I had a difficult encounter a few semesters ago, which I am not sure I handled well.
My policy for the past few years has been to let -- well, to force -- my students to write on topics which matter to them, which have to do with their majors if possible, and which are small, small topics. You can't write about global warming, I exhort them, because you can't solve global warming. Pick a topic you yourself can do something about. I then tell them the story of my Oklahoma student, an Engineering major, who had an issue with his road and his ditch -- how the road got graded badly by the county, so that it kept washing out the ditch, which made his fence keep falling over, so that his cattle kept getting out on the road. This was a problem he could fix. He wrote about that problem. "You want a problem like that," I tell them. "Find some problem like that to describe for me."
Generally these papers work very well.
However. This student was a History Education major -- going to teach History in the local high schools -- and what he wanted to write about, it developed, though he didn't pitch it to me this way, was how the Civil War was mis-taught in Southern High schools.
What he meant was: he wanted high school history teachers to teach students that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about the right of states to govern themselves. His argument was that by teaching that the Southern States had fought the war in defense of slavery, we were making Southern children feel bad about themselves and their heritage.
Okay, I told him. Except, first, have you done any research? The war was fought over slavery. So if you argue it was not, you're teaching something that isn't true. And second, have you considered that every child you teach is not a white child?
Many people, I told him, fought in that war on the right side -- against slavery, I mean. You're ignoring everything those people did
And for what? So you can argue some false pride for kids today? Why not teach them the truth? Some bad people in the past made bad arguments, which led to some bad decisions on the part of some other people, which nearly destroyed our country?
Which it did, I pointed out to him -- I asked him if he realized how close the Civil War came to destroying our nation. I asked if he had talked to any of our history professors about this theory of his? (Which he had picked up from a local high school professor, of course.) I told him to go talk to some of them, to see what they said.
He asked whether I was going to let my opinion influence the way I graded his paper.
"I just don't want to get an F because you disagree with me," he said.
This is probably the saddest I have ever been after a conference, I have to say.
4 hours ago