Last week, an assistant professor at Duke University sent an email to international students explaining that they should be encouraged to speak English “100% of the time” in open spaces around campus, instead of their native language. According to the Washington Post, the professor has since stepped down as the head of the Master of Biostatistics program and apologized for her message, saying it was inappropriate.
But this brings up a serious problem in the college atmosphere. What is appropriate for a professor to say to their students and what isn’t?
We tend to only hear about major issues, like this story, that get a lot of traction in the public eye such as sexual advances, racial slurs or discrimination in general. But what about professors who say things off the cuff like, “you should understand this” to an Asian student or criticising a student’s personal lifestyle.
It seems like professors are always trying to find new ways to joke around with students or make the classroom environment more inviting, but crossing these inappropriate lines is not the way to do it. As students, when we walk into a classroom we want an engaging experience where we feel comfortable to express ourselves, ask questions and learn from our professors. But if a professors says something inappropriate, even to another student, it makes everyone uncomfortable and we feel less motivated to engage in that class. To an extent, it’s bullying and discrimination in a professional atmosphere that we are forced to ignore to safeguard a networking opportunity or our grades. But that shouldn’t be the case.
Professors shouldn’t make their students sacrifice these things in the classroom. For me, it becomes a question of respect. I expect that when I walk into a classroom, I’m going to be respected no matter how I dress, what religion I practice or views I uphold. When a professor makes a dig at me being female or at another student’s culture, I don’t feel we are being respected. The pendulum also swings the other way, professors should be respected as well. A student shouldn’t call a professor “old” or talk over them during class. The classroom environment, especially in college, is meant to be a two-way street with both sides agreeing to mutual respect. But when there isn’t respect for the students, or the students don’t respect the professor, that is when these seemingly harmless jokes get worse. It eventually evolves to the point that it distracts from classwork or students don’t want to go to class out of fear of these critiques. This isn’t to say all professors do this. Not all professors are guilty of this but we are human and we make mistakes. Sometimes a professor just makes a joke in poor taste but it should be addressed before we brush it off.
However, there are those professors who are known to make these blanket statements or awkward jokes and, as students, we just suck it up. We make excuses for it and just brush it off as them not being “politically correct” or from a different generation but I don’t think professors should get that pass just to say anything they feel like saying. Yes, most professors are from a time before “political correctness” and were raised understanding that some things used to be okay to say. But times change, progress is made and with that, so has our understanding other cultures and a more inclusive version of mutual respect.