Every so often, issues arise on our campus (or beyond) that can weigh heavily on our students’ minds, impacting how they can engage with each other and their learning. Just recently, two issues rose to this level–the appearance on campus of flyers that mocked sexual assault and consent, and Provost Robel’s decision regarding the Benton Murals that depict the KKK in Indiana’s history.
Many professors gloss over these and other difficult moments, anxious that they won’t know how to handle the resulting discussion. Meanwhile, most students prefer that their instructors address difficult topics. This blog post describes three different approaches to talking with our students about upsetting issues.
- Talk about it. Ask students how they feel about the issue, breaking students into smaller groups if necessary to let more students speak. Remind students of class discussion guidelines and expectations for respectful classroom interactions. To end, ask students to reflect on what they learned from someone else during the discussion, and use their points to synthesize main ideas. While students’ personal viewpoints can be a useful way of making abstract issues seem real, sometimes that level of personalization can cause too much tension in class; in those cases, consider providing students with a slight buffer by letting them talk about and analyze the range of opinions they hear people say.
- Use disciplinary frameworks. Some fields have mental moves for addressing such issues. For example, a sociologist can use social stratification to analyze racist violence; an English class can explore the rhetoric of hate groups; a history class can analyze the history of gun violence; a gender studies class can present statistics on sexual assault and discuss sexual assault as a crime. We can show students how to apply a disciplinary analysis of the issue at hand.
- Address the issue though course content. Even in a course in which “diversity” is not the topic, we can use materials to expose students to evidence. For example, in teaching statistics, we can introduce reasons racial violence affects the lived experience of Blacks by applying a new statistical procedure to data about deaths of Blacks at the hands of police in the US. Michele DiPietro of Kennesaw State University uses the debate about civil rights for LGBTQ people to frame his statistics course.
While it may feel like addressing difficult moments deviates from previously announced course topics, a great deal of learning can result. We don’t do this enough, and students appreciate it when we do.
To create a discussion activity around a difficult topic, or to work on a contingency plan in case a discussion unexpectedly arises, contact the CITL to meet with a consultant. Or join a discussion of these topics in the upcoming CITL workshop on 21st Century Teaching Methods.
Harper, S. R., & Davis III, C. H. (2016). Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms. Academe, 102(6), 30.
DiPietro, M. (2009). Diversity content as a gateway to deeper learning: The statistics of sexual orientation. Diversity and Democracy. Association of American Colleges & Universities, 12(3), pp. 12-13.
The University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning & Teaching has a number or resources for inclusive teaching, such as Setting the Tone for Inclusive Teaching.