GETTING STUDENTS TO REFLECT CRITICALLY ON THEIR ASSUMPTIONS
Often students respond too emotionally, too simplistically, or inappropriately (not PC, for example), with stereotypes, uncritical assumptions and so on. These responses can create awkward or hostile situations, shut down discussion, or simply annoy. One such minor situation occurred in my Shakespeare discussion of All's Well. One (male) student said: "Helena is just a selfish, aggressive girl in pursuit of a man of higher social rank." The class was a bit aghast at this forthright and somewhat righteous statement, but they remained initially silent, either from shock or agreement. Taken aback, I just said "Oh" and "Hm," but got ready to examine this response. Luckily a woman disagreed and countered: " Oh, you just think this way because Helena's a woman; a guy after a girl is fine, but not the other way around." Thank you!!! But what can you do when no student responds? What kind of initiative can you take? Some students you can deal with directly, if humorously; others you have to deal with more cautiously.
You might proceed in this way:
1) Turn the statement over to the class to see what other students think.
2) Ask what made the student think this way. Ask questions that help the student to focus her/his ideas, such as "Was it Helena's behavior? If so, what in it?"
3) If the student is still vague, ask specifically for the textual evidence that led her/him to this conclusion.
Questions like these help you and the student to get at the assumptions (the social climber, the man-chaser) behind responses. Such questioning doesn't put the student on the spot, and it tries to alleviate possible alienation of both classmates and teacher. Especially if the teacher distances him-/herself from such a response, it can be turned into food for thought. This method of questioning helps to get back to the text to produce evidence as well as opposing views. You can encourage student controversy by writing pros and cons on the board.