Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Leading difficult discussions

Instructors can create a positive climate for intellectual discourse about diversity by setting guidelines for class participation that anticipate difficult discussions, and managing contentious interactions when they arise. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Set Guidelines. Provide students with a set of ground rules for class participation, or engage your students in designing them with you. Ground rules about civil behavior, acceptable evidence, and appropriate responses to offensive statements can make your expectations for civil, meaningful discourse clear from the beginning, and facilitate an atmosphere of mutual respect. Encourage all students to participate by assigning roles, or providing multiple avenues for participation (e.g., through writing or discussion).
  • Manage Contentious Interactions. When an offensive remark is made, Lee Warren, of the Derek Bok Center at Harvard University encourages us “1) to manage ourselves so as to make them useful, and 2) to find the teaching opportunities to help students learn in and from the moment.” Try to collect yourself and set aside your own personal reactions. Do not allow personal attacks, or avoid addressing a hot moment altogether. Instead, help students step back and think about the issue productively, such as by making it a topic of general discussion or a writing exercise. For more detailed recommendations and specific examples, see Warren’s excellent article on Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.
  • Treat students as individuals, not as representatives of or “experts” for their racial or cultural or other social identity group. Allow students to draw on their own lives and experiences when appropriate.

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