Inclusive Classrooms:  Handling “hot topics”

If faculty avoided all potentially sensitive issues, the university could easily be viewed by students as irrelevant and boring. If on the other hand we want students to be critical thinkers, global citizens and thoughtful participants in democracy, we should help students learn how to develop the necessary skills.

With some advance preparation, instructors can influence the manner in which controversial topics are dealt with. They can:

  • Choose interesting and informative readings or other preparatory materials that introduce a range of perspectives.
  • Structure class discussions to insure that a variety of voices are heard.
  • Ask students to do exercises in which they prove they have listened to and can articulate a position other than their own (as well as their own). Help them see that hearing other perspectives helps us understand our own.
  • Before hot topics arise (ideally starting the first day of class), set up expectations for classroom etiquette (such as no interrupting, criticizing ideas rather than attacking people, knowing one another’s names, etc.) so that students trust one another and feel part of the learning community.
  • Model patient and respectful listening and interacting and the ability to understand a variety of theories and perspectives.
  • Keep the focus on learning and understanding, not winning an argument.
  • Help students tolerate discomfort and expect that they won't always be able to come to consensus.

Dealing with the spontaneous “hot comment” or offensive remark

No matter how much faculty may have tried to set up a respectful environment, sometimes a student might make a comment during class that provokes strong feelings and controversy. It's very possible that professors may feel uncertain about how to respond. They might choose the path of least resistance, which is to simply ignore the comment and move on. However, students frequently report that they perceive faculty silence and inaction as meaning the professor (and/or other students) agree with the comment. If the comment attacks a whole group of people, students in that group conclude they will not be protected.

Instead of ignoring the comment, In “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom,” Lee Warren suggests faculty can help turn a "hot moment" into a productive learning opportunity by:

  • Asking the students what we might learn from a particular disagreement; that technique gives them responsibility for some of the work and keeps the focus on learning.
  • Taking the focus off the individual student who made the remark and saying something like, “Other people think this way. Why do they hold such views?” and then, “Why do those who disagree hold their views?” This allows students to disagree and ideally gets students to deepen their understanding of multiple perspectives. (You can also ask what information students would need in order to be more confident of their own views.)
  • Asking the students to step back and reflect (write) about what they are thinking or feeling.
  • (If they can't figure out a way in that moment to deal with the issue,) telling students this seems like an important issue that the faculty member would like to take up at a later time. That lets students know the professor has noticed and takes the issue seriously and also provides time to plan strategies, perhaps ones that include providing resources that frame the controversy.

For additional material on handling hot topics, see the resources page. If you're an Elon faculty member in the middle of a tricky situation and want to talk confidentially, feel free to call CATL to set up a conversation (x5106).

You might also think about curriculum design, and other practical suggestions for "dos" and "don'ts," and making your good intentions explicit.