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Max Classroom Capacity—Teaching LGBT Issues

Loren Naidoo and Nick Salter

Dear readers,


This issue I’ll be talking to Nick Salter, Associate Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology and the Director of the Faculty Resource Center at Ramapo College of New Jersey.  As the Director of the LGBT Workplace Experiences Lab, his research interests focus on the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees at their jobs.


Loren: Nick, thanks so much for talking with me! Before we begin our discussion of teaching, I understand that you are working on an exciting project for TIP. Can you say a few words about the upcoming request for proposals for I/O program ranking?


Nick: First of all, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.  Yes, I will be spearheading a project to update and diversify rankings of I-O graduate programs.  Check out the Call for Proposals (also in this issue of TIP)!


Loren: Like many teachers, we are both motived to effectively discuss issues of diversity in the classroom.  In particular, I wanted to talk to you about a topic that is of great interest to both of us and remains a source of discomfort for a lot of teachers and/or students: sexual orientation.  How do you approach teaching this topic? 


Nick: Well, there are a lot of issues to consider when teaching about sexual orientation.  First of all, there are many people who don't agree with being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).  Although our society is much more accepting now than in previous years, there is still a percentage of society that is not OK with this topic.  And it is much more acceptable (in some circles) to be openly anti-LGBT in a way that people cannot be as openly anti-women or anti-racial minorities.  Students have submitted papers to me that explicitly say, "Being gay is wrong."  As a teacher, is it my role to teach students what their values and beliefs should be?  This is a difficult line to walk, and some may disagree with me, but I lean more towards teaching students research findings and the critical thinking skills to understand and interpret the findings in order to come up with values and beliefs for themselves.  Therefore, I aim to teach students the research on LGBT issues, and they decide for themselves what to think.  This strategy obviously applies to many topics, but I walk into a class on sexual orientation differently than other topics because I know I might encounter resistance from the start.


Loren: It's very interesting that you have students who are so open about their disagreement with LGBT.  When I started teaching in Ohio fifteen years ago, having moved there from Montreal, I recall being shocked at how some students would openly say in class that they believed being homosexual was wrong and unnatural.  I don't see this anymore, perhaps partly because I’m now in New York City where attitudes to LGBT are more positive.  I struggle with the issue of whether or not to teach values as well. In the end I think that's what we do whether we mean to or not.  Rather than aspiring to an impartiality that I couldn't authentically pull off, my approach is to be upfront about my own biases and values and let students agree or disagree with me.  My favorite way to do this is to preface my comments with “I'm a liberal Canadian, so feel free to disagree with me...”  But, if I'm being honest, I did (and do) try to influence students' views subtly.  For example, I wrote an exam question on cognitive dissonance in which the hypothetical situation to be analyzed involved a fight between a man and his boyfriend.  The fact that they were homosexual was completely irrelevant to the question.  The point was to show that homosexuals are people like anyone else.  I do the same thing with gender and race.  I wasn't sure anyone even noticed until one of my students approached me at the end of the semester to say how much she appreciated how I portrayed homosexuality as normal and "not a big deal," a perspective that she had little exposure to as a lesbian living in Ohio at the time. 


Nick:  OK, I’d have to agree with you.  As a social scientist, I try to be as impartial as possible.  But you’re right – this is easier said than done.  I also include questions that mention gay and lesbian people on my exams, and do what I can to “normalize” homosexuality.  I’m probably including my personal opinions in class more than I realize!  It is a fine line to walk.


Loren: I agree!  Now the challenge for me is to get students to really engage in the topic and share their views.  I would almost rather people say offensive things than nothing at all!  Do you also have difficulty getting students to discuss the topic in class?  


Nick: This can be difficult, and not just with students who are anti-LGBT.  Many students are OK with LGBT issues, but don't have much knowledge, background, or experience, so may not know the “right” words and the “right” way to talk about the topic.  For many topics in our society, people at times say things that are inadvertently offensive—not because they meant to be offensive, but because they didn't know they were being offensive.  This can at times lead to a chilling effect; students may not want to talk about LGBT issues for fear of “saying the wrong thing.”  However, the topic should still be discussed!  As a teacher, it's important to convey a sense of “safety”—e.g., “I won't be mad at you if you say the wrong word or phrase.  I might correct you, but that isn't something to be upset about.”  Of course, I'm not the only one in the conversation.  Other students might be upset with a classmate who inadvertently makes an offensive comment.  So as a teacher, I need to monitor that as well to make sure everyone understands I'm actively steering the conversation.


In general, there are a lot of issues to consider when teaching LGBT topics to students that you might not have to think about as much when teaching other topics.  It can be challenging at times, but as an openly gay instructor, I feel it's really important to educate others on this topic.


Loren: I completely agree that our job as instructors is to help grow a classroom culture in which students feel comfortable respectfully sharing their views and knowing that you will support them and not punish them for saying something wrong.  It's not easy to do, especially where these kinds of issues are not central to the course and don’t often arise.  For example, these issues are more likely to arise in multiple contexts in a Social compared to I/O Psychology course.  As an openly gay instructor, does your approach to discussing LGBT issues differ compared to other sensitive topics (e.g., race, age, etc.)?


Nick: It's interesting because many assume that as an openly gay man, this would make me more qualified to teach LGBT issues.  It's a very personal topic to me, and I am knowledgeable about and used to talking about it.  This helps me teach the research on the topic, and it also helps convey the “personal touch” that can make students really understand the topic on a deep level.  However, I wonder at times if the students perceive me as completely unbiased.  As I mentioned, I try to be unbiased when I teach and then allow the students to form their own opinions.  If I teach a topic so personal to me, do they trust me to tell the full story?  Also, do they feel comfortable stating their opinions that might go against my personal beliefs (and even lifestyle)?  None of this stops me from teaching the topic to my students, but it does create an extra layer to the discussion that I'm mindful of.


Loren: This is a fascinating point!  I can see how, paradoxically, being gay may undermine your credibility and also prevent students from raising alternative viewpoints.  I think I have the opposite experience when it comes to discussing issues of race.  As the product of a “mixed marriage,” I have been described as “racially ambiguous” and it's often not clear to others to which group(s) I may belong.  This lets me sit on the fence when it comes to discussing race.  I'm able to identify with the majority group (my mother is Caucasian), and having been the occasional target of racial slurs in my youth, I also identify with minority groups.  In contrast, as a Canadian, I feel like I have no credibility with my students when issues like gun control and health care come up in class!  Do you employ any particular strategies to get around the resistance some students may feel to expressing dissenting views?  Even more interesting to me, how do you cope with the students that, knowing you are gay, write papers in which they say that they believe LGBT is wrong? 


Nick: It can be tough!  When students write this in papers, I stick very closely to the grading rubric and give very clear feedback.  So for instance, I explain that they lost points for not relying on research, or whatever reason.  This way the student can’t come back and accuse me of giving a poor grade because I didn’t agree with the anti-LGBT tone of the paper.  This means that at times, I’ve given good grades to well-written papers that were anti-LGBT.  But if I told them I was going to grade them on certain parameters, I have to stick to them.  When anti-LGBT remarks come out during class discussion, this is a bit tougher.  We live in a pretty polarized society these days, so there are usually some pro-LGBT students who speak up.  I try to be sure I acknowledge both viewpoints (for instance, I’ll say “that’s correct.  A lot of people don't agree with being LGBT for religious reasons”), and I interject research findings whenever relevant (to remind them to ground the discussion in data, not just feelings).  I’ll also connect it back to the actual topic of the class (so that it doesn’t spiral out of control).  For example, I’ll talk about the implications of people disagreeing with homosexuality for religious reasons in the selection context.  But it can be difficult—and can quickly get very emotional for the students if I don’t work hard to keep the discussion somewhat controlled.


Loren: Wow.  That is tough.  I mean, it's difficult enough to manage sensitive issues in class.  It's something else entirely when students are basically saying “I don't agree with WHO YOU ARE!”  It's amazing to me that you can even try to maintain objectivity in those circumstances.  I understand (but I am not sympathetic to) the argument that religion is an acceptable reason to be anti-LGBT, but regardless of one’s beliefs it seems clear that we are headed towards greater acceptance of and legal protection for LGBT folks and I think most people will eventually get on board!  Hopefully with the efforts of instructors like you, we'll get to the point where it's much less of a contentious issue.  


Nick: I hope so!  I do also want to highlight a great resource for people interested in this issue: the SIOP-LGBT committee (currently chaired by Katina Sawyer).  They are a great group of people doing some really cool work; anyone looking for thoughts and ideas on teaching sexual orientation would definitely benefit from talking to them as well.  They published a great primer on the topic in the April 2016 issue of TIP: “LGBT Issues in the Workplace 101” (Discont, Russell, Gandara, & Sawyer, 2016).  For more teaching-specific resources, keep an eye on the SIOP Teaching Wiki; it’s currently being renovated and will have some great resources there soon!


Loren: Thanks Nick for an illuminating conversation!  As always, all thoughts, comments and critiques are welcome: Loren.Naidoo@baruch.cuny.edu.

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