How should universities deal with the conflict?

Allow sparks to fly in class, even when Israel and Palestine come up

Pro-Palestina demonstratie in UBB. Foto: DUB
Protest in favour of Palestine at UBB. Photo: DUB

You think you’re teaching your students about an ancient science philosopher, but they take a few associative steps and introduce the conflict between Israel and Palestine into your class. Emotions run high.

It happened to her just this morning, University of Humanistic Studies teacher Noortje Bot tells us. It presented her with a dilemma. Was this the right moment for a plenary – and undoubtedly heated – debate? Not to mention a debate on a complex issue that you haven’t prepared for as a teacher and on which you are not entirely sure of your own position. “I’ve been known to put the topic aside. Not all students are always up for such a debate.”

Experienced teachers 
For weeks now, the Palestinian issue has been a disruptive factor in education all over the Netherlands. This doesn’t only take the form of protests on campus, but has also made its way into the classroom. Outgoing Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf came to Leiden University at the end of October to discuss the impact of the conflict in higher education. On this occasion, he was told that even experienced teachers have a hard time accommodating the strong emotions. How do you deal with the war in education? Should you take advantage of emotions that spring up to start an improvised dialogue? Or do you, in an effort to protect your students, keep the news out of the classroom as much as possible?

Three teachers from the ComeniusNetwerk for educational innovation, who conduct research into these kinds of heated interruptions of class, agree: there’s really no need to throw your entire lesson plan out of the window at the merest mention of the topic. However, completely ignoring an intense remark in class is not a good idea either. 

“Suppose someone makes a racist comment and because you feel awkward about it, you pretend like nothing’s happened... Then you send your students the signal that the classroom is an unsafe place”, says Blandine Joret. She developed a method and workshops at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) for teachers who want to learn to deal with ‘heated, offensive and tense moments’ in class. Joret: “In literature, the abbreviation ‘HOT moments’ is used. Our advice is to always address them one way or another.”

This may take the form of a short moment in which you show that you heard the student’s remark. Or perhaps you need to lay down standards: this is unacceptable. Or it’s acceptable, and I’d be happy to discuss it some other time.

Cool down
At the beginning of November, terrorism expert Beatrice de Graaf’s TerInfo foundation published a recommendation on dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in class. It also contains warnings: point out to students or pupils that they shouldn’t glorify terrorism. This may be a punishable offense. “Sometimes it’s wise to first let the conflict ‘cool down’ before you discuss it in class.” 

It’s not absolutely necessary for the discussion to be held in class. Especially for major conflicts like the one between Israel and Hamas, which affect almost everyone, higher education institutions would do well to organise discussions outside of the classroom, says Caroline Suransky of the University of Humanistic Studies. “In higher education, we teach students to reflect and reason. And we think about the practical significance of abstract terms. If anyone’s responsible for providing space for a dialogue on societal issues, it’s us.”

Suransky leads the Comenius project ‘Woke en Weerstand’ (Woke and Resistance), in which students and teachers investigate how parties that are diametrically opposed to each other can have a fruitful discussion. “Everyone’s affected and has an opinion on these kinds of far-reaching issues. Saying you want to stay out of it is also a valid point of view. It shouldn’t be a debate that you can win or lose, but a dialogue in which people listen to each other”, says Suransky. 

Not personal, still tense
Students sometimes see their teachers as representatives of the establishment, of the adult world that has ‘messed things up’ again. A disruptive remark is therefore not necessarily intended as a personal attack, UvA teacher Blandine Joret emphasises. She advises teachers to distil an underlying societal theme from a disruptive remark and have a discussion about that theme. That way, you depersonalise the conflict and make the discussion less tense. 

That doesn’t mean you can take away all of the tension, says Noortje Bot, who’s also involved in the ‘Woke en Weerstand’ project. “I’m not an expert on this conflict. What if I say something wrong? Sometimes I’m afraid of that. But it helps to make that explicit. It helps to tell my students that I can’t do it alone, that I’m not above them or have all the answers. Or that a comment touches me as well.” 

As a disruptive remark ‘disrupts’, it’s practical to have a standard approach, Bot thinks. Hers is roughly made up of three steps. First, you reflect on what’s been said. Then you check with other students if they want to talk about it as well. It’s entirely possible they don’t. Bot: “You need to accommodate those alternative voices as well.” As a third step, you provide clarity about your own position as a teacher. After all, having or not having a discussion isn’t a neutral choice. “And if I do decide that we’re having it, I’ll also make clear that we have limited knowledge on this conflict and limited time to talk about it.”

UvA teacher Joret recommends talking about the discussion rules. Letting each other finish, not getting personal, etcetera. Ideally, you’ve already established those rules before all hell breaks loose, for example at the start of the course. This gives you something to fall back on. Besides: “If you give students a part in determining the rules of discussion this also contributes to a safe learning environment”, says Joret.

But shouldn’t you, in the interest of this safe learning environment, refrain from such discussions altogether? Absolutely not, Joret believes. “It would be terrible for education if the world was shut out.” This isn’t possible anyway, as students bring the world into the classroom. A safe learning environment isn’t a kind of neutral safe space. It’s socially safe, not intellectually safe.” 

Viewpoints you were certain about may become less certain. And room for uncertainty comes with a lot of freedom, Joret thinks. “That’s why it’s so stimulating when visions collide.” 

Uncertainty is a crucial element in Noortje Bot’s approach. When the war suddenly comes up in her classroom, she will do whatever it takes to create room for uncertainty. “It’s risky, complex and fraught with emotion. But by sharing my own position and asking others for theirs, space is created to explore viewpoints without students being pinned down on them. That’s how you help them over the threshold. But even then it’s a very sensitive issue of course.”