How to teach difficult topics in times of crisis

We are going through a crisis in Israel/ Palestine that could have global repercussions, if it is not contained, very soon. The scale, proportion and intensity of this “war” is unprecedented, with the situation on the ground changing day to day. These discussions (and similar ones) are likely to find their way into the class room. Since I am not teaching this term, I don’t know what exactly is going on, in our classrooms; but if I were to be teaching, I would bring these up, given how public discourse around this (and related issues) has been, in the past three weeks.

While the current situation is new, the issue of teaching difficult topics in the class room, during a crisis is not new– one that has some precedents and set examples. Think of many other such social upheavals that have been well documented – the Gulf War, Civil Rights movement, India’s independence movement etc.

Photo : Lisbon, 2022 by Sabith Khan

I will offer some insights into how best to do it, while sticking to your expertise yet being compassionate.

First off: I learnt this during my time at Virginia, at a pedagogy class that was required, for all PhD students: declare your position on a topic. Whether it is gun control, climate change or the current Israel war on Gaza, let your students know what you think of it, personally.

Let students know where you stand on an issue and why. This reasoning is important.

This is not to intimidate them or discourage discussion, but to let them know what your biases are. Offer them your reasoning and assurance (a sincere one) that their own position and critiques will not be penalized in any way – through grades or other mechanisms. Discussions in class should be as open and honest as possible – and as an instructor, it is your responsibility to make sure they are civil and safe, for everyone; especially those you may disagree with.

Second: Encourage research. From credible sources and go beyond immediately available resources (media articles), press releases etc. Government messaging is most often politically expedient and likely to change, depending on public opinion. It is better to use books, films, academic articles and research by credible parties to examine the issue at hand. What issue can be “settled” as right or wrong, based on research? Encourage students to look at examples and case studies from other situations/ countries/ regions in the US.

Discourage opinions and focus on verifiable facts and credible sources.

An example: In the case of Israel/ Palestine, it would be the killing of journalists or civilians. one could argue that what Israel is doing as of today – with the bombings of hospitals/ journalists is clearly wrong and violates all norms of decency and international laws. Regardless of how one might spin it, there is no justification for killing of unarmed and non-combatants, no matter who does it. Critique those perspectives and look at historic examples of how such instances have been handled in the past. For instance, did the British government carpet bomb Ireland during the troubles? Did they use similar justifications for raising neighborhoods to the ground (they didn’t). If so, why? Why is it being justified in the case of Palestine? What is at stake here? Is it hypocrisy/ western double standards/ racism?

Three: Be empathetic but help students see how the actions of the parties violate/ uphold international laws and agreed upon norms.

This is where some issues can start getting murky, but with some care, you can navigate it clearly.

Four: Stick to what is known and from credible sources. This can also be tricky in a conflict like the one we are facing, given that the Western media is mainly getting its sources from the IDF, and are effectively showcasing their version of story. They are (mostly) not able to independently verify sources, given lack of access.

This has to change and the “truth,” has to come out. For this, they will have to corroborate what the “other side,” aka the Gazans are sharing too and it should be given credibility, when the reporters/ writers are professionals. Discrediting them or doubting their numbers (especially when they’ve been credible in the past) is not a good idea. Unfortunately, this has happened with our own President Biden questioning the number of dead on the Gazan side. Thankfully, Save the children and UNICEF have offered some corrective numbers, that will lend credibility to this very delicate issue.

Five: Realize that there are strong emotions involved in this issue and proceed accordingly. When strong emotions – fear, group identity and one’s survival is threatened, most people cannot be rational. This can also play out in the class room. Being aware of this and giving space for this, while not letting emotions get the better of a discussion is key.

Six: Know the history. Every issue has a history to it. Knowing it well yourself and helping students appreciate the facts will help enormously in discussing and debating it, in class.

Emotions are one thing – facts, rules and norms are another. We should not and cannot let our own biases get the better of our norms of humanity. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

Seven: What are the power dynamics here? Bringing an understanding of who holds the power of shaping discourse is important. As an instructor you have the power in the classroom, but outside of it, consider who is shaping the narrative or is controlling it. In the present case, one can make a case that the US government and Israeli governments are controlling access to information – by virtue of not letting journalists get into the conflict areas. What little information we are getting from “the other side,” is through independent journalists and bloggers, who live and work in Gaza. It is important for students to appreciate this and critique what this imbalance of power means.

The role of neutral and international organizations should also be examined, the UN being the most significant one.

As educators, our role is to share the best, most updated and accurate information available, while interpreting it in a way that offers clarity.

Anytime we share our opinions, it should be clearly mentioned that this is our opinion.

With care, respect and diligence, one can navigate this landmine. I have done this somewhat successfully and hope you can too!

Here’s another resource from IUPUI on this issue.

For those looking for free books/ material to teach the Palestine issue, here are some books.

Good luck!

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