I want to effectively lead discussions on contentious issues, modeling openness and respect.

It does not always work at first.  Some examples:

  • I was leading a discussion about race in the United States. I played an audio clip  that made clear that the very terms that we use to discuss race are problematic.  One student just did not get it, and s/he pushed back, and I was upset.  It was early in the semester and I felt I didn’t handle the situation with agility,  and worried that this would affect the dynamic for the rest of the semester.
  • I find that there are some students with whom I am simply not on the same wavelength. My attempts to communicate with them seem to increase the confusion or simply fall flat.
  • Some days, my job is to lead an open discussion where the focus is not on delivering my expertise.  Other times, I am presenting a lot of information or have just returned graded assignments where I evaluate their work (and they aren’t always happy).  I am not sure how to toggle among those roles.

Useful strategies from Middlebury faculty:

  • At the beginning of every semester, set ground rules for discussion.  You can do this in 10 minutes by simply laying them out, or you can ask students to brainstorm.  One simple way to capture these rules is “generosity, humility, civility.”  Some other commonly used guidelines:
    • step up, step back (don’t talk too little/too much)
    • no personal attacks (challenge arguments, not people)
    • listen to understand and seek to be understood (not about how many people agree/disagree)
    • assume goodwill
    • speak for yourselves, not for others
    • shared responsibility for the rules
  • Two things that have worked for me are: (1) naming the awkwardness and tension before responding. This signals that what happened matters, and it shows that that as a professor I am open to the discussion.  (2) If the class conversation is (still) not adequate, follow up later: by email, at the beginning of the next class, or face to face in office hours.
  • Sometimes you can experience something as a failure in the moment, but it is worth coming back to these experiences. It is perfectly fine to “mark” a moment as important but defer discussion of it until the next class meeting. You are more likely to have a thoughtful response if you give yourself time to consider the issue.
  • The class met after a controversial event on campus, and I know my students were divided on the question. I took ten minutes of class time to share my thoughts and let students report out, and then sent a follow up email inviting students to come talk to me in my office,  Several students told me this was very helpful.
  • It is important to build relationships with the students who are struggling and have them be candid and open…I have benefited greatly from students telling me things that I said that were wrong. For example, a student told me that when I said, “You probably learned this in high school,” the student immediately felt like they did not belong.  I share that with my colleagues, and so many professors have said, “Oh my god, I say that all the time.”
  • I hand out a small stack of notecards at the beginning of the term, and tell students they can use them to submit anonymous feedback over the semester (in class or in a folder outside my office).
  • On day one, I show my students a chart of “who is represented” in the syllabus.  I want to be transparent about the range of views I have selected for the course.  I know that range is incomplete, and we can collectively consider which perspectives are not in the room.
  • We [faculty] might actually be the problem. We might not be the solution to the problem, or the student’s go-to person, all of the time.  In that case, I try to connect that student to other professors who might be effective mentors.  I don’t want to make my students into my “mini-me’s,” I want to connect them to the material and to peers and mentors.
  • I have been thinking about authority and communication. I want to be open, but at the end of the day, I have to grade you.  Professors can emphasize that grades are not a measure of a student’s ‘worth.’ Grades are an evaluation of their performance on a discrete task at a particular time.
  • Students understand that faculty fill multiple roles. Be transparent when moving from facilitator to expert (“I’m going to step in here to offer some background that will help as we work on this important question”).