Higher EducationPedagogy

When a Student Wants To Go Pro-Woo

Well, it finally happened to me. I’m teaching a section of my college’s senior research course, which involves largely self-directed research projects, monitored and mentored (and graded) by the professor. The first assignment I require is a formal proposal so that I can head off any ideas that seem doomed from the outset. This term, a student submitted a proposal about chiropractic. Her mother took her and her siblings for “adjustments” all their lives and never got them vaccinations or any of that nonsense, and they were the healthiest kids ever. Because nature has its own healing powers. So she wants to go to chiropractic school and thus wishes to use her senior project to research “how chiropractic works.”

Oh, fuck me.

I stared at this document in dismay. What is my responsibility here? I’m not in the habit of censoring my students’ ideas. Besides, if she performs her research properly, she should discover that chiropractic doesn’t work, which would be a fine result. With a background like the one she describes, though, this seems unlikely. Chiropractic has carved such a niche for itself in the mainstream that I don’t doubt she will find enough to convince herself that I am being a hating hater. I can’t recall who noted that you generally cannot reason anyone out of a position not arrived at through reason in the first place, but in my experience s/he was right. Should I just tell the student no based on how I don’t have it in me to deal with this crap all semester? I fretted.

Ultimately, I decided to go with the honest approach. I told her that I know quite a lot about the topic and that if she does choose to research chiropractic she’s going to find that the science-based medicine community does not accept it as medically efficacious. I explained that because the course description demands rigorous academic research I will not be able to accept anecdotal or non-peer reviewed data, and I fear that’s most of what she’s going to find if she takes this project on. I threw out a few tangential suggestions, such as an investigation of the history of this medical controversy or a study of what people seek from alternative modalities. Since their research is supposed to be interdisciplinary, I thought adding some psychology and/or sociology might qualify. She took it well, which was a relief; I don’t want to crush her spirit or make her feel stupid.

A few days later, the student sent me a completely new proposal for a much less fraught project: Bigfoot hunting. (Just kidding!) She did decide to do something else, and I’m fine with that choice. I would have helped her as much as possible if she’d decided to stay with chiropractic, but I would not have passed off poor research, so I’m relieved not to have to worry about it. I feel a bit like I punted when I should have gone for it, but I am not interested in using my age and education as a bludgeon with students. I could have made her so miserable with that project–and some might say that’s what she needs–but that’s just not my style, you know? Ugh. Life is hard.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.

1 Comment

  1. February 16, 2014 at 10:45 am —

    Yeah…I have all kinds of problems with pro woo in astronomy class. In fact I will probably write up some of the stories and post them at some point (think Ancient Aliens!) Good Luck!

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