concerned by it all, so I’d love to hear your ideas about what you do.