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Teaching in the context of hate speech

Posted by on Tuesday, August 21, 2018 in Commentary, News.

By Joe Bandy, CFT Assistant Director

Many institutions of higher education aspire to encourage the liberal arts ideals of free speech, critical thought, and diverse perspectives so as to empower students to lead meaningful and purposeful lives, and to engage in our society as responsible citizens. This – in addition to growing campus diversification, student movements for social justice, and the engagement of faculty in issues of public scholarship – means that universities can become lightning rods for reactionary elements in our society who refuse to accept mainstream liberal education. Higher education can be particularly threatening to a wide variety of hate groups in the U.S. and internationally.

In this contentious time, when hate groups feel emboldened, it is predictable that they will resort to cowardly acts of hate speech directed at college campuses, such as anonymous email posts or campus graffiti. These function to sow fear, anger, and discord on college campuses, particularly among people of color, LGBTQIA communities, women, immigrants, religious minorities, and other underrepresented groups and their allies. Such was the case in the recent attacks on the Vanderbilt University email servers that resulted in some students, staff, and faculty receiving emails containing white supremacist hate speech aimed at people of color. This kind of hate speech and a variety of other, heinous hate crimes on college campuses across the U.S. are indeed growing, as tracked by research conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Further, hate groups are extending their efforts to recruit on college campuses, as reported by The Washington Post.

Therefore, it is understandable that some students may arrive on our campuses and in our classrooms with significant fears and uncertainties, and faculty may be concerned about how to respond effectively. The Center for Teaching has a variety of resources that may prove useful as you grapple with the many challenges this moment presents.


  • It is imperative to address proactively any harmful or traumatic incidents with students, but to do so without a plan, some knowledge of the issues, and some skills in facilitation is risky for students and faculty alike. The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching has compiled a wonderful set of Guidelines for Discussing Incidents of Hate, Bias, and Discrimination that can help faculty plan for such dialogue step-by-step.
  • Students who may fear a lack of support, particularly underrepresented groups and their allies, typically want to see faculty model a commitment to inclusion and equity for their classes and the campus. Faculty may do this by condemning hate speech when it occurs, as Vanderbilt’s Chancellor Zeppos did here after the recent email attacks. Certainly, if hate speech is uttered by students in violation of campus codes of conduct, please report such actions to the appropriate authority, such as Vanderbilt’s Student Accountability, Community Standards & Academic Integrity office.
  • More generally, students may wish to see faculty model civility and inclusive teaching generally, many tips for which are available in our Increasing Inclusivity in the Classroom teaching guide, or in Columbia University’s guide on the subject. Syllabi also are places where faculty can establish classroom norms of respect and civility, and some ideas on these statements may be found in our guide on Syllabus Design.
  • Students also will want to know they can speak freely and disagree about socially and emotionally significant issues with their peers without it becoming a source of anxiety, shame, or trauma. While faculty may find it difficult to find their balance on this tightrope between safety and open dialogue, there are some useful guidelines in our guide on Difficult Dialogues. There are similar and useful guides available at the University of Michigan’s CRLT guide on Responding to Difficult Moments.
  • Students also may need support from campus personnel besides faculty, such as counselors and wellness professionals, since they are often better equipped to help students deal with significant psychological trauma or anxiety. We urge faculty to know their limits in offering assistance to students and help them to locate and access campus resources when needed. We also suggest faculty become familiar with on campus resources and their relevant intake policies and services, so they can help students transition to them. A list of resources for Vanderbilt is present in our Teaching in Times of Crisis A particularly important resource for Vanderbilt students is the Student Care Network, a point of entry for various resources on campus, including the University Counseling Center, the Center for Student Wellbeing, and the Student Health Center.
  • In addition to general support systems for student wellbeing and mental health, we suggest using resources particular to groups who may be the target of hate on campus, for example the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, the Office of Religious Life, the Office of LGBTQI Life, the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center, the Inclusion Initiatives and Cultural Competence Office, or the Office of Inclusive Excellence.
  • Faculty and staff also may experience anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, or other emotions when hate speech occurs. It is important for faculty and staff to do self-care as well, as mentioned in our Teaching in Times of Crisis guide, lest we be reactive or imbalanced in our leadership of classrooms. Please use any campus mental or physical health facilities and programs that are available and relevant. One useful source in thinking about self-care is Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s post for Inside Higher Education on “Radical Self-Care”.
  • Lastly, we of course recommend faculty become as informed as possible about current events and issues of difference and inequality in campus life and in our society beyond the campus gates. The more one is informed and current with the issues, the more effective one can be in empowering students with critical thought and intellectual rigor. We urge you to consult with your departmental or school colleagues, your professional societies, relevant interdisciplinary associations, libraries, and other sources so as to ensure you and your students can understand the issues through the most relevant and recent scholarship.


If you need assistance to meet these or other challenges in your teaching, please contact the Center for Teaching at 615-322-7290 to schedule a consultation with our staff.  We would be happy to assist you.


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