How to Create Safe Spaces for Teaching Taboo Topics

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package at this link.

“Public (including classroom) discussions of political or religious issues, preaching, and group worship—other than Islam—are prohibited.”

So went a faculty handbook of a Saudi university to which I once (unsuccessfully) applied for a job. A social studies department there was looking for a historian. During the interview process, I asked how other subjects like international relations were taught without discussing “political issues.” One of the professors told me about an informal agreement between him and his students: “I want to keep my job. You want to keep your scholarships,” he would say. “Do we understand each other?”

While this arrangement may have worked for him, are there any other ways not to get in trouble as a lecturer?

Tacit Codes of Restraint

I have come across few universities that were as frank in acknowledging limits of discourse as this particular one. However, higher-education institutions everywhere are constrained by the legal and social environments in which they operate.

Working at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar since 2013, I have been fortunate to enjoy tremendous academic freedom. I have never been told what topics I could or could not talk about in the classroom. Nevertheless, as an employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia and as a resident of the State of Qatar, I am bound by both American and local laws. Moreover, I have an obligation to create a safe learning environment in which students of diverse backgrounds and identities feel supported and included. This also means respecting the culture of my Qatari hosts.

And yet, as an instructor of history, I cannot avoid taboo topics entirely. How could I teach a course about medieval Europe or the modern Middle East, for instance, without mentioning either politics or religion?

And yet, as an instructor of history, I cannot avoid taboo topics entirely. How could I teach a course about medieval Europe or the modern Middle East, for instance, without mentioning either politics or religion?

Of course, “political or religious issues” are vague terms, and even the Saudi faculty handbook I read does not define them any further. The laws of most countries around the world are not very precise in the kinds of speech, including historical arguments, they criminalize. (Exceptions include Holocaust and other genocide denial.)

Giving Students a Choice

Students’ individual interests in taboo topics likewise vary and shift. As a teacher, you can gauge their comfort levels by offering different materials. Students could prepare for a lesson on Islamic movements, for example, by picking from a variety of articles on Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda among others.

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If you are representing any humanities or social science discipline, you might feel compelled to talk about gender, another potentially sensitive area, at some point. If you are not sure what kind of readings to assign, have course participants choose from different ones as well. My syllabi on Middle Eastern history include texts about queens, feminist intellectuals and slave girls. Course participants who are more interested in exploring masculine and non-binary identities can learn about moustache wearers or eunuchs instead.

Students who are presenting delicate material to their classmates may want to consider giving content warnings. Even if your college does not operate in a particularly conservative context, such cautionary statements might still be appreciated. (See a related article, “Sex, Lies and Scholarship.”)

Topics From Different Times and Places

Some students prefer mainstream topics and others marginal ones, thereby widening the scope of our lessons. Surprisingly, an all-time favorite among my students has been an Ottoman History Podcast episode about an issue rarely covered in Qatari media: suicides among women. This popular podcast show is about early Republican Turkey rather than contemporary Qatar. Perhaps many of my students selected it, because it is about a different time and place than the one they are living in.

Case studies from a diversity of countries and eras certainly enrich any syllabus while removing inhibitions. If you are a political scientist in Kuwait and want to explain the rentier state, you can easily give examples from other OPEC countries. Your Kuwaiti listeners will likely understand what pertains to their country even if your references remain implicit. If you want to analyze monarchies, you don’t have to stick with the current ones. Ancient history is full of various types.

Maybe you feel secure enough in your position as an academic that you don’t worry about crossing red lines. But never forget that your apprentices might not be as privileged.

Plus, don’t forget the fictional realms. If you are a scholar of religion and worry about offending students adhering to a specific tradition, why not venture into the spirituality of Star Wars or other elaborately built sci-fi and fantasy worlds?

The Safety of Ambiguity and Anonymity

Maybe you feel secure enough in your position as an academic that you don’t worry about crossing red lines. But never forget that your apprentices might not be as privileged. Do not insist that every one of them expresses a clear opinion on a political topic. Allow for some ambiguity, maybe even encourage it! Instead of having students craft essays with a single argument, they could create visual artworks with room for interpretation. Those are often the most interesting pieces. Alternatively, learners could write a screenplay or other form of dialogue. By letting different characters speak, they could hide their true convictions and simultaneously explore various perspectives.

Just as during a peer-review process, there is also value in anonymity in the virtual classroom. Academics regularly engage in double-blind refereeing of research papers. This means that neither the author nor the reviewer of a manuscript know the identity of the other.

A similar procedure can be applied to student essays, provided the class is big enough. In virtual meetings, allow students to turn off their cameras and use avatars and nicknames instead of their real names. Moreover, avoid recording the session, unless every participant has given informed consent.

Finally, don’t be frustrated if a level of self-censorship persists. Even though most teachers prefer lively debates, silence can be powerful too. This is especially true when reflecting about traumatic events in the past. A moment of silence, like a minute or two, is part of many respectful commemorations, for instance on Armistice Day or September 11. However, even in disciplines unrelated to history, a period of mindful meditation or contemplation is beneficial.

“Stay safe!” has been a frequent call since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Universities across the world have exerted great efforts to stop the transmission of the novel coronavirus. Yet, we should also make sure that all members of our communities feel safe enough to investigate controversial political matters—and spread potentially dangerous ideas.

Jörg Matthias Determann teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JMDetermann.


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