I want students to treat one another equitably and learn how to manage the discomfort that arises.

Examples of the challenges:

  •  We were discussing an article about the effect of hormones on various behaviors of men and women. The discussion started smoothly but one female student found the discussion degrading and described the research as misguided.  A male student responded that the discussion had proceeded smoothly when men’s behavior was analyzed.  There was a chilling effect on the class discussions, and I felt like I had failed to prepare the class.
  • My example (from the sciences) is about a particular dynamic that happens almost every semester. There is often an uneven number of students, so one person is always the odd one out [for lab work].  The weak white students never end up the odd person out, but the weak students of color do.  It happens almost every year.
  • One student accused another student of talking too much, said it was because of [that student’s culture or personal trait].
  • I teach about very controversial topics. I try to be provocative but not in a way that is baiting or disrespectful.  To make a statement in class, a student did a very provocative thing during their presentation in class, shocking other students. I did not do anything and I still feel like there was something I should have done.

Things to Keep in Mind:

  • If you don’t know how to handle a conversation but you don’t respond, students assume you are ok with what is being said.  A transparent, imperfect response is better than none at all.
  • In my conversations with students about classroom climate, I have heard students complain not about the freezing but about what professors say or do that is not appropriate or that excludes certain students. The problem might not be them – it might be us.
  • We may ourselves be uncomfortable with the way a discussion unfolds, and we need to learn to accept some of that discomfort. We can remind ourselves and our students that “this is a good place to have these conversations.”  Being willing to give up some control, accepting that there is going to be some instability – it is hard.  Even more demanding, we might need to confront the possibility that we are contributing to the problem.

Strategies from Middlebury Faculty:

  • The person in the position of power might mark the important topic but defer the discussion and choose their words carefully rather than try to “resolve” an issue.
  • In a large class that is heavy on content (a science or statistics class), I randomize seating and group assignments to avoid self-segregation and isolation of particular students.  Otherwise, students tend to sit with their friends, and do not get used to working on problems with many different peers.
  • When students shut down, you can pose a question to the class and give students 5 minutes to write a reply.  After the time is up, call on students to read their reply or invite them to discuss their answers in pairs or small groups.
  • If just a few students are dominating the discussion, ask students to reflect on the types of questions they ask – is the question just for you (to show off your knowledge) or for everyone (to help us all understand and engage with this reading)?