ETA: Kinja is being weird and isn't showing all of my comments. So if you commented and don't see a response, it's probably because GT ate it. Thank you all for your help!
Calling all teachers, academics, or anyone else with thoughts about the classroom and discrimination. My thoughts on this are confused and scattered to say the least, so consider this a combination of a call for advice as well as a general call to discuss how to teach young adults to be well-adjusted members of society without squashing their willingness to share their thoughts in class.
Pertinent background disclosure: I am a young white female who grew up in a spectacularly ethnically homogenous country. I try to be sensitive to issues with discrimination, but am still learning how to check my privilege, how not to be an unwitting a-hole, and how not to be exaggeratedly self-conscious about trying not to be an unwitting a-hole. I currently TA at a public US university which is predominantly Caucasian but has at least some diversity. Most of the students in my class are male.
Incident the first: We were doing a comparison of a couple of Greek myths with some African myths. It's a 300-level class, but most of the students are outside humanities and clearly struggle with how to approach the material. So I was/am really desperate to get them discussing it and to think about it in their own terms. However, a couple of the students made comments that really left me sort of stumped about what to do.
They pretty much argued that the African myths are simpler because African societies are simpler and don't have as much history as Greece does.
Incident the second: We were discussing a myth featuring abduction/rape, and what it might tell us about gender roles in the society that produced it. I made an a off-beat comment in an attempt to provoke a response, asking if the story means Greek society was one where anyone could just snatch up a woman.
Someone - I didn't have time to note who - piped in an "I wish!"
So here is my dilemma. In neither of these case do I think the students were being willfully malicious or insulting. In the latter case, I think it was humour gone wrong; in the former, the student was genuinely trying to make comparisons but didn't really see where his conclusions were taking him. The last thing I want to do is to humiliate the students or discourage them from speaking their mind. I also don't want to blow things out of proportion. At the same time, I want to create a class environment that doesn't make any of the students feel insulted or threatened, and that doesn't make me cringe internally. Finally, I have very limited time with the students and a lot of ground to cover; I don't necessarily have time to teach them how to be good humans in addition to the class material. And I can't help but feel that I just didn't really know how to navigate that balance in these cases.
What I ended up doing in the first case was giving a brief explanation about how the stories were written down under very different circumstances (The fact the African myth was written down in one sitting based on one informant does result in what appears to be a more "straight-forward" storyline than the high-literary Greek myths, edited for centuries, we were reading.) and while I think his observation about the style is a good one, we need to be careful to fully understand the background of myths before we make generalizations about the societies that produced them.
I think I could have handled the situation a lot worse, but I was still left feeling weird, and I could tell the student who'd made the comment felt like his opinion had been shot down.
As for the second incident, I was too flustered to do anything beyond blurting out an emphatic "No! That would be a horrible society to live in!" and then moving on. I did make a point to phrase my question differently in my other sections; I asked how they thought women might have felt about reading myths of violence against women, and the responses were more sympathetic towards women. Selfishly, it was this incident that made me more upset, largely because after being harassed by two senior colleagues I have little patience with rape-y or chauvinistic jokes.
Long ramble short, I would love to hear everyone's thoughts. How would you have handled the situation? Have you had similar issues? Teaching is hard, man, and I want to learn to be marginally better about handling my privilege on one hand and to check other people's privilege on the other.