Sensitive Topics in the College Classroom

[NB: This post was written before guns in classrooms was a growing concern. These days, it seems like every week I read about a different state considering or passing legislation that allows concealed weapons in classrooms. The possibility of a concealed weapon in a classroom makes talking about sensitive topics harder – and scarier. I have not reflected on whether the ideas outlined below are appropriate in a classroom with guns – and, honestly, right now I’m too anxious to think about this new dynamic. Others have written about this topic, with varying opinions, see: Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, The Chronicle (again), among others. If you know of something I – or others – should read, please link to it in the comments.]

In my short time teaching (about seven years), I know that sensitive topics come up, intentionally and unintentionally, in college classrooms. And the stakes for handling sensitive topics well are high. Some syllabi now have trigger warnings – even going so far to “warn” about the regularly assigned reading material for a course. People can be publicly shamed for hastily written emails to students. A supervisor can chastise you for how you handle a discussion on a sensitive topic. Trying to moderate a classroom discussion can lead to an inflammatory blog post. And that blog post can lead to an inbox of hate mail.

I don’t think I should ignore sensitive issues. But cultivating an atmosphere in which discussions about sensitive topics can be productive is hard. I have collected some ideas about creating a classroom environment in which these types of discussions can happen. In preparing for this post, I came across a webpage hosted by Harvard about what do to during “hot moments.” I especially like that the writers note that hot moments can occur in a math class, not just in a humanities or social science classroom. Not all these ideas will work in every classroom. And some students might still feel defensive during such discussions. But I hope these ideas help.

1. This isn’t personal.

Your students don’t always know which groups you – or their classmates – are members of. When a student says something derisive about a group, they are (usually) not talking about you personally. Eventually, we hope they all see that by talking about a group you are a member of, they are, in fact, talking about you. But, they might not see it that way at first.

2. Know your own biases and ideologies.

Having biases and ideologies is a part of being human. Know what your own biases and ideologies are. Be open about the fact that you also struggle with these issues. And be open about your own growth in these areas. This way, you can be a roadmap of what growth looks like for your students.

3. Talk about confirmation bias and ideologies.

Introduce students to the concept of confirmation bias. Nickerson (1998) is a great overview of research on confirmation bias. Sometimes, I assign (at least part) of this article as required reading. Other times, I just lecture on some of the findings. One time, I had a really relaxed class, and I played my students an NPR story called Is There Really Such A Thing As A ‘Trophy Wife’? because it presents confirmation bias well (although not every class will be open to talking about confirmation bias by using trophy wives).

Talking about the studies that illustrate confirmation is a good time to also talk about how correlation and causation are different. Here are some spurious correlations to help with this discussion.

In my sociolinguistics classes, we also talk about ideologies in the form of ideas about language that seem so “common sense” that they must be facts – but aren’t. Like, if you’re bad at grammar, you’re dumb. Or it’s normal to be monolingual. Or, adults have to talk to their babies for them to learn the target language.

4. Have students create a code of conduct.

On the first day (or week) of class, tell your students that you want a space where people are respectful and open to challenging their – and your – biases and ideologies. And let the students lead the effort in creating a code of conduct. When discussions become disrespectful, anyone in the class can remind the rest of the group about the code of conduct that everyone agreed to at the start of the semester. This allows students to take an active role in being considerate and monitoring for what types of comments or behavior are inconsiderate. (This idea is from my friend Shelley, who teaches history.)

5. Ask students to reflect.

Challenging our own biases and ideologies is difficult. And sometimes we cannot end a discussion in a smooth way by the time our class ends. Asking students to formally reflect outside of the classroom can help students grow. Some writing assignment ideas for reflection are:

  1. Ask students what they have learned from knowing that there are two views to this issue
  2. Ask students what they can learn from having a conversation about this issue.
  3. Ask students to reflect where their own ideologies or biases come from and why someone else’s might be different
  4. Ask students to find evidence that is not anecdotal that tell them about the facts surround a situation and ask them how these facts affect their views on the issue.

Good luck. To you and me.

Update: Here’s another online resource/article about confirmation bias.


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