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Leading Classroom Discussion on Difficult Topics

Posted by on Monday, April 11, 2011 in Events.

CFT Graduate Teaching Fellow, Leanna Fuller, reflects on the recent Teaching Workshop: Difficult Dialogues in this follow-up post to that event.

On March 23rd, 18 participants from 11 Vanderbilt departments gathered at the Center for Teaching to discuss the challenge of leading classroom discussions on difficult topics.  We began by talking in small groups about the kinds of issues that tend to create controversy in our classrooms – issues as diverse as interpretations of the Bible; race, gender, and sexuality; and genetic testing.  We then reflected on how difficult conversations themselves might connect with the overall learning goals for a particular course.  Participants named skills like thinking critically, entertaining diverse perspectives, and conversing respectfully across differences as key to the kind of learning they hope to engender in their students.

The rest of the workshop consisted of further conversation and participation in group exercises that could be used to manage difficult dialogues among students.  Throughout our time together, the group generated a variety of practical strategies that might prove helpful to instructors who anticipate having controversial conversations as part of their classroom environment:

Set the tone from the beginning

  • Invite students to get to know each other (and try to get to know your students) by name and interest.  This helps build a sense of community, and may help you, as an instructor, anticipate and prepare for issues that may be “hot buttons” for your students.
  • Have the class establish and agree on ground rules for discussion. Clarifying expectations about class discussions early on can prevent contentious situations later.

Use intentional strategies to help students deal with and learn from difficult dialogues

  • When a “hot moment” erupts in the classroom, have everyone take a break and write out what they’re feeling or thinking about the conversation.  This can allow emotions to cool enough for the discussion to get back on track.
  • Ask that students try to understand each other’s perspectives before reacting to them.  For instance, asks a student to listen carefully to another point of view, ask questions about it, and restate it before offering his or her own opinion.  Or, ask students to write a paper or engage in a debate in which they argue for the position with which they most disagree.
  • When necessary, talk with students outside of class about what happened.  This may be especially important for the students who were most embroiled in the hot moment.

Monitor yourself

  • Do some thinking ahead of time about what issues may hit a nerve with you personally, and how you might deal with that.  If a difficult dialogue is already taking place, try to stay in touch with your own emotions.  Doing so can help you keep your feelings in check and prevent them from driving your response.
  • Don’t personalize remarks, and don’t respond angrily or punitively to students whose positions you find offensive.
  • Don’t avoid difficult topics simply because you feel uncomfortable dealing with them; at the same time, don’t introduce controversy into the classroom for its own sake.  Think carefully about how engaging in difficult dialogues contributes to your own learning goals for the class session and for the course as a whole.

To conclude the workshop, I and my fellow workshop leaders, Graduate Teaching Fellow John Morrell and CFT Assistant Director Kat Baker, pointed participants to a variety of resources related to difficult dialogues, including our teaching guide for handling difficult situations.  While our workshop discussion was fruitful and enlightening, it seems clear that the issue of managing difficult dialogues in the classroom is ripe for further conversation in the future.


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