Commentary: Department Head raises questions about professor, student treatment

By Lacey Keefer, Contributing Writer —

A recent incident in Dr. John Zibluk’s mass communication class raised the question of how professors should treat potentially controversial topics in class.

Tuesday, March 27, in a class covering libel and defamation, there was discussion about Emma Gonzalez and Stormy Daniels in the public eye. One student, Emily Ricks asked Zibluk, head of the Department of Communication at UTC, to address some controversial questions regarding members of the LGBTQ+ community and sex workers and their right to sue for libel. Without getting a clear answer from Zibluk and after being antagonized by fellow students, Ricks left class early.

“I felt very small, and attacked. I felt very isolated,” said Ricks about the experience.

After the incident, Zibluk apologized over email and in person to Ricks and the class as a whole.

“I want people to know that, you know, we are here to support our students. But support does not always mean agreement,” said Zibluk.  

However, Zibluk also referenced his own feelings of the incident in a Facebook post made by him on March 27.

“WOW… just got shouted down in class by a student who was offended by a Stormy Daniels reference,” wrote Zibluk in the post. Comments on the same post revealed that Zibluk got “support and criticism in various emails,” though he felt he “did nothing wrong.”

According to the mission statement on UTC’s website, diversity and community is a core value at UTC. Ricks was concerned about the nature of discussion about diversity in class.

“Long-term, it has bothered me that the perspective in the class has been kind of one-sided,” said Ricks.

When asked about how she thinks professors should treat controversial subjects in class, Ricks said: “I think presenting the facts, instead of opinions. And maybe doing some research beforehand,” said Ricks. Another student in Zibluk’s mass communication class, Joanna Hill, would likely agree.

“My suggestion would be open up the floor, purpose a question to talk about. If no one wants to talk about it, then you can move on. But at least you’ve created a space for people to say what they think,” said Hill.

Zibluk stated that it is the professor’s job to decide what class discussion is constructive to class learning and what is not.

“The incentive is for faculty to pull back. The incentive is to give them a test, give them a book. That’s what it seems students want, ‘Let’s not get into any trouble.’ To me, that’s fine for checking a box, but that’s not really engaging the student and not really learning and thinking,” said Zibluk about how professors should cover questionable topics in class.

“The wrong answer is to shut somebody down and disrespect them. That is the only wrong answer,” said Zibluk.  

Ricks said that, after receiving supportive emails from other members of the class, she felt confident in her decision to question Zibluk.

“When you’re taught one way your entire life, it’s hard to see in another way. So I can see why some students were resistant to it,” said Ricks about the discussion in class.

However, both Ricks and Hill stressed the importance of having a space to discuss differing ideas. Ricks said: “Now having a support system, it just makes you feel really confident in your decision to stand up.”

Diversity and empowerment is a fundamental part of the mission of the Communication and of UTC as a whole, according to the mission statements located on the UTC website. This incident has not led Ricks to give up hope about the environment here at UTC. She said: “I think for the most part, that’s not really a good reflection of UTC. I think for the most part it’s pretty accepting.”  

Haley Doss

Haley Doss

Opinion Editor

I am a senior studying communications with a minor in political science. I love learning new things, talking about politics and long walks around Target.

  1. For a Apoint of clarification, this is what happened in class:
    ..the issue in class was libel. and in an attempt to make it relevant, I used Stormy Daniels as an example. Some attorneys have said it is possible she may be “libel-proof” given the nature of her work. Since she makes sexual movies, and I came up with a jokey title to alleviate discomfort, the question is whether someone with her background can be defamed and damaged since her business is already controversial. I said the issue was for a jury to decide. The student said I demeaned sex workers and that I made her uncomfortable. A discussion of class content ensued and I endeavored to bring the class back on track to discuss libel law. I was very surprised about the emotion the discussion brought.

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