As a teacher, I wish I’d handled the conspiracy theorist in my class differently Brian Montgomery The Skeptic

With the proliferation and popularisation of conspiracy theories on the rise throughout the world it is inevitable that educators will encounter them in the classroom. Here I recount one such encounter I had as a graduate student, explain how I handled it incorrectly, and provide some thoughts on how we all can respond better.

In 2012 I was in my last year of graduate work at the University of Missouri’s department of philosophy. Like most students completing their dissertations, I also worked for the university as a graduate instructor, often teaching large sections of introduction to philosophy. During the fall semester of that year, I had a student who stood out in the lecture. He would come to every session wearing a jacket that was an obvious imitation of the one that Ryan Gosling’s character wore in the film Drive from the previous year. He also differed from his peers in his interest and willingness to engage in the discussion.

As anyone who has spent time in front of an early morning college lecture hall can attest, students rarely want to say anything at all at 8:00 in the morning. But, not this student. He eagerly followed along with everything I said, while raising his hand for clarificatory questions and comments. Normally a professor would be thrilled to have such a student. However, this one presented a unique challenge in the way his contributions derailed the discussion.

I used to open my courses with a discussion of St. Anselm’s ontological argument. When making the distinction between things that exist in reality and things that exist merely in the imagination, he raised his hand to say that he understood the difference between the two because he could imagine a government that told the truth, but none exist in reality. While a jarring interruption, I dismissed it as an attempt at humour that fell flat, and we moved on. Subsequent discussion, however, showed this to be more than just an idiosyncrasy. When discussing how Descartes required an epistemic purgative to achieve the metaphysical doubt needed in his First Meditation, the student compared it to the time he learned falsehoods about the 9/11 attacks and decided to doubt all of the other “official stories” he believed. Many other such comments followed.

His fellow students quickly grew frustrated with his claims. It was not uncommon to hear one of them signal their exasperation when he raised his hand. They would often respond combatively, aggressively challenging him on the things he was saying, in a ridiculing way. I sometimes heard the anonymous “shut up” come from the back of the room when he spoke. No professor should allow any of their students to be attacked in class, so I would respond to such abuse when I heard it. But, truth be told, I understood their frustrations and shared them as well. We had a purpose in class, and his interruptions frustrated it. What is more, these conspiracy theories didn’t exist in a vacuum. The worldview he adhered to was dark, malevolent, and very clearly false.

It would have been easy to take the same track as the students, however, the responses I chose were no more productive than theirs. When the student began listing what he perceived as 9/11 anomalies, I told him (truthfully, but without trying to present myself as an expert on the subject) that all his claims had been debunked in materials that were widely available. When he cited Alex Jones as a credible source I pushed back against his veracity.

A few weeks into the course he stopped showing up for lectures. He also ceased doing the online components of the course without withdrawing. There’s nothing atypical about having a handful of students who do this in a large lecture course, yet I think about him more often than I do any other student who went this route. I clearly hadn’t responded to him in an adequate way. Several years later I learned that he had risen to a somewhat prominent position within the conspiracy community, and had multiple arrests that resulted from this. I often wonder what else I could have done to have stopped him from falling further down the rabbit hole.

At the time there was little research on how to break through to a conspiracy theorist. However, the topic has taken on a new gravity over recent years, and strategies have begun to emerge. We know, for instance, that attempts to rebut a conspiracy theorist’s claims with facts will sometimes cause the believer to entrench themselves in their belief. Even if the backfire effect is overblown, as some have suggested, it seems to have been what happened here. The other students in the class did not provide a welcoming environment, and feeling alone he seemed to have given up any chance at change.

So, what could I have done differently? First of all, without knowing the cause of and degree to which the student is engaged with their belief it’s difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all answer. Still, it should be rather clear that attempts to make the believer feel bad or wrong for holding their beliefs are bound to fail. Hence, the importance of providing a classroom experience that limits judgment insofar as possible is paramount.

Additionally, I would recommend that we treat them as we would any other student that is in distress. Every professor has the experience of dealing with students in crisis. We often meet with them during or outside of office hours and have long, emotionally open and welcoming conversations in which we identify the problems facing the student, as well as developing clear plans of action for addressing what’s holding them back. I’ve had such discussions with students experiencing living with illnesses both physical and mental, dealing with loss, on the edge of homelessness, and more.

Given the negative life path and impact on others that conspiracism can have, I suggest that we see their descent down the rabbit hole as an instance of a crisis event. Unfortunately, the conspiracy theory believer sees themselves as the ones in the right, and not in need of any help. Professors should have private, judgment free conversations in which they first build a rapport with the believer. Then, once that bond of mutual respect has been established, the professor may start questioning them on why they believe the things they do. If they’re willing to supply the answer, then the professor can begin to ask contextually salient questions to lead them to the contradictions of their belief system.

It is vitally important that you do not come off as having an agenda or antagonistic. Instead, it must be done in the same open and honest spirit of pedagogy that we must provide for all students. None of this is guaranteed to work, but it likely provides them with a better chance of a positive outcome than we had.

Three years later I began a new job at the University of Texas-El Paso. My first day of teaching I saw the Infowars logo spraypainted through a stencil at multiple locations around campus, and knew that this was a challenge that I would have to meet throughout my time in front of the classroom.

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How should teachers handle students who begin to bring their conspiracy theories to class? By treating them like any other student in distress, and offering a lifeline
The post As a teacher, I wish I’d handled the conspiracy theorist in my class differently appeared first on The Skeptic.