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How Can I Teach When My Students Are Packing Guns?

Texas' new concealed-carry campus law will create an atmosphere of classroom standoff—and make it impossible to have certain conversations.
campus carry UT Austin

Jason Moseley and Phil Neumann march with other pro-gun activists near the University of Texas–Austin campus, December 12, 2015. (Photo: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)

It is difficult and painful to imagine how the learning environment in my course will change in the fall, when students at the University of Texas–Austin will have the right to attend class with a concealed gun. That these students must meet certain criteria, including an age restriction (21) and state permitting, offers little comfort or security.

Many in the university faculty, like me, harbor serious anxieties over what is known as the "campus carry" law—and its implications for teaching, learning, and personal safety in the classroom.

Just imagine this scenario: It is the first day of class and I, the professor, walk into the classroom, throw my bag on the table; the bag sags open, showing the glimmer of a concealed, holstered gun. How will this make my students feel as I pass out my syllabus and begin discussing my expectations for the course? Will students feel that this is a space designated for learning? Will they feel intimidated? Will they find it a space for open dialogue and discussion? Will students feel welcome and eager to establish a relationship with me? Will they worry about what might happen in the classroom?

In my teacher-training classes, we spend time in the beginning of every semester discussing rules for engagement. We talk about what is necessary for students to feel comfortable talking openly and critically about difficult topics. The most frequently expressed concern among students is their need to feel "safe" to share their ideas freely without feeling judged or intimidated by other students, or by the instructor.

Of this I have no doubt: Campus carry legislation will severely limit my ability to create an optimal learning environment for my students.

Students also want to know these respectfully shared views will not lead to retaliation. As a black female instructor, I know that when a student can bring a gun into class, it creates a barrier to personal safety that no classroom rules for engagement can negotiate. This makes me feel unsafe from the onset. I imagine that for most of my students this will also be the case.

Of course, questions of fear for emotional or physical safety are not what I want on my students' minds while they're taking the course. These fears are certainly not what I want to be thinking about when I'm teaching. Our energies would be better spent discussing what it means to teach, and to teach well.

Teaching is a serious matter to me. I have taught at UT–Austin for nine years, during which time I have created and refined courses and conducted research on race and schooling. I have also received awards for my work as a researcher and university teacher. I focus attention on my teaching because I care deeply about creating an environment where my students' learning can flourish. I teach in the College of Education, where many of my undergraduate students are preparing to become elementary school teachers. The course they take with me is the sole class at the College of Education devoted to issues of culture and diversity in schools. We talk about important, often contentious issues, including race, social class, gender, and sexuality. We consider how these sociocultural factors operate in schools to create inequitable opportunities for all students to learn and thrive.

We also explore the ways that teachers' everyday work in classrooms either perpetuate or challenge these inequities. A key goal is helping students understand how teachers can work individually and collectively to make schooling and society more equitable for all.

In undergraduate courses that focus on sensitive topics like race, there is an expectation that the instructor will have to push people in their thinking. We ask students to think about what they know about race, gender, and social class, and their roles in shaping durable inequality in both society and schools. Students examine foundational questions: "What is race? Social class? Gender?" These questions lead to inquiries into the legacy of white privilege and its role in structuring inequality in schooling experiences—including teaching. Students also consider how race and social class link together in the individual decisions people make around housing and the consequent impact on the quality of the schools their children will attend.

I have taught these university courses at UT-Austin and other universities for more than 14 years. I well understand the difficulties with teaching this content. The majority of my students happen to be white and so we spend certain portions of the class interrogating privilege and trying to see beyond one's own race, class, and/or gender. Ultimately, these learning experiences are as transformative as they are painful. But I can't imagine going through this uneasy process knowing a gun—the ultimate conversation stopper—is in the room.

My role as the instructor, then, is to facilitate an environment where students' ideas are challenged but in such a way that they do not completely shut down from fear or frustration. Getting to know students personally and establishing a classroom culture where students are expected to engage deeply and critically with the course materials is vital in this process. It requires ongoing solidarity between the students and me—and among themselves, as they work collaboratively with one another on assignments in and outside of class.

Of this I have no doubt: Campus carry legislation will severely limit my ability to create an optimal learning environment for my students. It feels like teaching under terrorism—not knowing when or whether violence might occur but recognizing with absolute certainty it could at any given time.

The mass citizenry is not allowed to (openly or otherwise) carry guns on planes, in courthouses, or the state legislature for good reason. These spaces are rightfully recognized as too civically holy for the intrusion of guns. I am not questioning anyone's constitutional right to carry a gun. Learning spaces, like schools and universities, are simply not the place for them. Not now. Not ever.