Teaching and Justice, Teaching with Technology, Tips on Teaching

Navigating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

by Eric Royer, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

My disciplinary research and teaching area of expertise is in human rights and post-conflict transitions. Students in my classes are often exposed to genocides and mass killings, humanitarian crises, and child trafficking rings linked to conflict minerals. These topics, as well as the case studies, class discussion, and student projects that flow from them, are, without a doubt, stress- and anxiety-inducing. The shock factor of the raw material is problematic, but so, too, are the implications of the power disparities involved and our individual contributions to them (do you really need that new iPhone?). Unfortunately, atrocities are interwoven into my course structure and serve as the basis for interpreting and applying theory to real-world topics — sometimes because of their disturbing nature.

Teaching these courses is always challenging, but even more so when thinking about our shared pandemic experience. Collectively, we’re all under a tremendous amount of stress induced by pandemic life and societal unrest. We’re separated from usual routines, each other, and our broader communities. Academically, students feel the extra stress associated with staying motivated, juggling multiple Zoom and in-person classes, and potentially tending to sick relatives or being quarantined. Instructors are feeling these same pressures plus the additional challenge of learning new teaching approaches and tools — often on the fly and with mixed results.

What’s important to remember is that managing difficult conversations is hard in any classroom setting. These conversations require extra attention, energy, and structure to create a learning space where all students feel valued, represented, and protected. The problem is that many of these factors are missing or muddied in today’s pandemic classroom, so here are some tips to approach difficult conversations, regardless of the format you find yourself teaching in:  

1. Create a personalized (n)etiquette policy setting expectations and sanctions for unwanted student behavior. Structurally, we need to start by codifying the types of behavior and contributions we want students to exhibit and abide by. One strategy I was introduced to early on in my online teaching career was the netiquette policy, which establishes guidelines for proper language, tone, and format (usually for discussion boards) with some mentioning of potential sanctions for breaches of conduct (e.g., deleting offending discussion posts). What’s practical and intuitive about this policy is that you can think about this policy for any classroom format and continuously highlight it — or its parameters — in discussion prompts, blog instructions, before in-class group activities, or prior to students going into Zoom breakout rooms. Setting and affirming expectations for welcoming language, objective analysis, and a respect for diverse views helps create an inclusive learning environment; plus, you can cut-and-paste and modify this (n)etiquette policy as you go along.

2. Explain and connect importance. How we approach and frame controversial, difficult, or uncomfortable classroom discussions is just as important as setting the parameters. It’s important to intentionally think about where and why to include these discussions, how to build-up to them, and what’s necessary to prepare and link them to desired learning outcomes. Simply covering difficult content for shock value or sending students off into ad hoc, informal breakout rooms to discuss contentious topics creates situations of conflict and possibly trauma. You need to work students up to these discussions by building and maintaining community in your course (e.g., using repeated icebreakers) and giving them opportunities for personal reflection (e.g., weekly journal or blog posts) and feedback. Jim Lang’s idea of “connecting” course content is helpful here, too, and can be accomplished by chunking material or getting students working on different pieces — or with each other — slowly. Case studies, problem-based learning activities, and group jigsaws are just a few connection-based learning activities that can be employed in the classroom, regardless of the format. 

3. Provide different spaces, formats, and ways for voices to be heard. Pandemic teaching, despite its challenges, has created more opportunities to hear our students’ voices in ways we may not have been able to before. Many of us have developed the confidence and technological know-how to get students collaborating and tackling difficult topics in threaded discussion boards, group-specific pages on Blackboard, in Zoom breakout rooms, or through blogs and Wikis. Vary how you do this with, of course, the necessary parameters in place. You can also consider blending different formats — for example, synchronous Zoom meetings with asynchronous discussion boards — as a means of creating equitable learning spaces and providing multiple ways for students to participate and express their learning. In Zoom meetings, students can participate through polls, the chat, sharing their camera, or using the reaction buttons, while, asynchronously, they can contribute text or share multimedia content. 

To schedule a consultation to talk further about your teaching needs, please contact the Reinert Center at cttl@slu.edu. Please also consider sharing advice, examples, or your perspective on navigating difficult conversations in the classroom in the comment section below. We’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives!