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Supporting meaningful conversations

In an article in Inside Higher Education, Derisa Grant argues that faculty badly need more practice incorporating discussions of race, gender and other identity-related issues into our courses.  Conversations related to topics related to diversity, identities, inequities, or current events can be challenging to navigate, potentially leading to heated discussions, but labeling them as "difficult" suggests that they are troublesome or tangential.  We need to be prepared to support and facilitate such discussions in both online and in-person contexts. They can help students develop important skills, in meaningful discourse, evidence-based critical thinking, perspective taking, and listening. And as these scholars argue in this Inside Higher Ed piece, surfacing such issues in your course, no matter what your discipline, in one way in which non-Black faculty members can help dismantle educational inequities. Below, we provide suggestions about how instructors create a positive climate for class discourse about topics that may spark hot moments, whether in a live interaction OR asynchronous discussion forum (e.g., discussion board, chat channel, email, or VoiceThread). At the bottom of this page, we also share some special considerations for online discussion forums.   

Create guidelines

Set the stage for such discussions by developing guidelines for class participation and meaningful discourse. Guidelines for real-time online interactions may look a lot like those for in-person interactions. Discussion forums and other types of asynchronous interactions call for specific "netiquette" guideliness. Here are two examples of netiquette guidelines for online instruction.

Build rapport and community in your class

In courses relying heavily on online instruction, you can do this by increasing instructor presence and supporting peer-to-peer interaction.

Prepare for discussions of topics that may grow intense

Frame the conversation by identifying a clear purpose, objectives, and discussion prompts. Set the tone by stressing the importance of respecting others’ perspectives, avoiding generalizations, not asking others to ‘represent’ a group you perceive them to belong to.

Consider which students are most vulnerable

Individuals whose identities are marginalized and/or underrepresented on campus may feel afraid, unwelcome, or fatigued. Be sensitive to the ways these feelings can affect students’ abilities to engage in class. Be prepared to intervene if negative discourse arises. Help students feel supported by acknowledging the conflict and creating opportunities for reflection and empathy. Direct students to resources that can provide emotional support or help them respond to and cope with bigotry, hostility, and more

Actively facilitate and scaffold the dialogue​

Ask students to try to understand other perspectives before reacting (by asking questions or restating the other view before offering their own).  Be an active facilitator, whether the discussion is in real-time or asynchonously: reword questions, correct misinformation, or reference relevant course material. Recognize and interrupt microaggressions

Inform yourself

Make sure you understand how your discipline and course themes relate to the controversy, and to productive, informed discourse more generally.

  • In times of crisis, identify issues that resonate with your course themes, be prepared to give them special attention.
  • Address diverse perspectives on the issues within your field and model for your students how to weigh issues and evidence and make informed decisions
  • Consider how your own background and cultural influences might affect your teaching of these issues. Does the material provide an accurate representation of various perspectives?

These ideas and more are summarized in this Handout on Navigating Difficult Discussions

Apologize effectively if you offend someone or make a mistake

For example: 

  • Don’t minimize (e.g., Don’t say, “It was just a joke” or “Why do you have to be so sensitive?”)
  • Don’t put conditions on the apology (e.g., “I’m sorry if you were offended,” or “I’m sorry but…”)
  • Acknowledge what went wrong and take responsibility for what you did: “I’m sorry that I offended you, I’m sorry I told a story that....”
  • Take steps to address the behavior: “I’m going to get better informed and make sure I do not do that again.”
  • Move on- don’t make this about you

Considerations for online discussions

An online learning environment comes with some specific advantages and pitfalls for necessary conversations. On the plus side, asynchronous discussions allow for more intentional interactions- students have time to think, reflect, or gather resources before responding. Students who find it uncomfortable or difficult to speak up in class (e.g., introverts, English language learners) may be empowered in online forums to participate and be heard. They allow themes to emerge and ripen over time, which is especially helpful if the issue involves a quickly evolving situation or current event.  And, they give instructors additional time to reflect on how to respond and intervene when discussions grow intense or hurtful. 

Nonetheless, online forums may also embolden students to say things they would not say face-to-face.  Hasty responses can be poorly phrased, emotional, shallow or surface in thought, and/or focused entirely upon themselves and their experiences. Fortunately, instructors have time in this environment to be more intentional in responding or intervening.  And it is critically important that instructors DO respond when student discussion crosses guidelines for online community, as the web preserves the reminders of hurtful comments beyond the moment, which can negatively impact students who were the targets of those comments and the broader class community.

See this page for examples of how KU faculty keep online discussions productive and inclusive. 

Teaching and the Election

Given the heightened anxiety and controversy related to the 2020 election, many instructors are uncertain whether and how to discuss it with their students. In addition to the guidance for challenging conversations provided on this page, here are some election-specific resources:

More resources on Navigating Difficult Dialogues

Find more material on Leading Difficult Discussions on the CTE website. 

Watch this video on Navigating Difficult Conversations, by Dr. Tanya L. Sharpe and Dr. Geoff Greif from the the University of Maryland School of Social Work.