“Raise your hand if you are pro–life.”
In Law and Society, a class of about 60 students, sociology professor Hocine Fetni saw only a few hands go up and proceeded to call on them. What happened next, according to College junior Jared*, was a long debate between Fetni and a girl who had revealed she was pro–life on abortion. “[He] blatantly attacked her moral character,” Jared recounted. “It was like a professional way of saying, ‘I think you’re an idiot.’”
“I was just thinking if I were in that girl’s position, I would have been a lot meaner towards him,” Jared said. He considers himself to be liberal and pro–choice, but he often felt Fetni’s arguments went overboard with “ridiculous” explanations in attempts to sway people who didn’t think the way he did. So much so that sometimes Jared felt compelled to tailor his class assignments to match Fetni’s “unbelievable liberal bias,” even if he didn’t believe in it himself.
Jared took Law and Society last fall, which he called the most “offensive” class he’s taken at Penn. The class addresses controversial societal issues connected with the legal system, including those that involve civil liberties.
Fetni, who has been teaching a form of this class since the early 1990s, has one important expectation of his students: have an open mind. He wants students who are pro–life to be able to argue the pro–choice position, and vice versa. He encourages students to listen and hear each other’s sides.
“Students come in with their ideas about things and aren’t really willing to listen when they’ve already made up their mind,” Fetni said. “Sometimes when a student is challenged by me or his or her classmates regarding their views, [they] get very defensive because they were not expecting to be challenged...hence they think that the course is biased.” However, he believes the number of students who feel this way is small.
Fetni does make his own viewpoints clear to his students with the caveat that his opinion is just as good as everybody else’s.
“When you discuss these controversial issues, then who is right and who is wrong? No one really has the answer,” he said.
A lot of people think they do have the answer. Tough social and political topics such as abortion, gay marriage and the Arab–Israeli conflict can get emotional and inevitably come with position stances—the left, the right, the middle–who–knows–what–to–call–it. Their place in the classroom gets even more difficult because these stances have to translate into a grade.
How professors lead these classes can range. They say they would never grade a student on their viewpoints. However, some students still feel that they have to tread carefully.
Students and professors in various departments mostly agree that learning how to argue a point well leads to better understanding of the issues in play. While a professor’s opinion can be beneficial to debate in class, he or she must do it tactfully without disrespecting other views. There’s a difference between playing devil’s advocate and attempting to indoctrinate students.
Some students have good experiences to share, but others didn’t enjoy their classes because they had heard too much of their professors’ views. Many of the latter speak on the condition of anonymity because they don’t want to negatively affect their relationships with these teachers and others.
College senior Layla O’Kane, who took Fetni’s class last fall, felt uncomfortable at least once a week. She actually agreed with him on a lot of the issues brought up in class but said, “he definitely didn’t foster open communication, and his conversational style was rude.”
“I didn’t feel like he was challenging my beliefs, I felt like he was challenging me,” she added. “I felt he was attacking a lot of people personally.”
Fetni would introduce topics with his own opinions attached to them before opening them up for discussion, according to Ryan*, another student in the class. “With that kind of set up, many people, especially the Republicans in the class, were uncomfortable saying anything at that point,” the College junior said.
Ryan took the class in the fall of 2012 and, after one of the presidential debates, Fetni asked for a conservative student to evaluate Obama’s performance and a liberal student to evaluate Romney’s. Many raised their hands to critique Romney, but none did for Obama. Ryan knew there were conservatives in the class, but they kept their mouths shut.
“Unfortunately, in teaching courses like Law and Society and discussing controversial issues, you always end up with someone who is unhappy [because he or she isn’t used to getting their beliefs challenged],” Fetni said. He gives students warning of this at the beginning of every semester.
In her Modern Hebrew classes, Susan* was offended when both students and teachers made comments about violent Arabs, jokes about bombs and cultural slurs and remarks about how critics of Israel are anti–Semitic.
She once had a professor who made an offhand remark that Egypt was full of terrorists. Susan, who is a Palestinian, wanted to take Hebrew because she sees herself working to find peace in the region in the future.
Throughout her sophomore and junior years, the College senior felt “extremely upset” at times in the language classes, which were “overtly nationalistic and assumed everyone in the class was of a certain political leaning.”
“One of the essay questions on the exam was something like, ‘pretend you’re going to Israel and write a letter to your uncle and tell him about how great it is to be in Israel,’” she said. “If I were to write a letter to my actual uncle, I would say, ‘I’m sorry you were made a refugee.’”
But she never really put up a fight. “I was wary about compromising my position since I was so outnumbered. I told myself I would keep my head down and get a good grade out of it.”
Teaching the Arab–Israeli conflict in a classroom can be difficult, but the classes are in demand by Penn students.
Political Science professor Ian Lustick dedicates a full course to it. Readings and discussions in International Politics of the Middle East: The Arab–Israeli Conflict is meant to show all perspectives on the issue.
By focusing on texts and encouraging students to build arguments with relevant research, Lustick wants to turn “polemics into research questions” and not just for his students to “score debate points.”
According to a spring 2013 syllabus, a few of the assigned readings are authored by Lustick himself. In addition, he posted a list of recommended readings, including those by himself to show students the research behind the lectures. Lustick wrote an op–ed in The New York Times in September that criticizes the two–state solution and argues that it actually impedes peace–making processes.
The class is one of the most popular ones about the Middle East conflict and comes under a lot of scrutiny. About 10 years ago, Lustick said he had two students in his class who were spies for Campus Watch, which the group denies. Campus Watch is a Philadelphia–based "think tank" that reviews classes about the Middle East, especially looking for problems such as mixing of politics with scholarship and abuse of power over students.
Reactions are mixed among those who have taken Lustick’s class. Some believe the class presents a balance of perspectives and others say his classes can take an ideological slant.
Communications professor Al Felzenberg joins the chorus of professors who say that they want their students to be able to defend their views. “When I was an undergraduate, all of my professors were left–of–center liberals, and it was a very difficult time with the Vietnam War. I had some very radical professors who knocked students down if they disagreed with them,” he recalled.
“I always said that if I became a professor, I would not want students in my class to feel uncomfortable, and no one has ever said they were uncomfortable with me.”
Felzenberg tells his students where he stands when they ask him, but he’s “not here to grade their opinions.” He is a Republican working as Director of Communications for the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress. He previously served under the Republican administrations of George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.
College senior Danielle Marryshow, who took a class with Felzenberg in the summer of 2012, said he made his opinions on matters clear in class. She was never uncomfortable with hearing his views but just thought he was wrong. “I’m just really liberal and strenuously disagreed,” she said, but she didn’t feel strongly enough to challenge it during class time.
Danielle had to write a few opinion pieces for the class. She knew Felzenberg was against gun control so she didn’t write anything that was directly in favor of gun control because it wasn’t worth the risk. “I don’t know for sure whether he would have reacted badly, but it didn’t seem important enough where I felt I had to challenge it via my work,” she explained.
Professors don’t want to grade their students on what they think—or at least won’t openly admit it—but instead on how students defend what they think.
For the most part, students are interested in what their professors, experts in their field, feel about a certain topic. However, they never want to feel like they can’t raise their hands or write truthfully.
Ideally, a professor should “put appropriate pressure on students to voice their opinion...It’s been great to have my own perspective challenged, not in a way that’s threatening but that brings constructive debate,” Susan said.
“When I see a professor do that, I admire and gain from it.”
Julie Xie is a senior from Andover, Massachusetts majoring in communication and economics. She is the former managing editor and city news editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian.
*The names of these individuals have been changed to protect their anonymity.