Teaching The Teaching Workshop: Dealing with Hostile Students

The Teaching Workshop: Dealing with Hostile Students

Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

Questions: Occasionally I have a problematic student in the class who puts forward hostile and spurious comments that send an awkward vibe through the class. I try to address it respectfully and derive whatever useful contribution there is from the comment and move on quickly. Is this the right thing to do? Is there a better way to handle it?


From Macy Salzberger:

Recently, I attended a philosophy conference with a number of folks from the School of Education. One panelist at the conference made a “hostile and spurious” comment. In response, the philosophers did precisely what we would ordinarily do with our students: they tried to address the panelist respectfully, deriving whatever useful contribution there was before forgetting about him and moving on to the other panelists. As soon as we walked out of the discussion, my friends from the School of Education announced, “THAT is why I don’t hang out with philosophers.”

In the classroom, our job is to teach, no matter how hostile or spurious the student. By knocking down the position of a student, we run the risk of alienating them in the classroom, thus losing the opportunity to teach them. So, the temptation is to focus on what was useful in what the student said while ignoring the rest. But doing so is symptomatic of a larger tendency in facilitating discussion that Harry Brighouse has described as having a “ping-pong” feel. We respond as if we are in an isolated conversation with that particular student, not in a discussion involving the entire classroom. This is a mistake, not only because it fails to foster discussion among the students, but also because we fail to take stock of the effects of that conversation on the larger classroom.

In the case of the obnoxious panelist, philosophers in the audience saw no dialectical importance in directly rebutting his racist remarks. In doing so, they failed to see that they were also engaged with an audience that was unaware of their intentions or positions. The members of the classroom or the auditorium do not know why we are tiptoeing around an objectionable claim. Like my friends in the School of Education, who assumed that the philosophers in the audience responded as they did because they simply did not see the panelist as obnoxious, your students might perceive polite pedagogical practice as acceptance of the obnoxious position. This is harmful not only because of the potential for discouraging students from participating (or taking future philosophy courses), but also because your students might not  have formed settled opinions about what they believe is politically repugnant. If someone says something racist in your class, one of your students may internalize the racist message as acceptable. For these reasons, it seems important to take the time to thoroughly address the hostile and/or spurious comment. By doing so, you may also equip vulnerable members of your class with the tools they need to respond to similar comments when they encounter them outside of the classroom.

The communicative effect of engaging directly with the hostile comment, however, depends on your position in the classroom. Recently, a colleague of mine asked for advice on a comment that came up in his class, indicating that light-skinned black folk fail to have experiences that are necessary for “really” being black. My colleague worried about how to engage with the comment, given its effects on the rest of the class and his position as a white instructor. He did not want either to sweep the comment under the rug or to take advantage of his privilege and epistemic authority as the white male instructor to invalidate the epistemic authority of the commenting student. My colleague–quite rightfully, I think–allowed other students in the classroom to respond and critically engage with the comment. However, his response did not resolve all the difficulties of the situation. Should he validate the responses of students who challenged the singular notion of the “black experience”? Should he simply let the conversation run its course? What if only white students responded? Was he letting the black students take on the burden of defending their own experiences?

I have focused specifically on racist comments, but not all hostile and spurious comments can be treated in the same way and there is no one “right” way. I think, however, this acknowledgment of the larger pedagogical context is precisely what we need to do as instructors in these situations. We are tempted to focus on the individual student and how to dance around their comment. However, it seems more useful to attend to the potential effect on the whole classroom.

We should ask ourselves the following questions before responding:

  1. Who is the comment hostile toward?
  2. How do I respect the target of hostility?
  3. How do I respect the pedagogical ambitions I have for this student?  
  4. How do I respect the pedagogical ambitions I have for the rest of the class?
  5. How can I use my epistemic authority to politically empower my students?
  6. How should I use my epistemic authority given my position in the classroom and society?

I do not think it is easy to answer any one of these questions. Further, I do not pretend to have presented an exhaustive list of morally salient questions. Instead, I invite further reflection on these questions, with the recognition that they far exceed the scope of a blog post.

From Jeanine Weekes Schroer:

I think this awkward vibe stems from a tension between how we conceptualize an educational setting and what students have to experience in order to be educated. Students and instructors often conceptualize educational setting as “professional” environments where the only acceptable passion is a certain kind of emotional cheerleading. That kind of professionalism, however, does not fit with the often profound vulnerability that is central to the experience of learning (of being educated). Viewing student behavior through the lens of their vulnerability is a useful strategy for managing situations like these.

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution to these situations; race, gender, age, ability, as well as the cultural tendencies of both the instructor and the students play a role in how students perceive certain types of responses. The kind of classroom climate maintained and rapport cultivated with students also affects what kinds of strategies will be effective. What I advocate, however, is cultivating a kind of classroom environment in which students and instructors feel relatively comfortable with student’s expressions of their vulnerability even through the occasional hostile and/or spurious comment. I think an instructor’s response should exploit that tension for educational benefit even if that means it doesn’t dissipate as quickly. In other words, embrace the awkwardness: use it as a teaching moment.

I once had a very clever student in an introductory class refer to a reading as “bullshit in the academic sense”. The particular vulnerability that this student struggled with (in my opinion) was a frustrated desire to impress me with his philosophical acumen. I engaged him over whether he was really aware of this supposed academic sense (it turned out he was referring to Frankfurt’s sense) and he and I were able to acquaint the rest of the students with Frankfurt’s notion. Then we discussed whether that was really a fair attribution to make of the article in question. He and I and the class came to the conclusion that it wasn’t. What was a more accurate expression of his view of the article was that he disagreed with it. Since this was a critical thinking class, making that kind of distinction was a useful insight about the right ways to understand and characterize critical opinions. The back and forth took about five minutes and he became more frustrated before finally relenting. At the end of the class, I asked him if he could articulate what he found problematic in the article, and we discussed that for about five minutes. He went away with a project (to think more on the differences between his and my interpretation of the article) and more satisfied with his experience.

I try to cultivate an environment where students understand us as working together on a shared project that makes us vulnerable to each other. I start on the first day with an icebreaker – I ask students to say something interesting about themselves. I tease some of them about whether their comment is really “interesting” and challenge them to defend their claims. My hope is to begin letting students know that it is okay to be wrong, while encouraging them believe in and defend their ideas. I am direct and specific about my expectations of them and of myself and encourage them to do likewise.

It’s easy to forget that being an educator is a vulnerable position as well. As an instructor you feel responsible for the experience of everyone in the room, for the success of everyone in the room; you even feel responsible for the experience and feelings of a difficult student. Accepting our vulnerabilities as instructors is important to being able to take action in these situations that is constructive. We need to be able to model for our students the behavior that we expect from them. Embrace and respect the vulnerability and use it to our advantage.

Additional Resources:

Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.



  1. Apparently prejudiced statements in class may not actually be as different from many other unreflectively held views as our reflexive concern leads us to think, and that may be part of the problem. Such statements or others that seem out of place, oddly slanted, perhaps “too emotional,” can feel as if they require some kind of response other than the kind at which we are best, that we have practiced, that is fully appropriate to a philosophy class. It’s as if the student broke the rules, we are now in a different game, and we had better do something that recognizes this different situation by itself being different.

    I think this can be a serious mistake. If we are teaching philosophy, I trust we hold that philosophical consideration is of profound importance and use, that it concerns, as Socrates said, how we should live (as well as lots of other things – me, I’d say anything and everything). Why would we not, then, question the student whose thinking is skewed by some racist — or whatever — assumptions just as we question anyone else? And not only, or initially anyway, to model respect, to see what good can be found, to keep them in the discussion OR to puncture and deflate them, but, rather — as surely we would otherwise do — to draw out their thinking, to bring it into the light and explore it together with the others in the class (which does not assume there is some good to be found, although there may be: the questioning is of the ‘What have we here?’ sort, not accepting or dismissive). First task: find out what the speaker meant with what s/he said. My experience has been that the meaning always exceeds (and sometimes even contradicts, but certainly contextualizes, personalizes, elaborates) the statement if drawn out more fully, and therefore offers many more and more fruitful openings for discussion. Just think how many openings there are in a statement that lighter-skinned people of color can’t be properly black because they don’t have the same experiences! Is “black” a term for a certain set of experiences? Which are? If those experiences are primarily of oppression, are less oppressed dark-skinned people also less “black”? Can Europeans who are badly oppressed be closer to “black” than privileged dark skinned people? What does “experience” actually mean? Does it have to be personal, my own? Is it physical, emotional, intellectual..? Such questions can be used to reduce someone to confusion, to silence. That’s not the point, although it can happen. If it does, and there has been no cruelty in getting there, that’s fine.

    Then we are philosophizing together, moving further into the ‘game’ because something challenged us rather than trying to do something else, as if what we are there to teach has little to offer.

    In the case of the panelist who said something worrisome, or worse: we’re not there to teach philosophy, and there is public responsibility of a different sort than in a class that will continue to meet and think together (among other differences). Questions can still be most effective, but they then need to be more pointed, since their purpose is to show then and there that there are grounds for seriously questioning, not accepting or ignoring what was said. “You’re for capital punishment: do you think there is any human activity in which we never, ever make mistakes? How many people mistakenly convicted is it acceptable to kill in order to keep capital punishment?” Or something more pithy. ( I wouldn’t use that with a student until we had talked quite awhile.)


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