Priming Students for Discussing Difficult Topics
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
“I feel like you shouldn’t be offended by that.”
“I don’t see why that’s racist. I don’t even see color.”
“This essay feels like reverse racism.”
Some comments bring the conversation to a halt. The speakers may not intend harm, and they have likely heard the same comment spoken by many people they respect. As faculty, we must address these comments and why they’re harmful, but we don’t want the speaker to retreat, get defensive, or stop engaging in the class altogether.
That’s the main purpose of this site: to offer strategies and even specific scripts for handling these comments, as well as similar charged moments in the classroom. Many teachers and students have a tendency to view discomfort, tension, and conflict in the classroom as inherently bad. True, it can create stress and anxiety, it can cause harm and hurt feelings, but it can also foster important conversations that lead to learning and empowerment.
In our blog posts, we frequently reference our scripts––specific language we offer to address some of the comments and tense moments in a productive way, one that promotes dialogue and protects the students harmed by these comments. Our early posts will focus primarily on race, but we will also discuss topics related to other forms of systemic discrimination.
In this first post, I want to suggest some moves faculty can make to prepare students for engaging these charged topics and tense moments. This preparation means not only informing students of the types of content they will be discussing, but also giving them the tools for navigating the discussions and handling discomfort. Here are some strategies for priming students for these conversations:
As a starting point, use a syllabus statement. These statements can help establish an inclusive tone and climate in your class, as well as highlight important distinctions between, say, openness to different opinions and intolerance for hate or bigotry. Here [link to list of statements] you can find some sample statements that you can adapt to suit your classroom.
Syllabi statements can also feature action-oriented language: for example, what students should do if they feel marginalized by someone’s comment in class (or if it wasn’t adequately handled in class). Brown University has some good language in the sample syllabus statement provided here.
Set some ground rules on the first day of class. Syllabus statements are good tools as long as you can ensure that students read them or you go over them in class. Even so, it can be valuable to establish some specific ground rules for promoting productive, inclusive dialogue throughout the semester. These might be ground rules that you establish, or that you invite students to contribute to.
Sample script for setting ground rules:
“This term we will be discussing a number of controversial topics that will appear in the readings. I have selected the texts for this course with the sole purpose of helping you to develop your critical reading and thinking skills (fill in blank with your specific student learning outcomes). To help us navigate the course readings, I would like for us to establish some ground rules for classroom discussion. Those rules will help to ensure that we remain open and thoughtful in our engagements with each other. For next class period I want you to think about what rules you would like us to implement to ensure that this space remains open and conducive to learning.”
Give students resources for discussing charged content, and address the resources during class. Sometimes, students are harmed not so much by comments that their classmates make, but by the content itself. If you introduce charged material into your curriculum––that is, content that can negatively impact students who have experienced trauma related to it or its language––it’s a good idea to make students aware of this content early on and to give them options for addressing it.
Some faculty choose to put difficult content statements (often called “trigger warnings”) on their syllabi, like those listed here. I tend to discuss the content before we begin a new reading. Whichever option you choose, make sure you have a plan in place, or specific actions concerned students can take (emailing to discuss strategies for handling discussion on a given day, alternative readings, or even providing page numbers to allow students to skip certain scenes). Here’s one resource in which the instructor establishes a policy early in the semester for how racial epithets will be handled in readings and in class.
During the semester, contextualize the course content by signposting. While it’s useful to prepare students at the beginning of the semester, it can be valuable to do so before specific readings, assignments, or discussions.
Faculty can contextualize the course content by signposting. For example:
“As you prepare to read the essay about late-term abortions for next week’s class, I do want to draw your attention to the fact that the content of the essay might be challenging to read and process. People have very strong opinions about abortion as a political issue. You might find your ideals, be those ideals religious, political, or personal, being challenged. I assign this essay to you because it illustrates several rhetorical devices we have discussed in class and does so while modeling for us how to write about controversial topics with balance and introspection. Please try to identify three rhetorical devices in the essay. If you find the material especially difficult to read, identify those passages that are most troubling. Next class period we will discuss how and why the essay is a tough read.”
Provide additional resources. Have a list of supplemental readings, TED Talks, or interviews that you can reference to help students understand what’s wrong with the term “reverse racism,” or what we mean by the concept of “white privilege.” In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo discusses how white people tend to respond to any accusations of racism with immediate defensiveness, as though the criticism of a particular comment somehow defines them as a person. Having students watch and discuss an excerpt from DiAngelo’s book (or her talk at the Seattle Public Library) can prepare them to self-critique and to hear others’ criticism of potentially problematic comments.
Using these strategies can signal to marginalized students that their voices and perspectives matter, and that you as the instructor will intervene if anyone makes harmful comments. You also provide a reference point for students who make these comments: while they may still feel defensive, embarrassed, or frustrated, they will at least understand already that such interventions are an essential part of the class.
What we are striving for in our classrooms is to create effective learning environments. Effective learning environments can be tense or uncomfortable, but they should not be traumatic or otherwise harmful. Rather, effective learning environments invite open dialogue and are best suited for participants open to receiving feedback and changing their minds.