Faculty sometimes find themselves in the position of responding, in our classrooms, to critical local, national, and international events. If we don’t seize those opportunities, students may assume that we don’t care. Even if you’re not sure what to say, simply acknowledging painful events and leaving time to reflect on them can help students understand that they are supported by our community. Although your approach may differ depending on your personality, discipline, class size, experience, or other factors, the resources that follow can help you address national events in your courses.
Strategies for Teaching in Difficult Times
Supporting Our Students’ Well-Being
When the world around the student is tumultuous, it’s quite possible that the world inside the student will be tumultuous as well. Particularly in difficult times, it’s important to keep an eye on how students are doing, and to be ready to share campus safety net resources, such as Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS), Health Education Services (HES), the Center for Multicultural Equity & Access (CMEA), the LGBTQ Resource Center, and Campus Ministry. You might also consider bringing well-being more explicitly into the classroom as a topic worthy of discussion, and perhaps relevant to the course material at hand. Could well-being be one of your goals for student development? For more on all this, see our Teaching Commons page on Teaching Well-Being.
Difficult Conversations in the Classroom
Difficult discussions may be daunting, but they can also be crucially productive moments 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. At the very beginning of the semester it’s helpful to acknowledge that these kinds of moments may crop up—you could even name particular topics that are likely to emerge or that are probably on people’s minds—and to give students guidance in advance on how to handle them, including possible ground rules for discussion (e.g., focus on ideas, not people; connect comments to course material; etc.). 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 preparation, the second phase of handling difficult discussions is dealing with the discussions as they happen—whether you plan them or whether they flare up unexpectedly (e.g., reminding students of ground rules, using the blackboard to distance ideas from individual speakers). For more specific strategies—ideas for ground rules, ways to structure and manage these conversations, etc.—see our Teaching Commons pages on Inclusive Pedagogy and Difficult Discussions.
This page was originally put together in the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. Below you'll find some resources specific to that difficult moment:
- Padron, Zoe. I’m a teacher in Charlottesville. This is how I’ll talk to students about what happened. The Washington Post. (Though this is geared toward teachers of younger students, it still has a great deal to offer teachers of any age group.)
- University of Virginia Center for Teaching Excellence. Responding to Critical Incidents.
- Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Teaching After Charlottesville.
- Syllabi and Curricula (a collection of readings and resources on issues and history relevant to the events in Charlottesville)
- JSTOR Daily. Charlottesville Syllabus: Readings on the History of Hate in America.
- University of Georgia. Race in America: A UGa Press Reading List.
- UVa Graduate Coalition. The Charlottesville Syllabus. (Readings specifically on the history of race and hate in Charlottesville itself, as well as on the recent Charlottesville events.)
- Various, Twitter. (Ongoing) Tweets Tagged “#CharlottesvilleCurriculum.” (Lots of curricular suggestions for teaching about events in Charlottesville.)
Inclusive Pedagogy Resources
- CNDLS, Georgetown University. Setting the Stage for Inclusive Classrooms and Difficult Discussions.
- CNDLS, Georgetown University. Difficult Discussions.
- CNDLS, Georgetown University. Teaching Well-Being.
- Chatelain, Marcia. How Universities Embolden White Nationalists. Chronicle of Higher Education. (Written by Georgetown History Professor Marcia Chatelain, this is both a critique of current academic practices and a set of suggestions for making the classroom and the university into more just, inclusive, and intellectually productive places.)
- Georgetown University. Diversity Resources on Campus.
- University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. Responding to Difficult Moments.
Workshops, Programs, and Support
Visit CNDLS’ Inclusive Pedagogy Workshop Series page for upcoming workshops. CNDLS also offers tailored workshops and facilitated discussions to departments, programs and faculty groups on a variety of teaching topics, including:
- Teaching in Difficult Times
- Facilitating Difficult Discussions
- Implicit Bias and Self-Awareness
- Meeting the Goals of the Diversity Requirement
- Syllabus Design for Inclusivity
- Content Warnings and Student Needs
Doyle Diversity Grants of up to $500 are available to faculty on a first come first serve basis to assist faculty in helping students engage with diversity or gain a greater recognition of their own positionality vis-a-vis issues of plurality and social justice. Further details and how to apply can be found at: https://cndls.georgetown.edu/grants/curriculum-enrichment-doyle/
We would be happy to talk with you about further strategies within the context of your particular teaching setting. Call us at 202-687-0625 or request a confidential consultation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
CNDLS is committed to the values of diversity, inclusion, well-being, and social justice throughout our community, inside the classroom and out.