I attended an event organized by the Teaching and Learning Center at John Jay College entitled “Faculty Teach In: Engaging Diverse Viewpoints in the Classroom”. The discussion provided guidance to faculty on how to create a positive learning environment when faced with challenging topics, with emphasis on discussions surrounding political viewpoints in light of the recent presidential election.
First, information was provided on how to approach these situations, such as taking into account the context, setting ground rules/group agreements, facilitating roles and skills of students, and providing helpful resources. A professor should consider the context of the discussion, meaning that the structure and content should be appropriate for the course at hand. The workshop facilitators provided examples of setting ground rules for potentially heated discussions (e.g., respectful behavior, confidentiality, taking turns to speak), which should be established using a group discussion early on in the course and revisited/revised throughout the semester. The professor should aim to have the discussions linked with the learning objectives of the course, which can foster student’s growth in various skills (e.g., critical thinking; respectful debate). Following a discussion, it can be helpful to provide students with various resources in order to give student’s support outside of the classroom.
Second, the session involved discussion of faculty member’s experiences in their classrooms following the presidential election. Through sharing of experiences in various courses, the faculty members were able to reflect on strengths and weaknesses of different ways of handling emotionally charged topics.
Lastly, the session ended with an open group discussion surrounding concerns faculty have in approaching these topics. Many members emphasized the professor’s role in informing students about the research and factual information behind these topics. Furthermore, discussion was facilitated around possible goals of these conversations, such as improving critical thinking skills, validating student’s experiences, creating an open and supportive learning environment, critiquing beliefs and where they stem from, and more. Several members discussed ways in which faculty can create new assignments through situations like these. For example, one professor described having students critically analyze news stories in order to learn how to better evaluate information provided by the media.
In sum, the workshop provided an introduction to engaging diverse viewpoints within a classroom setting, which included both a practical, informative piece as well as an open discussion around the topic. Resources related to facilitating difficult conversations in the classroom are outlined below.
Classroom Strategies (Teaching Tolerance)
Handbook for Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom (Queens College/CUNY)
Responding to Difficult Moments (University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching)
Teachers Need Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Conversation (Concordia University)
Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Conversation in the Classroom
Teaching the Disaster (Savage Minds)