Tip-toeing in classrooms soothes the raw nerves

February 1, 2002

At Ulster University, students tread softly to avoid offending those with deep-held convictions, writes Elisabeth Lillie.

Political events confirm the durability of the divisions in Northern Irish society. Even among students, patterns in the community are often repeated in social interactions. What does this mean for the classroom? This question is particularly important to a faculty of arts, which must teach contentious issues in history and philosophy.

A recent research project, which I coordinated, has found that students are very conscious of the community make-up of a particular seminar and of which group is in the majority. Students in the dominant group might find it easier to express an opinion, but they also admitted to avoiding confrontation with the other group. In the classroom (as in the wider community), the research found, there was a general reluctance to discuss anything likely to give offence in the light of deeply held convictions, particularly when the group did not know each other or "their backgrounds" very well. Adverse judgements could ensue and relationships might be jeopardised: "It is like admitting your politics in court" and you might be "wondering if you were ending or shortening a friendship".

Students in the minority in a particular class also steered away from aggressive group interaction, but there was an additional feeling of vulnerability and an unwillingness to "identify" their background or tradition. Some individuals, however, were more assertive. One commented:

"I am not afraid to express my faith to anyone."

Such heated debate as occurred was within traditions rather than across them, something noted by both students and lecturers. One student reported, for instance, having debates with co-religionists about the role of the British presence in the current conflict and indicated that she would not feel comfortable having such emotive arguments with students from the other community.

Erasmus and American students commented on the particular dynamics with some bemusement, noting a "tip-toeing around sensitivities", which for them was unusual, disturbing even. Yet it is precisely this inbred tact and interpersonal awareness that hold in check strong forces for disruption so that good relationships in class are maintained.

Elisabeth Lillie is teaching and learning coordinator, faculty of arts, and senior lecturer in French, University of Ulster.

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