Saturday, December 9

Which Types of Students Feel Uncomfortable in Class Discussions? We asked New Zealand students for their suggestions

In 2021 I was involved, with colleagues in Heterodox New Zealand, in administering a version of Heterodox Academy’s Campus Expression Survey to New Zealand undergraduate students. The seven of us published the results the following year. What follows is my write-up of the responses we received to one question in particular. This section was understandably cut from our publication of the results due to its length, but I think it sheds some interesting light on the sociological terms in which modern New Zealand students view the world, and because of that I’ve decided to post it in full here, with a couple of small changes to adapt it to this new context.

Question 16 in our survey ran as follows:

Now that you have told us how comfortable YOU feel in classroom discussions, please tell us how you think members of various OTHER groups on campus feel in those classroom discussions. Think about each of the following categories of students at your university. Do you think that students in that category are more comfortable sharing their views in a classroom discussion compared to the average student, less comfortable compared to the average student, or about the same as the average student?

We then listed, in Questions 16–30, the following categories: right-leaning or conservative students; White/Pākehā students; Māori students; Pasifika students; Asian students; female students; male students; transgender students; gay/lesbian/bisexual students; straight students; Christian students; Muslim students; Hindu students; and atheist students. For each category, respondents were given three options: ‘more comfortable sharing their views than the average student,’ ‘less comfortable sharing their views than the average student,’ and ‘about the same as the average student.’

One final question on this topic, Question 31 asked, ‘Is there any other group, not listed above, that you think may be especially uncomfortable sharing their views?’ This was followed by a text box in which students could enter their own suggestions. Many of them did — 182, to be precise — and the suggestions they put forward give us some interesting evidence not only about which groups some NZ students think might be self-censoring, but also about which demographic categories today’s students think in.

Of course, there are limits to this exercise. These responses come from a sub-set of our sample, and a self-selected sub-set at that. The students who bothered to write something in the text box may well be more interested in (and energetic about) the issue raised by Question 16 than average. With that in mind, though, it may nevertheless be of interest to see what sorts of demographic groups this sub-set of students put forward, both as worthy of more attention from a survey like ours, and as possibly less comfortable sharing their view in a classroom discussion than the average student.

Several respondents simply suggested additional categories along the lines of those we included in the survey. For example, though we asked about female, male and transgender students, a number of respondents suggested ‘non-binary’ (8 suggestions) as well as ‘gender-diverse’ (2), ‘asexual’ and ‘intersex’ (1 suggestion each). In addition to the racial categories we included, some students suggested ‘black students’; ‘Somalians’; ‘People of Color’ (US spelling in the original response); ‘Indigenous people all over, African and Hispanic’; and, more generally, ‘other racial minorities.’ In addition to the religious affiliations we included, some respondents proposed Jews (or ‘Jewish people’ or ‘students’ — 6 suggestions in all); Sikhs; Buddhists; ‘agnostic’; and ‘witches/Pagans,’ ‘Pagans,’ or ‘spiritualists, witch craft practicing religions’ (sic — 3 responses in all).

But many respondents also suggested different demographics defined in different terms than the ones we had provided. No fewer than 5 respondents suggested older students, and a further 2 responses suggested mature students; another suggested ‘student with larger age gaps to the rest of the class’ and another wrote ‘I suspect that there is ageism present in the university and population in general — both too young and too old.’ 6 respondents suggested that students whose first language wasn’t English might be less comfortable sharing their views, and others also listed ‘international students’ (2 responses), immigrants, and ‘foreign students’ (1 suggestion each). ‘Obese students’ and ‘fat students’ (1 response each) were also suggested; as well as ‘poor students’ or students from low socio-economic backgrounds (6 responses in total).

By far the largest group of suggestions, though, were concerned with disability and mental health (categories that overlapped in some responses). We counted no fewer than 32 suggestions for disabled students, students with a disability, or variations of those phrases. In addition to these there were a further 4 responses concerned with students with behavioural or learning difficulties or with special needs. One respondent suggested ‘People with disabilities including mental health issues,’ and we also had 5 students referring to mentally unwell people, people with mental health issues, or using similar phrases. A related cluster of terms described those who were ‘neurodivergent’ or ‘ND’ (4 responses), or simply ‘shy’ or ‘introverts’ (4 responses in all); and these seemed to overlap to some extent with ‘victims of harassment’ and ‘history of bullied students, trauma faced students’ (sic), perhaps based on the assumption that, as one respondent put it, ‘People who are perceived as shy, different, unconventional’ are ‘usually the traumatised ones.’

Some respondents’ language echoed the concerns and perspectives of the contemporary ‘social justice’ movement. One respondent suggested in general terms that ‘anyone who feels marginalised or oppressed in their institution’ would be less comfortable sharing their views, as would ‘allies’ (that is, of those perceived to be marginalised and oppressed). Another voiced the classic concern of ‘inter-sectional’ theory that someone who is ‘a combination of minorities’ would be more likely to self-censor; they also clarified, ‘e.g. if a student is pasifica, queer, gender fluid and muslim.’ One respondent suggested that ‘literally any not straight white male’ would be less comfortable sharing their views (that is, than a straight white male).

On the other hand, a number of responses seemed to think that the social justice movement was itself among the factors increasing self-censorship on campus. A couple of respondents thought it was precisely straight white males (or ‘a white privileged male’) who would be less comfortable sharing their thoughts; another added that in gender studies classes ‘it is very difficult to express your views as a white and straight male without others shredding your opinion.’ Another respondent wrote, ‘Being from southland, from a sheep farm and white, people presume I am homophobic/discriminate of race, because of this I tend to be quite [sic] in discussion because when I do speak even if person agrees I sense that they don’t see past assumptions.’ Some also thought of contemporary feminism as one possible factor in self-censorship, with one respondent suggesting that ‘people that are against feminism’ would be less likely to speak up, and another proposing ‘mothers/family oriented females’ and adding that ‘the environment is extremely (!) bigotted towards political correctness’ (exclamation mark in the original response). One respondent suggested ‘free speech’ (i.e. proponents) would be less comfortable speaking in class.

A small number of respondents thought that political polarization was making it more difficult for moderate voices to get a hearing. One suggested that ‘both sides take discussions personally and are easily offended by opinions.’ Another thought that ‘more moderate political groups are less comfortable’; they went on: ‘I say that as one of the more moderate people in my POLS tut (which isn’t saying much), people just DO NOT want to engage w/ you. It’s easier to just take a radical stance and not things about your own biases and assumptions.’ A third student wrote: ‘It’s not that I feel uncomfortable sharing my opinions, but I feel when there is no environment for a discussion I tend to save the hassle as it tends to be that the loudest person wins.’

Finally, there were at least a couple of jokes, a category in which we include ‘Hyperboreans’ (a mythical people mentioned by Herodotus) and ‘CANNIBALS (jk),’ where the respondent made clear they were joking in parentheses. There was also one response that was apparently a swipe at two of us (myself and Michael Johnston) whose names were listed on the poster we put up around Victoria University’s Kelburn campus; this response suggested ‘People who actually know what they are talking about and are not just people from random faculties cosplaying as free speech activists.’ We might also mention here that someone also wrote on one of our posters as follows: ‘“Free expression” manifesting as say what you want, where you want with no thought as to how. Science UoA [University of Auckland] matauranga Maori good example of academic freedom masquerading as freedom of expression=racist.’ (This is an apparent reference to a letter ‘In Defence of Science’ sent to the Listener magazine by seven Auckland academics in July 2021.)

To sum up the responses to this question, a good number of students took the opportunity to suggest other groups than those we had suggested who might feel less comfortable sharing their views. These included further racial, gender, and religious categories in addition to those we had listed, as well as a few categories we hadn’t included (mature, foreign, obese, and indigent students). By far the largest group of responses had to do with students with disabilities or mental health issues. Some responses echoed the concerns of the ‘social justice’ movement, while others saw that movement as one of the main sources of self-censorship. Others still chose to write in more neutral terms about polarization and a poor climate for discussions. We also had a couple jokes and insults. You can get a general feel for all our responses to this question in the Word Cloud at the head of the piece, where terms are sized by frequency.

  • this article was originally published on Medium; it is reproduced here with permission.