David Pollock, PhD
Faculty Development Specialist
By now, you and your students have been in full-throated discussions this term about all kinds of topics--some planned, some unplanned. As most of us know all too well, such discussions can often get out of hand to the point that learning is shut down and anger boils over. It seems to be a common problem outside of the classroom right now, but it is--and always has been--a challenge for instructors to manage such discussions in a productive way.
Our personal reaction to bringing up some issues may cause us to avoid them altogether because of their potential volatility. But discussing divisive issues is sometimes a necessary part of the learning outcomes for a course--especially in the social sciences--and therefore, such discussions should not be avoided. And sometimes, unplanned discussions are important for exploring topics and expanding critical thinking. So what’s an instructor to do when they plan to bring up difficult topics or suspect a student might raise such an issue? As you think about your next semester of classes, give some thought to how you can use discussions of difficult topics in a more productive way. There is no magic bullet to ensure all conversations are deep and civil, but there are things you can do to increase the odds.
First, plan ahead for difficult topics. You know you are teaching subjects where such things can come up. Do not leave it to just your wits to handle the moment as it happens. Being prepared means, for one thing, having guidelines in place for difficult conversations. You should go over these guidelines at the beginning of your class and remind students about them from time to time--especially before starting topics that might get hot. Such guidelines should include limitations on shouting at each other or other insulting behavior, emphases on listening and understanding what the other person is saying, and the consequences for failing to meet guidelines. See this example from the University of Michigan. Some faculty have had success getting students to help create the guidelines at the beginning of class. “We’re going to discuss some things we might not always agree on. What guidelines for having those conversations do you think would help us all learn from each other and feel free to discuss things?”
Being prepared also means you have thought through how you might respond to uncivil behavior or improper discussions. For faculty who typically avoid conflict in general, it may be especially important to think about what you would say to a student who is overly aggressive toward another in a discussion or insults them. If you have guidelines in place, it is important to point out that the student is violating the guidelines. But rehearse, in your mind at least, what you would say to such a student. This might be something like, “Whoa, you are really passionate about this I see. But let’s remember to be respectful of each other so we can all hear each other.” The idea is that even when a hot topic catches you off-guard, you have already thought about what you might say, and therefore, will hopefully be more able to find the appropriate words in the moment.
Do not ignore conflict if it happens. You might be tempted to ignore conflict in the hopes that doing so will make it go away. But ignoring it is implicitly saying that such behavior is alright in the classroom. If you do that, there’s a good chance it will happen again and may be even worse next time. You have to address behavior that crosses the line.
Finally, keep in mind that you do not have to discuss a topic if it is not related to your learning outcomes. There may be times when off-topic discussions are useful, but if you do not think they very relevant, just tell students something like, ‘that’s an interesting issue, but we need to focus on this today.”
IDEA has two other free resources related to this topic that have more ideas: our SoundIDEA podcast, Difficult Topics, and a recording of a 30-minute webinar, Handling Hot Topics in the Classroom.