Teaching in Difficult Times

 

Georgetown’s campus is not sealed off from the surrounding world. What that means is that our community feels—sometimes powerfully, sometimes painfully—the effects of critical local, national, and international events as much as anyone else does. Students may be deeply and constructively engaged with these events, and news coverage may unsettle and even traumatize students.

Faculty in the classroom are in a unique position to help students access the resources and support they need. Students share that they are in need of spaces to engage these issues beyond their peers and residential environments and are hungry for faculty to take up that role. If we don’t seize these opportunities, students may assume that we don’t care. They may feel a jarring disconnect between their courses and the real world, between what they’re studying and their lived experience. Showing the connections between life and learning, on the other hand, makes the learning more powerful, meaningful, and enduring. And even if we’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 the community.

Of course, faculty need support, too. Although each professor’s approach may differ depending on personality, discipline, class size, experience, or other factors, you may find some of the resources below helpful. We’ve compiled information and research on how to best broach these potentially difficult conversations and make them productive, positive learning experiences. Above all, please reach out to us if we can help in any further way.

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—Georgetown’s Student Outreach and Support has compiled a guide to recognizing and supporting students in distress—and you should 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? Resilience—the ability to weather or bounce back from stresses and challenges—could be a particular area of attention. As this paper from the University of Michigan suggests, there are many opportunities to foster resilience across the semester, well before problems arise: in lists of campus resources on the syllabus, along with a statement about struggles being normative; in-class conversations about strategies (students can generate them) for dealing with periods of academic or personal difficulty; regular mention of the core elements of self-care, from sleep to nutrition to social engagement.

For more on all this, see our Teaching Commons page on Teaching Well-Being, or explore our Engelhard Project, which supports faculty efforts to bring well-being into the classroom (learn more about becoming a Fellow). The University of California-Berkeley has also compiled a tipsheet for helping students deal with painful events in the news.

Facilitating 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 come 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.

Being Inclusive in the Classroom

The things we see in the news will probably affect different students differently. When a natural disaster strikes, some of our students might know people in the affected areas; when hateful rhetoric or violence is directed at a group of people, students who identify with that group will probably be affected more keenly; when sexual assault is in the news, it may be especially challenging for our too-many students who have themselves experienced assault; gun violence will feel more relevant to some; when our government focuses on an issue—immigration, healthcare, criminal justice, or any of a number of other possibilities—that issue could have real-world implications for particular students.

In other words, one news story may be causing very different reactions for a class of diverse students—and almost all classes are diverse in a variety of ways, some perhaps visible and some not immediately visible. How we support these students therefore also becomes an issue of inclusivity—making sure all of our students have access to learning, including when they’re suffering. This is a central area of focus for us at CNDLS. Visit our Inclusive Pedagogy Workshop Series page for upcoming workshops, have a look at our Inclusive Pedagogy pamphlet for some tips and ideas, or explore some of our other Inclusive Pedagogy resources, or diversity resources more generally on our campus.

We would be happy to talk with you about further strategies for your particular teaching situation. Call us at 202-687-0625 or request a confidential consultation by emailing cndls@georgetown.edu.

CNDLS is committed to the values of diversity, inclusion, well-being, and social justice throughout our community, inside the classroom and out.