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Teaching after Charlottesville

Posted by on Tuesday, August 15, 2017 in News.

Teaching, Difference, and PowerBy Derek Bruff, CFT Director

This weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, saw hateful and bigoted speech turn into deadly violence. As classes at Vanderbilt resume this month, these events will be on the minds of students and faculty returning to campus. They’re certainly on my mind. I think of my visit to the University of Virginia a couple of years ago, and I’m saddened to think of the turmoil on that campus Friday night. I think of a fellow educator from Elon University who went to Charlottesville to stand for equality and was just feet away from the car that was driven into a crowd of activists. And I think of all those who saw what happened in Charlottesville and are more fearful now that their communities aren’t safe places for them.

Many of our students, as they return to campus, will be fearful or sad or angry because of what happened in Charlottesville. As educators and as members of the Vanderbilt community, we have a responsibility to our students in times like this. As we did following last fall’s contentious presidential election, the Center for Teaching has collected resources that instructors might find useful as they seek to help their students engage in critical, constructive dialogue about this historical moment. See below for suggestions for practice and for further reading.

  1. In a 2007 study of faculty responses to collective tragedies, it was found that from the student’s perspective, it is best to do something.” Students are grateful when their instructors acknowledge that tragedy has occurred, even if all that is done is taking a moment of silence or providing a little flexibility on due dates. See our “Teaching in Times of Crisis” teaching guide for more on that study and other suggestions for teaching after traumatic events.
  2. Instructors who wish to directly address the questions raised by the events in Charlottesville are encouraged to consider their learning goals for students. Are you interested in developing students’ ability to understand others’ perspectives? Their skill in evaluating arguments? Their understanding of the value your discipline brings to current events? Use these goals to guide your approach to class discussions. See this blog post for ideas on aligning challenging conversations with important learning goals.
  3. Before tackling a hard topic with your students, have the class establish and agree on ground rules for discussion. For instance, you might agree to not interrupt others, or to avoid name-calling or character attacks, or to ask questions when you don’t understand someone’s point of view. Clarifying how discussion should work in your class can increase civility and avoid unhelpful conflict. See our “Difficult Dialogues” teaching guide for more ideas.
  4. Consider specific teaching strategies to help students engage productively in critical conversations. For instance, you might depersonalize an issue by asking “Why are some people angry about this?” instead of “Why are you angry?” Or have students reflect in writing about a tough question before addressing it during class discussion. Or structure a debate or fishbowl exercise to help students understand different perspectives on an issue. See the resources linked above for more ideas, and be prepared to manage a “hot moment” should it arise.
  5. Be sure to take care of yourself. If you’re stressed and not well, it will be harder to be present for your students. See these self-care strategies for faculty from Faculty Focus for ideas. Your students might need some help in this area, too. Remind them of the resources provided by Vanderbilt’s Center for Student Wellbeing, and consider incorporating into your lesson plans a reflective activity or two, such as the ones described in our teaching guide on mindfulness in the classroom.
  6. For those who want to discuss the specifics of the events in Charlottesville, consider some of the resources in the Charlottesville Syllabus, a guide created by graduate students at the University of Virginia. The articles and archives referenced in the syllabus are meant to provide historical and local context for the controversies that erupted into violence this past weekend.

If you need any assistance to meet these or other challenges you face in your teaching, please contact the Center for Teaching (cft@vanderbilt.edu, 615-322-7290) to schedule a consultation with our staff. We would be happy to assist you.

Update 8/25/17: Here are a few more resources that instructors might find useful as they discuss race in America with their students.

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