Just a Regular Student and His Soapbox | Steele Payne


This scenario focuses on the experience of Sarah, a white woman working as an un-tenured adjunct faculty member at Local Community College. Sarah teaches several public speaking courses every semester, but she has seen a recent uptick in enrollment among non-traditional students since tuition has been made free at the state level. While a diversity of viewpoints can enrich the classroom experience, Sarah also has witnessed students’ political sentiments becoming increasingly extreme. During her students’ final presentations, one student stood out in his choice of polarizing content, forcing Sarah to decide quickly how to respond.


political extremism, free speech, public speaking, non-traditional students

Primary Characters:

Sarah (she/her/hers): white woman; un-tenured adjunct faculty teaching public speaking course at Local Community College.

Rob (he/him/his): white male; non-traditional student at Local Community College enrolled in Sarah’s public speaking course; 5-10 years older than Sarah.

Context and Case:

Sarah is a white woman who has been teaching public speaking as an adjunct faculty member at Local Community College (LCC) for nearly 10 years. Her course acts as a general education requirement, and Sarah has always approached the class as a unique opportunity for students to explore ideas, interrogate information, and share their thoughts using the communication tools the curriculum provides. While she may not politically or culturally align with her students’ viewpoints or experiences, she prides herself in providing a space where all her students can apply what they have learned through classroom dialogue and structured presentations. More specifically, her course is designed so students’ learning progresses from informative/ceremonial speeches to the culminating persuasive speech at the end of the semester. With minimal guidance, students are allowed to select their own topics to research and present.

Recently, her class sizes and overall teaching load have increased due to greater demand—the state has made community college tuition-free, resulting in a broad increase in enrollment. Her class rosters include not just 20-year-old “traditional” students, but also high school dual-enrollment students, students with veteran status, and students who have been in the workforce for many years but are returning to pursue different career paths. Rob, a white male returning from the financial industry, is one of these non-traditional students.

Overall, diversity of experiences and backgrounds enriches the classroom conversations. However, as her courses expand, Sarah has grown alarmed by an observed uptick in politically polarized students. More specifically, during the final, persuasive speech of the semester, Rob chose to argue in front of 25 of his fellow students that far too much “fake” news is presented as mainstream, factual content. For evidence, Rob relied on perceived mistreatment of former president Donald Trump, arguing that more conservative social and/or cable media outlets are not given the same amount of exposure as their liberal counterparts. Rob argued that “fake” information about the 2020 presidential election was accepted as the truth, resulting in a stolen election and the wrong political candidate being elected president. Thus, Rob asserted that moving forward, conservative voices must utilize severe tactics in order to be heard, making the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 both justified and inevitable.

As Rob’s presentation continued, Sarah’s surprise turned into concern. Until this moment, Rob had not shown signs of holding these types of views. He seemed to be using her classroom assignment as a soapbox for sharing his polarizing opinions, and his fellow students were a captive audience. Sarah must determine her next steps. How might she respond?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are Sarah’s job responsibilities in this situation?
  2. How might Sarah draw upon cultural, situational, or institutional norms when deciding how to respond?
  3. Regardless of how Sarah chooses to respond, who needs to know about this situation?

In addition to scenario-specific questions, you may find value in exploring questions through the lens of Boettcher and Salinas’s (accepted book publication) Institutional Intelligence Model. More specifically, Sarah’s experience raises legal, ethical, and identity-related issues that can be explored through IIM-specific questions:

  • The Law: What institutional policies, procedures, or processes are applicable to this scenario?
  • Ethics: What are the relevant ethical issues in this scenario?
  • Identity: How might characters’ social identities affect how this scenario would unfold?

References and Resources: 

Boettcher, M. L. & Salinas, C. (2024). Law and ethics in academic and student affairs: Developing an institutional intelligence approach. Routledge.

Author Bio:

Kayla Steele Payne (she/her/hers) is a doctoral student in the Teaching and Learning program at Clemson University. Her research area of interest involves faculty response to student political extremism in the higher education classroom. More specifically, she is interested in how faculty choose to adjust their curriculum and/or pedagogy in relation to student behaviors or viewpoints they interpret as extreme.