Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

You Need to Address Charlottesville (and everything else) in your Classroom

For years, I worked at a Teaching and Learning Center, observing teachers, building workshops, and giving instructors places to learn and grow as instructors. One of the most common concerns that came up across the disciplinary spectrum was how to effectively address the "real world" in classrooms, or whether you should just stick to the subject matter at hand. 

Let me state it as clearly as I can. 

You need to address national events of significance in your classes.  

The rest of this post goes through the research that supports that declaration, as well as strategies to use in your own classroom to discuss unsettling, difficult, or controversial things. I know, from both a student and instructor perspective, that these conversations can feel awkward, hard, uncomfortable, and maybe even unsafe. Many instructors receive little to no training on how to weave these topics into a class. This problem is even more pronounced in fields, like STEM disciplines, that can appear distantly related to current events. I offer these strategies in the hopes that more instructors will feel empowered to have these difficult conversations, and more students will feel visible, seen, and supported because of it. 

A bit about my training as an instructional consultant. 

I am, as usual, completely indebted to the University of Michigan's Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) for training me as a teacher, and heavily influencing my own teaching and consulting philosophy. I am deeply committed to the idea of inclusive teaching - which briefly stated means that I strive to address and incorporate the variety of needs, backgrounds, learning styles, and abilities of all my students. Put another way, I do not expect that my students stop being the complex, intersectional human beings that they are when they enter into my classroom, just as I do not cede my own complexity when I step behind the podium. I'm drawing heavily from their website here, and will be linking to their resources directly - but I'm not sharing anything that I haven't used as an instructor myself, and supported other instructors in using across a wide range of disciplines. 

Acknowledge the incidents, and refer students to the places on campus and beyond where they can feel supported. 

This is the key intervention, and the bare minimum, of outreach that instructors need to incorporate into their classrooms. I acknowledge that not every instructor has the luxury to scrap a day's worth of programming to facilitate a discussion on a topic, but almost every instructor I know has the ability to open class with a short statement, or send an email, or post on a course website. 

Research indicates that students find it helpful when instructors acknowledge that a traumatic event has occurred. For more, see this paper on how instructors responded to September 11th and Hurricane Katrina, and how helpful their students found those interventions to be. Faculty and instructors are the parts of campus that have the most day-to-day contact with undergraduate students, and students reported that instructors who addressed the events, offered support in the form of campus resources, and information about national resources and charities were very helpful. Most helpful was acknowledging that focus and attention might suffer, and verbally reminding students that material would be covered again, or that extensions could be given. 

This is not to say that you need to change your course planning, provide direct emotional support, or engage your students in a lengthy discussion. By simply acknowledging the events and reminding students of the resources available to them, you make your classroom a more inclusive place. 

Planning for a difficult discussion

If you feel called to discuss difficult topics in your classroom, there are a variety of techniques and strategies that you can implement to make sure that all students feel safe and supported. CRLT has a lovely guide that walks you step by step through this process, but I'll call out a few of the most important points below. 

  1. Decide what your purpose for having this discussion is. Are you having this conversation to draw links between current events and your course material? Are you sharing information that is not circulating regularly in other venues? Are you hoping to build your students' skills in critical thinking, or civil discourse? 
  2. Decide on ground rules. These rules can be set by you, or if you have time, you can set them together as a group in class. Many instructors also have ground rules for discussion in their syllabi - this can be a great time to reiterate those. 
  3. Give everyone a focal point. Especially in instances where reporting or writing about a topic might be biased, providing everyone in the group with the same text to read and discuss can help to ground the discussion in specifics, rather than in impressions or subjective stances. 
  4. Build in ways for everyone to participate. Not every student might feel comfortable sharing verbally to a large group. Try using a Think Pair Share structure, where students discuss in small groups before reporting out, or provide notecards or paper for students to contribute anonymously, or non-verbally. 

Spontaneous Difficult Discussions, or Hot Moments

Despite our best intentions, sometimes difficult conversations or "hot moments" can come up in class discussions. Again, CRLT has some really great handouts and general discussion on this topic but here are a few really important things to know. 

  1. Give yourself a chance to process what has happened. There is no universal rule that you must respond to every comment or question as it happens. Count to ten to yourself, as you decide whether this is something you want to address on the spot, later with individual students, or something that you'll come back to at a different time. 
  2. Give your students a chance to process what has happened as well. If a difficult idea or comment has been made, it can be really helpful to give students a minute to process what has happened as well. A quick "minute paper" where they respond to the incident that is never collected can give students a chance to process their responses before moving on to a whole class discussion. Questions could be "Why is this topic so difficult to discuss?" or "What do you feel you cannot say right now?" 
  3. Depersonalize comments as much as you can. Rather than continually referring to what Student X said, or the comments that Student Y has made, try rephrasing to center around the idea, not the speaker. Referring abstractly to the "debate about {blank} topic" or "the use of x word in y context" can help reduce defensiveness and redirect to the ideas, not the speakers. You can also add in other perspectives that have not been brought up to expand the conversation even more. 

The most important rule when addressing difficult topics in class

You are not there to impose your views on your students, or required to give a soliloquy about current events with your students. You are there to give your students tools and support to make sense of how their educational lives intersect with their personal lives. Even if all you do is acknowledge an event and direct them to resources, you are still drawing connections between the educational space and the rest of their lives. As long as you proceed with that directive in mind, you can't get too far off the path. These conversations are hard for all of us, but the more you can help to draw connections between your class, your subject, and your discipline, and the lives your students live, the more you will help them create an integrated, critical view of their position in the world.