This week you will have a flyer entitled L.E.A.R.N. in your mailboxes from the Campus Incident Response Team. The flyer is a quick-start guide for managing contentious classroom discussions. It is designed for you to keep in a notebook, post it outside your office, or clip it to the board in a classroom. As a companion the team has also produced an extended guide which you can find on the new “Our Democracy” page off the University main page. To save you a click, we are also posting it here as today’s teaching tip. Good luck out there!
Contentious classroom discussions can be difficult for everyone involved. As an instructor you are often balancing the roles of teacher, peacemaker, and arbiter. This is the extended version of the L.E.A.R.N. quick-start guide distributed to campus.
Listen to what your students are saying. Listening can be hard, especially if someone is saying something with which you strongly disagree. However, it is a precondition to everything that should come next. Listening allows us to understand, find meaning and agreement, and opens the possibility of reaching a better solution. In the same way that you want your students to listen to you, be open to being challenged by your students. If you make a mistake, apologize. Learn from it. Unsure how to get started? Watch this short informative video about active listening.
Empathize with their position, especially when it is difficult. In the contemporary political environment this is often the missing piece. In the moment of a contentious classroom discussion it can be difficult to fully grasp why students feel the way they do, but making an effort is important. Try to consider why people feel the way they do rather than just focusing on what was said, but do so without casting judgment. Assume the best of others. If a student says something alarming or seemingly out of place, ask about it. Listen for the subtext; sometimes the most important thing is under what is said. Or, offer a tentative interpretation about the student’s feelings and intentions. Question in a manner that requests more information or attempts to clear up confusions. This part of the process can also be taken off-line with an email expressing empathy or a follow-up office hour visit. Empathy is a powerful teaching tool. This recent podcast is a great primer on why teaching with empathy is so effective.
Assess what to do. Take a minute compose yourself. We have been conditioned to respond immediately and avoid silence, but you need to fight the impulse to act immediately. If things get heated, take a time out. Spend five minutes writing about what you feel. Then resume the conversation. This can be awkward, but it is okay to tell your class everyone should take a moment to process what was said and consider how to move forward. This tactic will be helpful for them and it gives you a minute to compose yourself. Your solution does not have to be perfect, but taking a minute will make it better.
Respond directly, redirect the conversation, or end it. There is no one path forward from a difficult classroom conversation. Instead of having a go-to tactic, try being aware of the options at your disposal in a contentious classroom. You can respond directly and engage the topic at hand. This is a great option if you feel well equipped for the conversation and you feel the conversation can be productive for the class. You can redirect the flow of the classroom, frequently toward the usual classroom content. This is a good tactic if you feel a conversation is headed in an unproductive direction and it does not shut you off from following up later with a Blackboard or in person announcement to start the next class. The last resort in a contentious class period is to end class early. This should only be reserved for situations where the rest of class will be unproductive and/or people in the class feel like they might be at risk. This tactic re-centers your control in the classroom. If you end class, you should follow up with any student who may feel isolated, with an explanation to the class, and consult with your department chair.
Negotiate how to move forward. You have so many options as you consider what should happen next. You can seek advice from your chair or from colleagues. You can communicate through Blackboard or in person to start the next class period. You can follow up with individuals or groups from the class. In some situations you may want to contact Student Judicial Affairs to get a better understanding of your options. Writing down what happened for your own purposes is a useful exercise regardless as you can make a note of details you may not remember later. The most important thing you can do is seek advice. You may be shaken up following a contentious classroom incident and getting guidance from someone with a clear head and a different perspective is the best thing you can do for yourself and your students.
Dr. Sara Cooper has provided additional Book in Common Material. Check out this section ofthe CELT page for regular synopsis updates, discussion questions, and other resources.
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