Difficult discussions are an inescapable part of higher education. While certain topics lend themselves to more divisive conversations, difficult discussions can even crop up in courses whose focus is theoretically far removed from topics of public controversy. The diversity of our students, their experiences, and our collective interests create conditions where conflict and volatile conversations are always possible. Often it’s the role of faculty to lead students in exploring “hot button” items that can arouse intense opinions and feelings.

Georgetown Professor Marcia Chatelain on finding a balance during difficult classroom discussions. : : Transcript

With that in mind, it’s important to consider techniques for designing a classroom where this engagement can take place constructively. Below you’ll find some tips and a list of helpful resources for faculty who actively seek to engage students on current hot topics, as well as those simply looking to be more prepared when these topics arise.

Having Difficult Conversations

A difficult conversation around a disagreement can be a crucially productive moment in a semester—and sweeping such moments aside when they flare up can lead to problems, including students feeling unheard, alienated, and hurt—but you do have to work to make sure these moments are productive.

Handling difficult conversations comes in two phases. The first is the laying of a foundation for productive discussions. Early on in the semester it’s helpful to acknowledge that these kinds of moments may crop up, and to give students guidance in advance on how to handle them. For example, either on your own or with the participation of students, you could come up with ground rules for class conversations, rules that might include things like:

  • People in the discussion should avoid name-calling and blanket judgments about one another.
  • More generally, focus comments on arguments, not on the people making the arguments.
  • People should feel free to step out of the classroom if things become too hot.
  • Connect the conversation to course material.

You might need to prepare yourself as well. What are your hot buttons? What’s likely to make you uneasy or upset? What will you do when your buttons get pushed?

Once you’ve done the groundwork of preparation, the second phase of handling difficult discussions is dealing with the discussions as they happen—and they may flare up quite unexpectedly. A few strategies to consider:

  • Remind students of the ground rules you’ve set up. (This is one of the reasons you lay them out in advance—so that you can invoke them when necessary.)
  • Be sure to manage your own response to flare-ups. If you need a moment to compose yourself, take one. For example, try turning to walk to the blackboard and taking the time to write something on the board.
  • If the topic is too big and hot, too hard to manage in the moment, you can always suggest postponing until the next session, giving everyone time to gather themselves. You can even suggest relevant homework (e.g., “Each person should come in with one scholarly source on the subject”). Just remember to come back to the topic: as mentioned above, avoiding these difficult moments altogether can have consequences.
  • There may be an opportunity to facilitate reflection in the classroom after a difficult conversation.


Navigating Challenging Conversations

CNDLS prepared this collection of practical pedagogical ideas to help you prepare for and navigate difficult conversations, whether they're part of your course plan or they arise spontaneously in the classroom. We cover everything from setting expectations to handling strong student feelings and self-care, and more.

Inclusive Pedagogy Toolkit

Our Toolkit assembles a variety of strategies and resources to help you make your classroom a place where all of your students can learn—even when conversations become heated.

Additionally, as a university community, we’re interested in drawing on the collective experience and skills of those who have been involved with students in heated or controversial discussions. If you have additional resources, experiences, techniques, or anecdotes that we could share here, please consider submitting them.

Difficult Dialogues USA

This is an initiative with years of experience fostering “difficult dialogues” on campuses across the country. Their website provides strategies, resources, and information about projects that address a wide array of issues and topics, including: fundamentalism and secularism, racial and ethnic relations, the Middle East conflict, religion and the university, sexual orientation, academic freedom, civility in everyday life, and race. The website also contains their well-known book Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education.

Guidelines for Discussing Incidents of Hate, Bias, and Discrimination

The University of Michigan has put together a page that focuses on helpful techniques, divided into the categories of spontaneous discussion, planned discussion, emotional responses, and issues involving instructor identity.

The University of Calgary’s Resources for Teaching Controversial Issues

This site offers a list of hyperlinked tips and articles, including research on the benefits of debating difficult topics, insights on overcoming obstacles to critical thinking, and leveraging active learning techniques to facilitate deeper engagement.

Academic Freedom and the Challenge of Diversity

The AAC&U is the leading national association of undergraduate institutions of higher education focused on liberal education. Their statement attempts to identify what academic freedom is, articulate its value, and delineate what it means to responsibly engage diversity in our institutions of higher education, all in the service of facilitating the kind of learning that will allow students to positively contribute to society.

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