Sunday, December 28, 2014


This column regarding the Washington Redskins by a Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer caught my eye more than a week ago. I tucked it aside assuming I'd be in the mood to write on it after an Eagles victory. That victory didn't occur. It's been hard to look at or read about anything sports so it slipped my mind.

There's an analogy Mike Sielski makes to Chris Redman in the column that I think falls flat. Otherwise, I think he offers an intelligent perspective on what a professional does about something uncomfortable. The team name and logo for the Redskins bothers me, not so much that I'm inspired to activism, but enough to make me uneasy with its use. I would really like for the team to make a change in name and logo to something else. I'm not a fan of the team, though, and there's no power in me withholding my merchandise or ticket purchasing. From the perspective of moderately interested bystander, there's not much I can do.

Sielski, however, isn't a bystander. He's a reporter and he has to confront and possibly employ the term that may offend him. So I appreciate, therefore, the position he takes about how not employing the term can get in the way of doing his job well.

I find his standards helpful as a teacher. Issues of race, gender, and religion constantly color the topics I must discuss with my students. In those discussions, I choose words that reveal values I have about what is polite, what is sensitive, and what is objective. I also choose words that keep a conversation as unencumbered as possible. Quite some time ago, for instance, I stopped using the phrase "African American" regularly in my classroom. An essay by a former newspaper editor suggested that when race is important to a discussion the term "black" is clearer and less prone to awkward inaccuracy (such as what one does when having to discuss Canadian Olympian Ben Johnson . . . an African-Canadian). There's a lot of trust my students, their parents, and my bosses must extend to me and my judgment of what's not a pejorative, but that's a slippery slop on which one just has to stand in education.

Economics challenges me more in terms of speaking clearly and accurately without offending. As I get more comfortable with that discipline, I increasingly see dilemmas and policies through the prism of rich and poor. When I use the term middle class, I often am lumping that group in with the rich. And this comes up often, for there are implications about wealth distribution in almost any policy discussion I have with students. Issues of unintentional wealth redistribution also come up when I talk with my students about news developments (I have often quipped with them that Costco is a middle-class benevolent society). I can think of more times in the past year, however, when I've cringed at an indiscreet way of phrasing something in that class rather than in the field with the more obvious verbal landmines, history.

Sielski's column serves as good reinforcement for the place of objectivity in one's professional work. Students love to use "biased" and "unbiased" in class dialogue. Though those terms have their use in evaluating informational sources we see, I don't care for using those words to characterize someone's intentions. We're all biased. We all have preferences and tastes on things innocuous (like chocolate vs. vanilla) to things significant (like religious faith). The behavior I want to model for my students is objectivity, the ability to see things as clear from personal preference as possible. That's a habit of mind I think they can emulate.

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