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Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the classroom

New Faculty Orientation (NFO) Session 

October 27, 3:30-4:30 pm

Tips and Strategies: 

From Holly Cate:  This idea isn’t a new one by any means – it was part of Brooke Vick’s terrific Inclusive Pedagogy workshop.  I feel like one of the tools that is an essential part of my acting classes (because all conversations about someone’s art have the potential to be painful) is some version of what Brooke calls the Community Engagement Agreement (CEA).  Inspired by Brooke, this semester my TA and I started the CEA, and then had the students add on to and edit the Agreement via google docs, which was a really interesting conversation to watch happening between the students.  I also try to “violate” the CEA once it’s been established, just to see if the students will also hold me to account.  I tell the students I’m going to do it, and challenge them to be brave and call me out if I stray from our agreed upon values in the hopes that we can move toward ALL of us reminding each other throughout the semester about how we agreed we would talk to each other.

From Leticia Robles-Moreno: I try to model ways to engage in dialogue when discussing difficult topics. One thing that always helps me is to remind the students that sometimes there is no “right” or “wrong” answer and therefore there will not be a “winner” or a “loser” of a discussion or a debate. I highlight that this way of thinking is rooted on capitalistic education and not on listening for understanding. However, I also model ways to speak from specific experiences of privilege or marginalization. If the discussion targets the live experience or the worth of marginalized communities, there is no debate. And another thing that helps me is to model contextualization: sometimes a conversation loses perspective when out of context. Trying to see the bigger picture and the structural problems that surround facts can become a learning opportunity. 

From Chris Borick:  I regularly teach classes on elections and public policy that examine issues that are often quite controversial and contested on normative levels.  Thus, as I begin these courses, I try to develop a framework for students on how our class community will be examining these matters.  I acknowledge the importance and reality of their values and policy preferences, and encourage them to find ways to act on those values (e.g. political and community engagement).  But then I build a case that in our shared space we are going to focus on the examination of political phenomena in ways that seek to understand the determinants and impacts of those phenomena. I let them know that it will be hard at times to check our deeply held beliefs and preferences as we engage in this work, but in this particular space we have to work hard to do just that.  

From Lanethea Mathews-Schultz: I do not consider myself skilled when it comes to handling difficult conversations, but I do have experience talking about politics and talking about politics has in some ways become more difficult over the past 10 years. I work hard to convince students that “politics” is not a dirty word and that we are obligated, as engaged citizens, to talk about politics and that talking about politics, even if difficult, is good for democracy. One way that I try to facilitate meaningful deliberation of different political and ideological views is to insist that before presenting one’s own view, the conversation begins by summarizing as judiciously as possible the views of those with whom we disagree.  I try to remind everyone involved (myself, as well as students) that college is a period of growth–we need to create space for each other to change our thinking–this is unlikely to happen if folks are worried about being attacked or judged if they utter an unpopular opinion.  Identity is related to politics, for sure, but I insist in my classroom that we discuss and respond to one other’s ideas (even if these are informed by identity) and to avoid at all times ad hominem attacks.


  1. Inside Higher Ed Article:  Avoiding Postelection Student Unrest
    1. Article presents very specific ideas for a pre-election event.

The University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching:  Preparing to Teach About the 2020 Election (and After)

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