Some of my detractors know that I teach in a private, liberal arts college. From comments collected over the years, it’s apparent that they worry about the negative influence I might have over young lives. In their uninformed perspective, they seem to imagine that I push a pro-abortion agenda (whatever that might mean) in every course I teach. In reality, I don’t worry about such an influence because my teaching aligns with our school’s mission statement. In particular, my goal in teaching is to help students become independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile, who value vigorous and open-minded debate in a civil context and who challenge intellectual orthodoxy. Somehow, abortion simply does not figure into this goal.
So, in a course that examines mass media, students choose a controversial topic to analyze how it is framed in the media. This aim of this semester-long project is to provide them with the fundamentals of thinking like a scholar—to equip them with the resources and habits of mind to reflect critically about the impact of our media-saturated culture on issues that are often hotly debated in the media. The topics range from gun control to foreign policy, from funding the Head Start program to gay marriage, from immigration to the fiscal cliff and so on. The assignment is not to form opinions about a topic or to be persuasive in their end-of-semester presentation. It is to examine closely how media present the debates. For example, much of the gun control debates in contemporary media frame the issue as a second amendment issue versus and gun violence issue. As always with controversial topics, the media frequently does a poor job at providing much beyond the superficial sound bytes. The abortion controversy is no different. The media use humpty dumpty terms like prolife versus prochoice when in fact the controversy is much deeper.
This controversial issue project affords students the opportunity to look beyond the superficial by developing skills to research and evaluate resources and to see who and what is powering the ubiquitous media. The project also helps expand the awareness of how controversial issues are framed in the media and how these issues impact their thinking, their sense of identity as a citizen and their participation as a citizen in the global community.
In my classroom, students who believe abortion is murder, as some do, hear students who believe that abortion is a woman’s right. Both views are protected. My job is not to persuade them to choose sides. Education is not about competition or proselytizing, or, at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s about teaching them to think critically, to evaluate the validity of arguments, to recognize loaded language, and to identity the power inherent in any mediated text.
But if my sole concern was to push an abortion agenda, a fantasy of some of my detractors, I’d probably begin with video clips of protesters and reviews of prolife web sites. I’d invite them to consider the definitions of compassion, respect and civility. I would encourage them to think critically about ethics, religion and violence. I would address the rights of women vs the rights of men. With this imaginary abortion agenda, my courses would definitely change. In organizational communication, my abortion agenda would require students to study the mercenary aspects of organizations like Priests for Life, Operation Rescue or Life Dynamics. We’d compare the celebrity machinery of Hollywood to the celebrity machinery of the anti abortion industry, including the actors and the fans. In Documentary Film-Social Justice, I would definitely focus on reproductive rights from a global perspective including family planning, abortion doulas, the women who die from illegal abortions and the impact of religious fundamentalism around the globe. I could go on and on. But I won’t. Abortion is a topic that is critically important for women. But I won’t let it interfere in my teaching. I’ll guide students to think for themselves and leave the proselytizing to the Taliban Club members wherever they live and work–whether it’s in the U.S. or Afghanistan.
- Irish PM dismisses Pope’s criticism of change in abortion laws (thehindu.com)
- Poll: Most of Ireland Favors Wider Abortion Access (abcnews.go.com)