If your syllabus includes controversial topics you will want to plan ahead and anticipate difficult and emotional classroom discussions. These discussions may include multiple phases such as the initial discussion, a need to restore community during or after the discussion, and reflection after the discussion. Remember always that your role is to provide a safe classroom environment for every student during the discussion.
- Remind your students of the ground rules for class discussion covered in your syllabus and other additional rules you have provided.
- Direct the discussion to the issue and don’t let students attack other students in personal terms. Students should focus on the argument not the person.
- Do not ignore the situation when a student makes a hurtful comment to you or another student. Acknowledge that an inappropriate behavior has occurred. You need to decide how much time you want to spend on it in class or if you will address it after class.
- Do not be defensive even when the student is disruptive. Listen respectfully and acknowledge the possibility that the student may be correct. Your behavior in such a situation will be a role model for your students.
- Try not to let yourself be rattled by the event; or at least, try not to let it look as if you are rattled. If you, as the instructor, can hold yourself steady, you will create a holding environment in which people can work out the issues that have arisen.
- Protect the lone outlier (the attacked or attacker), regardless of their position.
- If you run into issues that may escalate into an unresolved conflict in the classroom:
- You and your department chair and/or supervisor may also consult with the Dean of Students Office – Office of Student Conduct, Dean of Students Office – Student Assistance, and/or Office of Equal Opportunity.
- If the in the event of a threat or an emergency do not hesitate to call ISU Police at 911 or 294-4428.
- You may want to ask students to step back after a heated discussion, analyze what went on and what they learned from the process.
- Defer. Tell students that this is an important issue and that you will take it up later in this class or next time. Use the time to think and plan a strategy. Make sure you return to the issue later as promised.
- Go around the room and ask each student who has spoken (and others if they wish) to state their view and explain the view behind it. Do not permit interruptions and acknowledge each student’s comments, no matter how you feel about it personally.
- If a student breaks down as a result of the original outburst, acknowledge it and ask the student if he/she would like to remain in the classroom or take a break to pull him- or herself together.
- If necessary, stop the class, assign students to research the issue and write a short essay for the next class meeting. Or, ask students to write about the issue for five minutes in class and then invite them to read them out to the class afterwards.
- Ask students to write a reflection in response to the critical dialogue. This enables students to think about and come to some kind of terms with the issue and can enable further discussion of it.
- Use the dialogue as an opportunity to analyze the issue under discussion or the initial event.
- Ask students to think about how their reactions mirror the subject at hand, and what they might learn about the subject from their own behavior or experience.
Adapted from: Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Harvard University.
Additional Online Resources
- Difficult Dialogues: Engaging difficult dialogues in higher education (University of Alaska Anchorage)
- Classroom Strategies by Technique (University of Alaska Anchorage)