Steven Volk, Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, Professor of History Emeritus, Oberlin College*
Contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org
There is an extensive and rich literature offering suggestions on how to encourage productive discussions in the classroom. In this article, I’ll focus exclusively on those complicated, “hot moment” challenges that spring up in our classes: how to prepare for them, manage them, and learn from them. I’ve addressed this topic before (here and here), but just as the events that create a need for this conversation continue to manifest in our classes, so it’s always useful to return to the theme.
Why “Difficult Discussion” Are Necessary
The definition of what is a “difficult discussion” is fairly important in that most of our classroom discussions should be “difficult.” By this I mean two things. The first is tied to the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky who argued that the social engagement arising in a discussion itself is central to the way that children and adolescents learn. Cognitive structures, for Vygotsky, originate in social activity and are “inextricably linked with language, which is itself a social construct. It is through social language” that students learn the cognitive and “communicative tools and skills of their culture.” This also relates to Vygotsky’s notion of the “zone of proximal development.” To put this simply (perhaps simplistically), there are tasks that students can do without any outside help. Activity that remains within that zone will quickly become boring; no learning will occur. Similarly, there are tasks that students are not able to do by themselves at the beginning. Setting up activities in this zone without providing support will guarantee failure and frustration. Optimal learning takes place in a “zone of proximal development” where learners, aided by the social context provided by teachers and peers, push beyond what they already know into new learning. In that sense (and I hope to be forgiven by the psychologists among us who are probably appalled by my presentation), learning occurs when students, scaffolded by the support they receive from teachers and peers, are thrust into the unfamiliar, the difficult. The discussions that provoke learning, then, are almost by definition, “difficult.”
Difficult discussions can be useful in a second way, most recently and poignantly described by Elizabeth Barnes, a philosopher at the University of Virginia, in “Arguments That Harm – And Why We Need Them.” Barnes begins by asking whether some ideas are “so offensive that they shouldn’t be engaged with?” Focusing on Peter Singer’s work on disability (“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed…”), which she finds “offensive, to say the least,” she concludes that, for a variety of reasons, “it is literally my job to think and talk about difficult ideas. The discomfort and hurt when dealing with views like Singer’s are real. But if I’m unwilling to take on a measure of discomfort, given how much privilege I have and how little I have to lose, then I’m not sure I’m using the privilege of an academic life the way I ought to be.” (I would not be doing justice to the richness of her argument if I didn’t also reference her argument that “there are some ideas that shouldn’t be engaged with.”)
So, by referring to “difficult” discussions, I’m talking about both the need to address difficult topics and other kinds of challenges, particularly challenges rooted in one’s identity, that can, and do, arise in our classes.
Three Kinds of Challenge
There are many ways that such problematic conversations can arise, but here I’ll focus on only three. They have to do with:
- Content: There are topics in our culture which have proven to be incredibly fraught, topics that we, as a society, are not good at discussing. Race is probably at the top of the list. While managing conversations about race or sexuality or privilege requires a tremendous amount of skill for those whose academic training is in these fields, even thinking about guiding such discussions can immobilize many of the rest of us, leaving us to hope that these subjects don’t arise in our classes. And yet we live and teach in the United States in the early 21st century: these topics are part of our students’ lives, and our lives, whether we are prepared to teach them or not.
- Silencing and Self-Censorship: Mark Twain once observed, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” I remember coming home after my first year at college practically bursting out of my new tweed sports jacket, eager to show my parents just how little they knew about the war in Vietnam or the civil rights movement. Oy gevalt! Late adolescents and young adults can be merciless to their peers as well as their “elders,” provisioned as they are with lots of new knowledge but not the commensurate skill set that would help them engage productively in conversations. Discussions in our classes can become difficult when students explicitly demean or otherwise rip into their peers for views that the latter express, or when students self-censor their comments for fear (whether real or imagined) of immediate or later reprisals.
- Challenges to Authority: Talk about contradictions! On the one hand, we crave students who challenge our ideas, taking issue with the readings we have assigned or drawing very different conclusions than we might have expected. On the other, when these become what has been termed “contra-power” harassment, challenges to our authority as teachers based on our identities and not our ideas, that’s a very different matter. There is no question that this topic, even more than the previous ones, is highly contextual. It’s not that a student’s challenge to a senior, white male faculty member teaching a course on – say – Latin American history is particularly easy to handle. But contra-power challenges to the authority of a junior, Black, female professor are of a different order of magnitude altogether.
In this article, I’ll focus more on “hot moments” in class that can unexpectedly arise, rather than on teaching planned course material that deals with very contentious issues. For that (and much else) I’d recommend Kay Landis, ed., Start Taking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2008). The book is available as a free download, so what are you waiting for?
Start at the Start
Establishing class “rules of engagement” is the single best way to prepare for the difficult discussions that might come. Class rules won’t put an end to difficult discussions, but they can help you manage them. Whether you establish the framework for classroom behavior or you encourage your students to write their own guidelines, it will help to have some previously agreed upon procedures to turn to when conflict arises. (I would note that rules written by the students themselves have a greater authority in these moments than rules that you have presented without discussion.)
Rules should cover some obvious (if easily ignored) terrain:
- treating everyone with respect
- listening without interrupting
- allowing everyone the chance to participate
- prohibiting name-calling or character attacks
- encouraging questions when something isn’t understood
- never assuming that one knows what another person is thinking
- avoiding assumptions about class members or generalizations about social groups
- not asking individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group
You can go a step further by establishing guidelines that can help you achieve the intellectual seriousness required by the learning process:
- Maintaining confidentiality, pledging to keep the classroom as a “safe” space, a space in which students can work through their understanding of an issue without fear that rhetorical missteps, a lack of knowledge, probing questions, or unpopular positions will be used to attack them on social media or in face-to-face interactions outside of class. If students are public with their own thinking, whether hegemonic or heterodox, that’s on them, but what occurs in the classroom stays in the classroom.
- Responding to a speaker’s comments is a complex act that can usefully be discussed. And here we’re not talking about interrupting or yelling, which should not be allowed. But it is one thing to discourage body-language signaling when in disagreement (eye-rolling, looks of exasperation), and another to suggest that students must remain in rigid (and, let’s be honest, white, middle-class) silence when in agreement. Perhaps you’ll find it OK to let students snap their fingers, or say “un-huh” when they agree. Responses are not without cultural histories and practices, and even discussing them can create an environment that makes difficult discussions less difficult.
If you are the one coming up with the rules, you need to explain why they are there and what is their intended purpose. If students come up with them, have them discuss why they think they are necessary, what purpose they are to serve.
The final point here is that coming up with classroom conduct guidelines in the first week does not free you from the need to remind everyone of them often, both when they are breached and as a way of reminding everyone of what was agreed upon earlier. (A recent book by Frances E. Jensen on The Teenage Brain notes that prospective memory – the ability to hold in one’s mind the intention to perform a certain action at a future time – is associated with the frontal lobes of the brain. This area develops significantly between 6-10 years old, and then again in the twenties; not so much in between. In other words, forgetting is not simply a function of not paying attention. Blame their brains!)
Handling “Hot Moments” in Class
It is possible that many of you, fortunate readers, have never had a “hot moment” experience in class – the unexpected flash where tension crystallizes in a comment, gesture, or action that cuts across the normal flow of things. But most of us have experienced such moments. These can be contra-power challenges to you (“I find it really racist that you’ve assigned this text”), confrontations with peers (“like she would know!”), or pronounced physical reactions to something that has happened, and you might not even know what (a loud groan, the student who walks out in tears). In each example, you didn’t see it coming.
I suppose the good news is that you can prepare for “hot moments” as well as for the class where you know that the content will be contentious. Here are a few responses to consider, keeping in mind that sometimes the best response to a challenge, particularly when directed at you, is to ignore it in class and take it up in a different venue. I’ve gathered the suggestions below from a few sources (which you’ll find at the end of the article), as well as my own experiences.
- Allow speakers to clarify their comments: Sometimes we launch full speed into a discussion of something that actually wasn’t intended in the way it emerged from a student’s mouth. Asking for clarification can prevent this unnecessary detour as well as allowing the speaker more space to more fully consider what he or she just said.
- Did I understand you correctly? Did you really intend to say that? Let me summarize what you said: Is that right? Can you expand on that statement so we can understand it more fully?
- If the comment was, indeed, intended and the student chose not to amend it, you can discuss the impact of specific language choices or words used. If you choose, you can explain why a particular approach or choice of language used raises the stakes of the conversation, especially if you think that some students don’t understand or respect the likely emotional responses of other students.
- Let’s remember that we may be talking about classmates when we say… I can imagine that your use of that metaphor could easily feel like an insult to… There are good reasons why some people will find it hard to take your comments seriously after you use such language. I worry about the impact of those words on students who have experienced…
- Where a conversation is running aground on the basis of differing conclusions that the students are coming to, try to help them find evidence for their positions or look for remaining questions to be answered. You can write on the board: “what is known” (evidence from the readings, lectures, etc.), “what is disputed” (is there contradictory evidence?), and “what they want to know more about” (remaining questions).
- Remind students of your class guidelines. This can be useful in a number of contexts, both in terms of inappropriate verbal acts as well as disruptive non-speech acts (pronounced groans, eye-rolling, angry looks, etc.).
- Remember when you insisted that we include a statement on our class guidelines that said we should try not to personalize viewpoints?
- Remember the class guidelines that require that we treat each other with respect even if we dislike their ideas? If you don’t like what you heard, present an argument that can be discussed.
- Depersonalize the issue: Try to separate the comment from the person who said it, and introduce the topic into a broader discussion:
- A lot of people think that. Why do you think they do? Are there other ways of looking at this? Is someone willing to share a different view?
- Engage the entire class: As with the previous example, this move allows you to broaden the discussion, taking it away from a single, adversarial student and allowing you, if possible, to tie the comment to something you have been examining in class:
- Do others have concerns they want to share? How does this relate to what we were discussing/reading last week?
- Help students to think of themselves as teachers as well as students. I’ll repeat what I wrote in an earlier article: Quite often I have found that students who feel that they have attained a certain expertise in particular topics (often those related to contentious subjects such as identity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) will “call out” (“correct” or challenge) peers who may lack the vocabulary or conceptual background in the field, or who perhaps just disagree with them. The discussion or disagreement can be useful; the tone not so much. I have found it useful to reminded students that we are all both learners and teachers, and that a good teacher is one who helps others understand, or provide a way into, complex topics. And this is best done with patience, empathy, and some recognition that one doesn’t always have the “correct” answer. When a student takes exception to the way someone has phrased a comment, ask that person to try to present a critique or correction in a way that all can learn from it or can be invited into a discussion rather than feeling shut out, intimidated, or silenced.
- Reflect through writing: If an incident was significantly disruptive, or if the topic is producing nothing but silence, have the students reflect and write for 5 minutes. They can write about what they are feeling and thinking about the incident that just occurred in class, why the topic and your invitation to discuss it has produced silence, and why they don’t feel that they can talk about it out loud. You can ask a few students to share their comments or, if that seems too fraught, collect them and use them as a way to prepare a future class.
- If someone rushes out of your class in distress, send a friend to be with them.
- Help students move ahead. Sometimes our impulse is to avoid these difficult moments or to get them over with as quickly as possible. We can help move on from the eruption by suggesting ways to transition away from the “hot moment” without at the same time ignoring or burying it:
- One of the things that this discussion demonstrated was the problem of generalizing from a particular experience.
Let’s keep these points in mind as we get back to the topic we were discussing…
It’s hard enough to manage a difficult discussion, let alone one that challenges your authority in the classroom. To be clear, these are challenges which go beyond a disagreement with something you have said – which we often welcome – and largely involve your identity. What you have said, the readings you have assigned, the topics you have brought up, and even your “right” to be teaching a particular course, are contested because of who you are. A few students can be quite adept at saying things in ways that can trigger our emotional reactions and push all our buttons: Why are you even teaching this course? I refuse to read this book – it’s clearly racist and homophobic! I just looked it up and, actually, the correct date is…
It’s a lot easier to suggest that your best response in these situations is to recognize that your buttons have just been pushed and to stay calm and maintain your perspective than it is to actually do so. But, if you are able, attempt to turn the criticism into a broader discussion, while trying to prevent a one-on-one dispute with a student:
- So, the way you said that suggests that there is strong link between one’s identity and knowledge. That provokes a strong response in me, because it challenges my qualifications to understand and teach a subject because of who I am. OK, let’s look at that. To what extent does one’s social location limit or inform the questions she asks? Does identity constrain knowledge and, if so, how? Do identity and social formation give insights that others who don’t share that identity can’t obtain? What additions would you recommend to the syllabus?
Easier said than done, and there are times that the emotions that have been triggered in you are such that you need to let the moment pass, either to return to later, or to discuss outside of class (see below). If you need some time to collect your thoughts, give the students a brief writing exercise, perhaps suggesting that they reflect on whether the discussion reflected class guidelines, or discussing the difference between comments intended to trigger and arguments that can lead to debate.
Taking it Outside
There are times when you find yourself at an impasse in class, either with a particular student, or in terms of the larger discussion. At that moment the best approach is to move on and think of what can be done outside of class.
- Invite the student who challenged you to come to office hours where you can discuss the issues that were raised in class in a less freighted atmosphere. You can show that you care about the student’s learning, and want to follow up on comments that were raised in class that were important but couldn’t be dealt with at the moment.
- Follow up with the distressed student who left class, encouraging him or her to come visit you and to bring a friend if that would help.
- Follow up with the class as a whole via email, either reflecting on the discussion now that you have had time to absorb it more fully, or discussing questions that were raised that you would like them to think about before the next class.
Finally, if you have been caught up in these “hot moments,” in any form that they take, you will know how truly debilitating they can be. It is vital that you connect with your own support network at these moments: talk it through with colleagues, friends, or partners. You are not the only one to go through this, so don’t keep it to yourself. If you feel that something that was said in class rose to the level of a threat or negatively impacted your ability to teach the class, talk to your department/program chair or the dean or provost.
I’d like to say that accumulated experience with “hot moments” in the class lessens their emotional impact on you, but It doesn’t. Still, experience does give you a broader repertoire of responses that you can draw upon and makes you aware that the class will go on, and that, because of your skills, students will continue to learn.
City University of New York, Handbook for Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom,
Kay Landis, ed. Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University), 2008.
University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, “Making the Most of ‘Hot Moments’ in the Classroom,” and “Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.”
Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching, “Difficult Dialogues.”
*NOTE: This article was first published on March 5, 2018 on CTIE’s website. It has been slightly updated here.