By Tara Kalra and Simran Pavecha
“Stand up when I enter the class”
“Call me Sir”
We’ve grown up hearing these unwritten classroom “rules” and abiding by them.
It starts early on and rather subconsciously, as the ‘respect me narrative’ is conditioned and normalised into our thinking. From the very beginning, Indian students are admonished for any sign of non-conformity, nurtured to uphold unconditional respect for elders, by the mere virtue of their age or status.
Classrooms are supposed to be a fertile ground for conversation, intellectual stimulation and learning – without the burden of status and identity. But, what happens when instead of becoming safe spaces to learn and unlearn, educational institutions become hostile?
Consent and communication then become key to such conversations. What are some instances where professors should seek consent from students?
The teacher-student equation is one fraught with hostility, punishment and authority. It becomes all the more important for teachers to actively exercise sensitivity and empathy. Teachers and professors should take extra care of setting the right context for a discussion and inculcating the voices of those talked about -it can really help make education inclusive.
“At the heart of every teaching moment, is a rich tapestry of ethical choices about how much power a teacher has, how they use that power, and how free a student feels to speak truth to that power about the teacher’s use of it,” writes Ami K Jo, Professor at University of Washington Information School. To fully own up to these ethical responsibilities, the students’ consent in the classrooms should be full, permanent, and fully informed, at all times.
In school, it was quite common for teachers to make comments on a students’ appearance, punish them in case of unfinished work, humiliate them to give explanations for their prolonged absence, and more. All these interactions happened within the classroom and is a fine example of how hierarchies in educational institutions work to oppress students and push them to conform to unjust standards.
Paulo Freire, an educator and a leading advocate of critical pedagogy, says how in a classroom, power should be neutralised. By dismantling the banking concept of education, wherein students are passive recipients, a classroom must challenge learners to investigate and question patterns of inequality and power structures.
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The first time I felt like a certain boundary should’ve been in place was when a teacher asked us to specify the professions of our father while introducing ourselves. Why was it important for the teacher to know what “background” we came from? Was it to justify how she treated students?
Conversations can go south very quickly on discussions on Kashmir, reservation, gender roles, communal harmony, for instance. These discussions can be triggering and create a hostile classroom environment for students from these identities. While talking to students who have been oppressed and their identities marginalised, it becomes pertinent to be aware of those identities and conflicts. The same holds true for being vigilant about gender identities in conversations. Asking for pronouns is a great way of drawing that first line of comfort. Sharing your own pronouns and creating a safe space is an even better way.
“In my school, mentoring programmes and sensitisation workshops were never taken seriously and teachers had a habit of enabling problematic notions. Like upholding notions of the perfect family or relationship while talking about related issues, consciously leaving out those who might not identify with these constructs,” says Mrittika Maitra, an English Literature student from the University of Delhi.
Dr Megha Dhillon, a psychology professor at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, as if answering the above, underlines how sometimes a certain topic, like domestic violence, is an important part of the curriculum. For Dr Dhillon, giving trigger warnings and letting students tune out from the class should be made necessary.
“I’ve learned a great deal from my students, and while I realise that some people might view certain issues or their descriptions as the harsh realities of life, but out of the sheer camaraderie and respect a teacher has for their students, giving trigger warnings can truly transform an educative space,” says Dr Dhillon.
“If caught in an uncomfortable, trauma-inducing situation, a student can either release that grief, hold on to it, or take action. The student will have to weigh in the consequences of all three options as, unfortunately, power dynamics and situational factors are involved. In a utopian world, if the teacher would make a certain comment, the class should be able to object,” Dr Dhillon adds.
“There’s a teacher who continued to force all of us to open our cameras. I am not comfortable with it. Why can’t a teacher not even try to understand this?
The room in which I study is not a single room. I have to share it with my siblings. Whenever they enter the room, they start to laugh or to talk to me. They do it even when I am not comfortable with it. And when I start to retaliate, they end up saying, “I know how much you study! You are just pretending to study, but you are not.” For the sake of God, I want to cry at the top of my voice, but I can’t,” writes Sumit on Youth Ki Awaaz.
With teacher-student interactions restricted to Zoom and Google Meet, a feeling of mutual frustration and suffocation is bound to happen. As much as professors prefer active students over a screen full of black dots, they must take into account the diversity of their classrooms- diversity of identity, demographics and more.
The same goes for being willing to discuss workload and genuine bandwidth for assignments.
Not only do a lot of students lack a stable internet connection, but also access to devices, a personal space for the class, comfortable family dynamics, and other factors – all determine a student’s participation level. Putting them in situations where they have to introduce themselves or engage in compulsory small talk can make the already difficult virtual space, a distressing one.
As we struggle to gain societal consciousness about gender and caste, language is key while disseminating important information. Want to teach sex work for sociology? Wish to discuss historical oppression and manual scavenging in classrooms? Teachers must realise the weight of using certain words in classrooms because they are triggering. What matters most is to ensure that the class is a safe space.
“I was talking about sex work and prostitution in my sociology class. To talk about a certain historical connotation, I sought consent from my students about using the word, R***i,” a law professor tells me.
It’s really that simple. The rebuttal of labelling this gesture as a ‘threat to academic freedom’ seems a little absurd. Everyone knows what these words are given that we’ve used them for generations as oppressors. We need to remove them from our language and no better place to start doing that than our classrooms.
Nate Behar, in Toronto Star, explains this well in the context of using the N-word in the classroom. “There is no student who benefits in their historical education by having a professor of European descent utter a word created to hurt Black people. In fact, there is only harm that manifests as a result. Each and every university student can garner the proper understanding of their subject by omitting the vitriol and inserting a less harmful substitution, like simply referencing “the N-word” in its place,” he writes. The same holds true for the words denoting oppression by way of gender and caste in India.
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Recognising and acknowledging the power asymmetry then becomes the first step towards establishing a safe space.
“If a professor is new to a class, they can begin by introducing themselves and understanding what their students feel about sensitivity in the conversation. Some ground rules can be introduced in terms of empathy, how to talk about marginalised communities, body shaming, and much more,” Shraddha Iyer tells us.
It also becomes important to regularly ask for consent, invite disagreements, and listen to students genuinely. If a student shows discomfort that is based on a history of discrimination or socio-politico-cultural oppression, offer them a way out of the conversation or tailor the conversation to suit their needs. It shows that you, the professor, value the student-teacher relationship in learning.
“As we progress and grow together, I feel empowered as my students know where I am coming from and I am able to provide them with a safe presence to express their differences,” Dr Dhillon says.
Empathy and a desire to listen are the basic tenets of any successful relationship. Teachers will always have power. This advantage should be employed to support students in their endeavour to define their social identities instead of invalidating their struggles.