Students everywhere should feel comfortable to express their opinion on a topic in a classroom. They shouldn’t have to worry about how their classmates, or even professors, might respond to what they believe.
While not every class is suited to sharing opinions, such as large science pit classes or labs, others are perfectly suited to discussions, like political science, women and gender studies and journalism classes.
UW Oshkosh religious studies professor Kathleen Corley Schuhart said she always encourages students to share their opinions in class so long as they’re polite about it.
“I want them to express their opinions in the classroom,” Corley Schuhart said. “I encourage it, and I encourage diversity of opinion in my classrooms. As long as they’re well thought out, and people are kind and civil and tolerant, I think it’s just terrific.”
Corley Schuhart also said how allowing students to discuss controversial topics will help them develop as learners and as adults in general.
“I mean, how can students come to form an educated opinion about something if they can’t talk about it?” Corley Schuhart said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
UWO senior Katherine Vopal agreed with professor Corley Schuhart that discussing controversial topics is how students can change and grow as people.
“I think college students are responsible enough to have adult conversations about controversial topics,” Vopal said. “When we enter college, we are all young adults, and I think having these conversations help us in shaping who we are as an adult because it allows students to form and share their beliefs on real-world topics.”
UWO political science professor Jerry Thomas said students are free to say anything in his class so long as they’re respectful to those with differing opinions. He said he does not think it is fair or right for students to ever feel like they can’t express their true thoughts because they feel like they may be attacked.
“You can say anything in my class that you want, but you can do that in a respectful way,” Thomas said. “You know, if you’re attacking another student or something like that, I might try and temper that and bring the conversation around so that a student doesn’t feel personally threatened.”
While most agree that students should be able to discuss their opinions freely in the classroom in a polite manner, there are conflicting opinions about whether professors should do the same.
Thomas said he believes it is ridiculous to believe that a professor’s opinion won’t come out in some way during their classes, so they might as well share it out right.
“I think it is just a bunch of poppycock to think that a professor is going to stand up in front of a class and that his or her values are not going to seep out into the discussion in some way,” Thomas said. “It is a bunch of malarkey to say that we don’t actually shape what we say to students, [even] sometimes by the things that we omit from our syllabi.”
Thomas went on to say he is alright with students forming opinions on his views during class time.
“So I am unabashedly open about my opinion in the classroom,” Thomas said. “I say things like, ‘I’m incredibly liberal on many, many, many things’ and I think it’s important for students to know that so that they can understand and make some judgments for themselves about ‘OK, is Dr. Thomas saying this because this is the law or is Dr. Thomas saying this because it’s his opinion?’ and students are smart enough to figure that out.”
Vopal agreed that professors should share their opinions because it can add depth to what students are learning in class.
“I think [professors] should definitely share their opinions on topics we’re learning in class,” Vopal said. “Usually when professors share their opinions, they are interesting stories they can share about personal experiences with the topic, which I think makes the material more interesting and keeps the students’ attention and helps students retain the information more.”
In contrast, Corley Schuhart said she doesn’t share her personal opinion in class because she doesn’t want it to influence her students or make them feel like they have to agree with her opinion.
“I try not [to] because the problem with students is they always think they have to agree with you and that’s what they have to put on the test,” Corley Schuhart said. “So I tend to not do a lot of self-disclosure about my personal opinions precisely because I cover such controversial issues. So I don’t want students to feel like they have to agree with me, a particular scholar, a particular view. I want them to feel free to come to their own conclusions.”
UWO junior Amanda Beistle agreed with Corley Schuhart that the professor should remain unbiased in classes.
“I think it depends on the class,” Beistle said. “For me, classes that are centered around discussion on topics would be a great instance for this, such as psychology or sociology. In classes with controversial topics, such as political sciences courses for example, I think professors would need to be conscious of what their opinions are as to stay unbiased.”
While it’s good in theory to try to remain as unbiased as possible to not influence how a student thinks about a topic, is it really possible to remain completely neutral? Perhaps full disclosure of what a professor’s views are on a topic is necessary.
Regardless, we believe more classrooms need to be like Thomas’, where students should be encouraged to discuss controversial topics like adults in order to enhance their learning with the professor adding his or her opinion to the topic. And, most importantly, students should feel like they are in a safe environment to do so.
“If you treat people like adults, they’ll act like adults,” Thomas said. “If you treat people like children, they’ll act like children. I do believe that. And so I try to treat my students with the same respect that I want them to treat me, but also with the same expectations that I don’t have to handle people with kid gloves and tip-toe around things.”