What Are Ethical Considerations for You When Addressing Sensitive Topics in Literature?


    What Are Ethical Considerations for You When Addressing Sensitive Topics in Literature?

    In the realm of literature, ethical considerations are paramount, especially when delving into works that touch on sensitive topics. A teacher and educational consultant begins by emphasizing the importance of promoting open discussions, while we also include additional answers that range from handling the material with empathy to providing content warnings. These insights guide us through the delicate balance of teaching and writing about literature with the care it demands.

    • Promote Open Discussions on Sensitive Topics
    • Confront Sensitive Topics Directly
    • Prioritize Student Well-Being in Discussions
    • Encourage Neutrality and Open-Mindedness
    • Ensure Representation of Diverse Perspectives
    • Handle Discussions With Empathy and Respect
    • Provide Content Warnings for Sensitive Material

    Promote Open Discussions on Sensitive Topics

    As an educator, I think one of my primary jobs is to teach students how to have open discussions on a variety of topics, including sensitive ones. I want my classroom to be a place where we enjoy many ideas and have important conversations. That being said, in order to have those discussions, we often come across opposing viewpoints. Navigating those viewpoints is an important part of the lesson.

    I remind students that we are in the class to learn. We may need to push ourselves more than we are comfortable with in order to grow. We might also disagree, and if we get too heated, I ask students to pause. I ask students to mull over ideas for a day, and we revisit the discussion the next day. We write a lot about our thoughts. That makes it easier for many of my students to discuss things without getting too heated.

    I have opinions, but ethically, I want students to be able to articulate their own thoughts. That means I have to facilitate but not direct the conversation. It's something I have to keep in mind because I think my students enjoy discussing difficult topics together.

    Valerie de la Rosa
    Valerie de la RosaTeacher, Educational Consultant, Blogger, The Weary Educator

    Confront Sensitive Topics Directly

    It’s very important to not shy away from sensitive topics, but to instead attack them head-on and persevere. What is “sensitive” is the mind experiencing the anxiety that surfaces when it begins to make contact with issues otherwise suppressed. Sensitive topics are sensitive because they have been suppressed in the first place, so avoiding them further reinforces the sensitivity. Editing out sensitive topics is the ironic mistake sensitivity “readers” make in publishing.

    Literature is meant to increase self-awareness by alchemizing unprocessed thought patterns, resulting in breakthroughs or “aha” moments. This only takes place when anxiety-provoking thought patterns are contemplated deeply, felt into, and intellectualized via the written word—and this process is meaningful in contrast with walking on eggshells or editing out certain words that may offend others.

    Avoiding our duties as storytellers is unethical; trying to make everyone comfortable makes things worse and isn't sustainable, meaningful, nor intellectually useful to any party. The flip side on the far end is also true—ranting aimlessly normally lacks utility (see: social media) unless it is by way of direct speech or dialogue within a novel, coming from a character whose role in the book serves the story.

    Luke Shipman
    Luke ShipmanDirector and Founder, The London Ghostwriting Company

    Prioritize Student Well-Being in Discussions

    When approaching sensitive topics in literature, it is paramount for professors to create an atmosphere that prioritizes student well-being and mental comfort. This involves recognizing that discussions may trigger emotional responses and taking proactive measures to ensure that all students feel safe to participate. It's important that the classroom remains a space where openness and support are foundational elements.

    The professor's role includes not only imparting knowledge but also fostering a nurturing learning environment. In light of this, encourage your students to share their comfort levels and boundaries with you.

    Encourage Neutrality and Open-Mindedness

    Literature professors must maintain a stance of neutrality and encourage open-mindedness when discussing contentious or sensitive material. The classroom should be a haven for diverse ideas where students feel uninhibited in exploring different perspectives without prejudgment. Ensuring no single viewpoint is presented as the “correct” one allows for a richer educational experience.

    As educators, they must facilitate discussions that allow for all voices to be heard and considered equally. Engage your students in dialogue that broadens their horizons without bias.

    Ensure Representation of Diverse Perspectives

    Ethical teaching includes ensuring that a range of perspectives is represented when sensitive subjects arise in literature. A classroom where varied experiences and viewpoints are acknowledged allows students to grasp the multifaceted nature of literature. This practice fosters an inclusive educational environment where students from all backgrounds can see their experiences reflected and valued.

    By representing different viewpoints, a professor can invite robust and insightful discourse. Strive to incorporate a diverse array of authors and characters into your curriculum.

    Handle Discussions With Empathy and Respect

    When sensitive issues surface in literary works, it's critical for educators to handle such discussions with empathy and respect. Recognizing the humanity behind the topics and conveying that understanding to students can deepen their engagement and reflection. A professor's respectful approach to difficult content can model how to have constructive, civil discussions about complex human experiences.

    This nurtures an environment in which students learn to communicate with compassion. Remember to always lead conversations with kindness and thoughtful consideration.

    Provide Content Warnings for Sensitive Material

    Before delving into sensitive material, it's important for literature professors to give students advance notice through explicit content warnings. This gives students an opportunity to prepare emotionally for the discussion or to decide if they need alternative arrangements to participate comfortably. Content warnings are an aspect of respectful teaching, acknowledging the potential impact of literature on an individual's well-being.

    It's an exercise in creating a trust-based student-teacher relationship. Provide clear warnings in your syllabus or before discussions, allowing students to engage on their own terms.