How to Talk to Students Without Getting in Trouble, Part I
From Spanish prof's great blog (that isn't written in Spanish, so everybody can head over there and enjoy it), I discovered that Dr. Calvo might have made some remarks that are perfectly acceptable in a Spanish-speaking country but that might have been used against him in a culture of prissiness that has engulfed the American academia. I also come from a different culture, one that enjoys a much greater freedom with words, has a dark sense of humor and is the opposite of prissy. With my colleagues and administrators, I'm always as outspoken and outrageous as I am at home (or on this blog). The students, however, are a completely different matter.
I cultivate a huge distance from my students. You wouldn't think that if you observed my teaching because my teaching style is very laid-back, I make a lot of jokes, and tell funny stories all the time. The distance is always there, however. For one, the jokes and the funny stories I tell are only and exclusively about me. Yesterday, for example, I alleviated the tension during a very difficult lecture on post-modernism by telling the story of my 4-year-long hunt for a bathroom cabinet in my own apartment.
Another rule is never ever to discuss other students when they are absent or ask any questions about them. Even the most innocuous comment of the "I see that John isn't here again" variety can get interpreted badly. As for other professors, the administrators, other courses, the university at large, the staff members, the lab workers, etc., I only refer to them in extremely positive terms. "Professor X is really fantastic and the Dean Y is the best ever" are the only comments students will ever hear from me, even if I dislike both the professor and the dean immensely.
As everybody must have noticed by now, I have very strong political beliefs. My convictions, however, never get into the classroom. Whenever students express their opinions on political issues, my only response is, "This is very interesting. Does anybody want to respond to this?" A passionate feminist who writes an essay condemning machismo has just as much of a chance to get an A for her paper as a Conservative student who writes an anti-immigration piece. As long as the essay is structured the way it should be, is well-written, coherent, and well-argued, I couldn't care less what political beliefs it supports.
I had a student once who kept trying to bait me by saying things like "Feminism is just stupid" or "I'm sick and tired of feminism." I always responded to such comments by asking the students to return to the reading and discuss some very technical aspect of the text. It is not my place to educate students on feminism or politics. I teach Spanish language and literature. Everything else is left outside of the classroom.