Warnings about potentially sensitive discussions should be included in all syllabi

Ashka Dighe

Controversial and difficult topics are often discussed at UT. Professors cannot be blamed for teaching courses in their entirety, but they should be required to warn students if a particular lecture covers controversial material. Students should not be forced to unexpectedly struggle with their personal problems in front of the whole class. 

The Office of the Dean of Students already requires professors to include a section in their syllabi about accommodations for students with disabilities. The Office should also require professors to include a warning about sensitive materials on their syllabi so that students can take precautionary steps and work with the professor on suitable accommodations. 

Dr. Stephen Sonnenberg teaches a Plan II Junior Signature Course called “The Doctor, The Patient, The Society, The Culture” that focuses on healthcare ethics and doctor-patient relationships. In his class, an assignment called “difficult dialogues” requires students to talk about potentially controversial topics such as reproductive rights, euthanasia, mental health, faith and sexual assault. Students in Sonnenberg’s class can find the date and topic of each in-class discussion on the syllabus.

Sonnenberg encourages his students to participate in these discussions and address conflicting opinions in a polite and respectful manner by speaking “from a position of knowledge instead of pure emotion.” Students are encouraged to openly discuss their thoughts and feelings in an environment in which Sonnenberg hopes students feel comfortable doing so. “We’re a team,” explains Sonnenberg, and “if (my students) have something that troubles them, I want to know.” 

Sensitive subjects and conflicting opinions are a natural part of life. By introducing them in the classroom, students can learn how to handle difficult discussions appropriately. However, some students may be struggling with extenuating personal issues and might not be ready to handle discussing certain topics. Sonnenberg encourages his students to talk to him “about aspects of the course that might be difficult for them to learn about, think about or speak about in class.” 

So much can be learned from participating in a controversial debate, and professors should continue encouraging difficult discussions and presenting conflicting opinions in their classrooms. However, professors should also give students the opportunity to opt out of the discussion if it’s more harmful than beneficial to their education. As a university that promotes a safe learning environment, it is necessary to provide students with the opportunity to prioritize their mental health and emotional needs.

Every professor handles their class differently, but all professors need to be held to the same standards when it comes to respecting students and dealing with difficult conversations in class. If UT took a preemptive step by including a clause about sensitive topics in every syllabus, students may be more likely to reach out for help. Giving students the opportunity to handle their personal issues privately could prevent them from reliving traumatic memories.

Dighe is a Plan II and neuroscience sophomore from Houston.