Facilitating Whole-Class Discussions on Difficult Topics

I am saddened and frightened by the level of rancor in discussions about gender equity, race, and politics in American society today. What can I do as an educator to make things better?

My job in the classroom is not just to teach mathematics. I see my job as also helping students become responsible members of society. I want them to develop critical thinking, perspective-taking, and respectful discourse skills. I believe that whole-class discussions can be great environments for helping our students develop these skills. But, how can we do so with rigor and civility without censoring dissenting voices? This question is all the more relevant today because of debates about “safe spaces” at colleges and universities.

But before we get to the question of how, let’s first think about why should faculty facilitate whole-class discussions on topics such as racial inequity, gender inequity (and all other forms of inequity), police violence, etc.

(1) Even if these topics don’t directly relate to course material in our courses, our students (especially those who are experience these issues first hand) are hungry for these kinds of conversations to happen in class. By remaining silent, we can convey that we don’t care. There comes a time when silence is betrayal. We cannot avoid difficult conversations with our students only because we feel uncomfortable doing so.

(2) If these topics can connect to our course content, what better way to add relevance and motivation?

(3) And as mentioned above, it is part of my job to help students learn how to engage in respectful discourse with people who disagree with them.

Sumi Pendakur is an awesome friend who has helped me grow in so many ways. One thing that I learned from her (which she got from her brother Vijay Pendakur) is how to set up the right conditions for whole-class discussions on difficult topics. I also learned a lot from reading From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens.

When we taught our “Social Justice and Equity: STEM and Beyond” course last semester, Sumi started out the course by going over these five ground rules for discussions:

(1) Agree to make this room a “brave space.”
Like it or not, the term “safe space” has taken on a negative connotation–it is associated with spaces in which dominant (usually liberal) viewpoints are the only ones that can be safely discussed while dissenting views are censored. What we need to create are not intellectually sterile environments that are devoid of dissent and where students won’t run into viewpoints other than their own. We need spaces in which people are brave enough to talk about difficult subjects while being mindful of others, listening actively, thinking critically, taking on the perspectives of others, consciously questioning of one’s own beliefs and assumptions, and not automatically blaming and assigning negative intentions to others.

(2) Make “I statements” not “you statements.”
Avoid blanket statements about groups of people. Using “I statements” instead of “you statements” can help others not feel blamed, but keep in mind that “I statements” can still cause people to feel defensive. It has to do with the tone of voice and nuance in which things are said.

(3) Know when to step forward or step backward.
If you sense yourself talking too much, pull back. If you haven’t been brave enough to speak, try taking a risk.

(4) What’s said here stays here, what’s learned here leaves here. (“Modified Las Vegas rule”)
We will keep who said what in confidence when we leave this room. But, what we learn we will share with others.

(5) Say “Oops” and “Ouch.”
Acknowledge when you’ve been hurt by something someone says. Take responsibility if you’ve said something that hurt someone. Recognize the difference between intent and impact.

After explaining these norms, Sumi then allowed for other suggestions from participants. I like this strategy better than taking suggestions from the beginning because it is more efficient, avoids awkward floundering, and sets the stage that the instructor is not going to let the conversation go out of control.

It is good to be aware some other common norms that participants might bring up and reasons why you might want to be cautious about using them:

“agree to disagree” – It’s important to be civil, but I don’t like how this norm can encourage people to retreat the moment there is disagreement.

“don’t take things personally” – This norm sometimes has the effect of shifting the emotional responsibility of what is said to the person who is affected instead of the person who said it.

“be respectful/be civil” – This is clearly an important norm, but it might be worthwhile to also spend time to tease out what it looks like. Be aware that for some, “being respectful” means silencing yourself so as to preserve the dominant view. You will need to draw out what it looks/sounds like to disagree with someone while “being respectful”. You could even provide students with some sentence frames for this.

“no attacks” – Make sure to draw a distinction between personal attacks and challenges to an individual’s idea or belief or statement that makes that person feel uncomfortable. “You’re a jerk” and “Your ideas is worthless” vs “What you said made me feel angry” or “I find that idea to be heterosexist”.

If you like these norms, here is a PowerPoint file (based on the original by Vijay) that you might find useful.

If you facilitate discussions like these, I would be interested to know what strategies you use to create a healthy space for conversation. Also, what are some common issues that you run into and how do you deal with them?


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