Difficult Discussions in the Classroom and on Campus

This weekend, Grand View joined the ranks of schools, colleges, and universities that have had “It’s OK to be white” signs posted in their environs. A campaign started by racist trolls on 4chan (an online discussion space where “alt-right,” white nationalist, and other similarly charming groups congregate virtually), the sign postings seem to be intended to roil campus communities and “trigger” those who advocate for diversity and multiculturalism. So once again, as has been the case across the country constantly in the last year, racism and racist actions are attempting to seize control of campus and community conversations. The initial impulse to ignore these inflammatory signs (“don’t feed the trolls,” as the saying goes) would be understandable, but it also risks sending the wrong message to our students and other members of the campus community. As teachers, what message do we send our students if they bring this up in class, but we avoid discussion because we’re uncomfortable with it, or because it “doesn’t fit with the content?” Of course, we always have to be sensitive to the context of a specific class and group of students, but we should also consider how such issues like this can serve as powerful teaching and learning moments. In their time at Grand View, our students spend more time in the classroom than just about any other endeavor; it makes sense that some of them would want to use that space to process important, difficult, and problematic events that have occurred in their community.

So how do we handle this type of topic if it arises in class, or in other occasions where we’re interacting with students? And how do we have constructive conversations that are inclusive and respectful, where anger and defensiveness don’t take over and leave things more awkward and tense than before it started? This week’s links gather a number of resources that I’ve found helpful, and that are recommended by other faculty developers, inclusion advocates, and teaching centers. Some of them have been linked in other posts on this blog, others are new resources, but I hope that aggregating them here will prove useful to those of you who want your classes to be able to constructively engage with difficult and fraught topics, whether it’s in the aftermath of this weekend’s sign-posting, or in a more general sense.

An essential conversation for campus leadership to have is to figure out how to respond when, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it, “the culture wars go digital.” What happens when individual academics become the target of organized online harassment campaigns? This is not a hypothetical situation-it’s not a question of if, but of when, this will occur on campus. Are we ready to support our colleagues and students?

About 10 years ago, the University of Alaska and Alaska Pacific University jointly published a manual for faculty and staff facilitating difficult discussions in a higher-ed environment. It’s an enormously useful resource, and contains a number of excellent suggestions and frameworks–and it’s an open-access publication available online. You can find it by visiting the Difficult Dialogues Initiative site at http://www.difficultdialoguesuaa.org/handbook.

How do we make sure classroom discussions are truly democratic? How do we ensure that we give all of our students a chance to engage, rather than just allowing a few dominant voices to take up all the space? Danica Savonick suggests some specific techniques to “create spaces for conversation” that allows for this wider participation from students. Rachel McKinnon describes a technique called “Complete Turn Taking” that’s proven successful for her classes. And Elizabeth Simmons wrote a nice, comprehensive article for Inside Higher Ed with some excellent thoughts on fostering inclusive conversations as part of our larger campus cultures.

Often, when difficult topics arise in class discussions, there are groups of students who don’t always find the same level of comfort or openness as some of their peers when it comes to participating. Many times, this is the product of internalized biases and habits on the part of both faculty and other students, and something we ought to be on guard against. An excellent collection of reading and resources that can help us be aware of, and mitigate, this problem can be found at the Best Practices for the Inclusive Philosophy Classroom webpage. Don’t be put off by the seemingly discipline-specific focus; a lot of the material here is widely applicable in a variety of disciplinary and classroom settings. Also, I recommend “The Chilly Climate” site, maintained by education researcher Bernice Sandler, which is contains a number of helpful resources for combating the “chilly climate” that women often face in class and campus settings.

Finally, on a more general level, there are a number of teaching centers who’ve created valuable resource pages for inclusive teaching and-especially-specific techniques and strategies we can use in our own classrooms. The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching maintains an excellent set of pages; see in particular their “Handling Controversial Topics in Discussion” and “Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.” Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation has a good collection of resources on classroom climate that also links to other pages on inclusive teaching practices. Finally, Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning has a page of specific practices for inclusive teaching that are easily-implemented and can have a powerful effect on discussions, participation, and overall classroom climate.

Hopefully, there are materials here that can be useful for you and your students. I’m also more than happy to share additional resources, or follow up on any of these topics in a one-on-one consultation. Just call (6102) or email and we can schedule one as soon as you wish! Feel free, as well, to drop by CETL any time you have a question or issue with which we can help!

Sure, it’s past Halloween, but here’s a pirate cat walking the plank anyway. AAARRRR



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