Randa Zammam: There’s no place for bias in the classroom

We often hear that GW is a “diverse” school. To me, “diverse” implies a mix of people from all types of backgrounds and cultures with a myriad of views all coming to one school to learn together. But diverse doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with “open-minded.”

Time and time again, I’ve noticed that whenever a student does not agree with a particular viewpoint, he or she may write it off completely and refuse to read more into the matter. Class discussions on certain topics may turn heated for no legitimate reason: Two students on different sides are arguing with empty words, even while neither knows much about the other’s point of view.

And professors aren’t immune from similar biases. Some professors reject ideas with which they disagree if students raise them during class. As a result, I’ve heard about many students who have tried to conform to their professor’s opinions in order to do well on papers and assignments. These instances are not conducive to an open learning environment, and seem extra prevalent in an election year.

But the issue that troubles me the most isn’t partisan bias. Other harmful biases and prejudices related to racial or ethnic groups exist, too. Because these biases can have an adverse effect on those sitting in classes and lectures, students and professors need to work together to keep these prejudices from affecting others.

I’ve had many classes cover topics related to different ethnic groups without fuss. But if race and identity cannot be discussed in a respectful manner, then perhaps they shouldn’t be discussed at all. The classroom is a place of learning, not alienation. Professors can lead the effort to have a healthy dialogue, but students should also be involved in ensuring conversations are productive and not prejudiced.

Given GW’s title as “most politically active” coupled with seemingly daily national headlines about race, I had hoped that the classroom would be the last place I would encounter prejudice from either a student or a professor. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case.

In a past class, I was assigned a reading that argued that humans are not naturally aggressive. But then in class, our professor claimed that the entirety of a certain ethnic group is genetically predisposed to violence due to generations of “first-cousin mating.” I looked back and forth between my book and my professor, coming to the astonished realization that my professor and the reading were nowhere near being on the same page.

Not only were this professor’s overarching generalizations incompatible with the teachings of the course text, but the offhand comments were not backed by any outside research. Simply put, it was rude – and racist.

David Silverman, a history professor who teaches a course on Native American history, said there’s no such thing as a bias-free classroom, and emphasized the importance of creating an environment in which everyone is respectful.

“In an academic setting, not everyone has to be comfortable all the time, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk about it,” Silverman said.

It’s one thing for a professor to express their political opinions in the classroom. But it’s completely inappropriate for a professor – or anyone, for that matter – to share racist opinions about an entire group of people. It’s also important for professors to remember that what they say in class holds a lot of weight, especially because they’re supposed to be educating us on such topics.

Nonetheless, this is a private university in which intellectual learning is encouraged and often fueled by the exchange of opposing ideas. This is in no way an argument for any form of “censorship” in our education. We should never try to silence those who simply hold a different view from ourselves. It is crucial to be open-minded and use the classroom as a center to express your ideas.

Prejudice will not go away overnight, and some sort of bias will probably stick with all of us forever. That’s why it’s important to be respectful when exercising your academic freedom to express your own opinions. Above all else, students should have the right to feel safe voicing their views in class as well the right to feel safe from prejudice in the classroom.

Randa Zammam, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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