Right before the 2014 holiday season while in the final throes of my PhD program I was offered a job as an Assistant Professor at the College of Charleston, a mid-sized, public institution with a liberal arts focus and a beautiful campus on South Carolina's coastline.
Not long after accepting the position, two major events took place in Charleston: the filmed shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man by a police officer, and the now infamous killings at the Mother Emanuel Church by Dylann Roof, an individual who posed with the Confederate flag and told friends he wanted to start a "race war." While both events were significant, the latter was highly publicized in the news media. Nine people were murdered and the racial motivations of the killer were unambiguous.
As I watched these tragedies unfold and worked to complete my dissertation, I thought about how these events would alter my approach to teaching Political Psychology, a course that examines the psychological underpinnings of political attitudes and behavior of the electorate. I had taught it before and the syllabus always included a paper on how exposure to the Confederate flag subconsciously moved racial thoughts to the front of one's mind, in turn affecting willingness to vote for Barack Obama (an example of a cognitive paradigm known as "priming".)
In the subsequent months I wrestled with the following question: Should I take the Confederate flag paper off the syllabus?
I wasn't sure if it was necessary to throw one of the only empirical papers on this topic at the students shortly after this national debate. But could I in good conscious deny these adult students an incisive discussion of something that was national news, but was also central to understanding political psychology as it is currently studied?
As I was thinking about this issue, the previous tenant's mail arrived at my new doorstep in Charleston. Sitting atop the pile was the August 2015 edition of The Atlantic, featuring the article, "The Coddling of the American Mind" by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Many of us know the argument by now: today's college student is overly protected from information that may come off as offensive. The authors argue that this practice is hindering the educational process and the ability of students to handle contentious opinions that make them uncomfortable. As an ideology researcher and follower of Haidt's work, I read the piece closely. Moreover, as someone who studied under Charles Taber, a leading expert on motivated reasoning, I took seriously the article's points about the consequences of avoiding opposing opinions.
Between the atrocities in Charleston and the points raised in The Atlantic, it felt as if conflicting societal pressures were acting upon me; race needed to be addressed this semester, but when it was, it couldn't be done in a way that prevented students from airing tendentious thoughts. This can be difficult in any class, but the murders that took place so close to our campus made this especially challenging.
In the end, I made two decisions. I kept the Confederate flag study on the syllabus and decided that the course would have a stronger element of social science literacy than it had in the past. That is, the course would no longer simply present existing research; the students would now be responsible for critiquing the research presented to them so that they could fully grasp a basic tenet of social science: no study is perfect and we are required to find faults in academic papers, replicate studies and devise superior studies to see which theories can withstand scrutiny. These ideas had always been addressed in my courses previously, but now they would be intentionally emphasized. In this class environment, it would be unacceptable to deny the findings of studies simply because you didn't agree with them no matter what the findings were. Instead, the study's design and interpretation had to be critiqued appropriately. Moreover, if a study came to a particular conclusion about the role of race in politics, it would be emphasized that all studies are flawed, can be improved and need replication (again, no matter what the findings were). This would simultaneously address race in politics and encourage dissenting opinions in the form of scholarly criticism.
Empirical, quantitative research is hard to grasp for many undergraduates; it is complicated and technical. The idea that researchers can randomly assign subjects to control and treatment conditions in order to draw causal claims (which race research often does) can easily be lost on students without proper explanation. However, after weeks of slowly walking through research studies, many of the students did seem to understand the difference between correlation and causation, the basics of measurement and the strengths and weaknesses of various research designs. And perhaps most surprisingly, the obvious turning point was the day we discussed the Confederate flag study that I nearly removed from the syllabus. Perhaps it was due to the personal salience of the subject, but the students clearly understood the study's design and its conclusions about how the flag affected racial thoughts implicitly; critiques and counter-critiques from students flourished. The atmosphere felt comfortable- normal even- and this is the point: critiquing the work of others, including work on race, is normal and justified in academia. The students highlighted the study's strengths and weaknesses effectively and attempted an alternative explanation for why the authors may have found some of their results.
In the end, it was the best "discussion" we had that semester.
Science literacy is critical, especially in our polarized climate. Our students- including those at liberal arts institutions- need to be able to formulate and assess arguments in light of empirical evidence while understanding that the results of a single study do not indicate the absolute end of a debate or "proven" state of the world. For some, this avenue is a departure from the in-depth discussions inspired by personal anecdotes, qualitative observation and normative ideas. While I maintain that these talks are imperative for exposing students to different perspectives, and would never devalue the discussions (I myself loved them as an undergrad), the point is that empiricism should supplement those talks and add another avenue for understanding the effect race (or any difficult topic) has in society.
Quantitative research is not the only route to knowledge or intelligence. In comparison to the aforementioned reflective discussions, it does not teach us to feel, nor does it teach us the real, lived perspectives of individuals. However, it may have social and pedagogical benefits that have gone unappreciated. Research design and critique provides a different way to approach difficult topics, and if this type of learning eases students into an environment of diversified thought and develops their ability to confront evidence that challenges prior beliefs (whatever those beliefs are), we should think more seriously about incorporating it into our curricula.
Karyn Amira is an Assistant Professor of political science at the College of Charleston.