Teaching Through Discomfort

“This is a class that will make you uncomfortable.”

That’s something I say on the first day in my intro U.S. History courses. I frontload this idea about getting used to discomfort not to warn or scare off students, but to establish a core part of my teaching philosophy and to let my students know what they’re in for. In my experience as a newly minted Ph.D., I’ve found that it’s fairly common for students to come into such courses feeling hesitant to discuss topics which might be considered controversial or contentious. They don’t want to “say the wrong thing” or they might be embarrassed about not being fully informed about a topic. Or, and to a surprising extent, they’ve been taught in the past that their own insights don’t matter, a belief which prevents them from feeling confident enough to engage with difficult subjects.

At the college level, however, difficult material is the name of the game. American history is neither neat nor orderly. Within the context of issues such as the classic triad of race, class and gender, American history is in fact replete with conflict. From the oft-asked question of what the Civil War was fought over (It was slavery. Let me give that one to you for free.) to fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, emotions run high when these topics arise.  When students are asked to critically engage with such issues, then, it’s only natural for them to want to avoid them and the discomfort that comes along for the ride.

As an educator who was a student himself not too long ago, I know that there is value in confronting such topics head-on, however. I believe that it’s only when we are taken out of our comfort zones that we truly learn. When we are challenged to think about difficult and sometimes ugly issues in history, it forces us to confront the assumptions we often have about our lives and about the world around us. This is not a process to be avoided. To the contrary, this is where knowledge comes from. Through such engagement, our beliefs will then either be confirmed, dismantled or reconfigured, but they will nevertheless be stronger for having had the experience. Long after the semester is over, if my students remember nothing else from my classes, this is the ultimate lesson that I want to impart. There is liberation and wisdom to be found within the things that unsettle and discomfort.

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