June 24, 2009
Top 10 Tips for Addressing Sensitive Topics and Maintaining Civility in the Classroom
1. Create a classroom environment that from the first day sets ground rules for discussion and makes it clear that all students are included in the work of the class. Make sure you make all students feel connected to each other, the class, and the topic, and establish strong expectations about the content and manner of communication.
2. Recognize the diversity of opinions and backgrounds of your students. Learning takes place from exposure to a wide variety of views. Be open to all perspectives, and ask students to voice their points responsibly.
3. Add a statement to your syllabus. Explain any material or topic you plan to introduce that is sensitive or controversial, so that students are prepared for potential sensitivity issues. Explicitly state the classroom norms for communication and dialogue, and provide students with a specific understanding about how to frame their opinions.
4. Be prepared. Even if you do not think there will be a reaction to an issue you raise, plan ahead what you will do if you encounter one. Know yourself and your own emotional triggers. Don’t personalize remarks.
5. Foster civility in the classroom. Focus the discussion on the topic, not the individual student. Don’t personalize the exchanges or the comments. Foster an environment of debate and dialogue in which it is OK to disagree.
6. Protect all students equally during moments of potential conflict. Seek to draw out understanding and communication as well as opinions. Ask them to step back, listen to other opinions, and analyze why they feel the way they do.
7. Ask students to take time out for reflection. Assign a writing exercise about the issue as a calming follow up to discussion. Or assign a research paper or essay, in which students must argue for the position with which they disagree.
8. Use your office hours. You may need to discuss issues outside class, particularly if a student has been emotionally affected by pointed remarks or argued stances. Help them learn from the experience, and to voice their opinions thoughtfully and civilly by engaging them in out-of-the-class conversation.
9. Acknowledge hurtful or offensive remarks. When student comments and/or actions are potentially hurtful, immediately move the dialogue to less personal examinations of why words can hurt. Ignoring the situation will leave other students feeling unprotected and victimized, and give tacit permission for the behavior to continue. If you are unable to find a workable position, let students know that this is an important issue and that you will address it later.
10. Know both your rights and your responsibilities as a classroom instructor. If a student suffers from an emotional reaction or angry outburst because of a sensitive topic discussion, acknowledge it, and ask them if they would like to remain or leave for a while. If you feel the situation is serious, inform Counseling and Psychological Services.
- UC Berkeley’s Office of Educational Development: Sensitive Topics in the Classroom
- Intergroup Relations Center, Arizona State University, Discussion Ground Rules
- Lee Warren, “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.” Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.
Reprinted with permission from the Center for Teaching and Faculty Development at San Francisco State University (http://ctfd.sfsu.edu/).