Guidelines for Talking about Difficult Topics in a Remote Course
Should we teach controversial and sensitive topics?
At some point in their careers, most instructors will teach controversial or sensitive topics, including (among others) racism, oppression, abuse, and loss of life. These subjects can affect students in unexpected ways. Those who have experienced personal traumas are particularly vulnerable, and these discussions may make painful memories suddenly resurface.
Still, these subjects are crucial to students’ awareness of the world and its social, moral, political and civic underpinnings (Moore & Deshaies, 2012 ). The way in which we, as instructors, manage those discussions can affect how useful the conversations are to our instructional goals, and what sort of impact they have on the dynamics of the class (Indiana University, n.d.). When approached with some amount of care and planning, they can be very constructive, with students coming away with invaluable lessons learned.
Guidelines for Discussing Difficult Topics
The following guidelines can help instructors facilitate remote discussions around controversial and sensitive topics. Guidelines have been divided into three sections: “Preparing for Discussions”, “During Discussions”, and “Follow-up”.
1. Preparing for Discussions
Develop Content/Trigger Warnings
Content warnings are verbal or written notices that flag potentially sensitive content so that students can prepare themselves to adequately engage or, if necessary, disengage for their own wellbeing (University of Michigan, n.d.). Trigger warnings on the other hand are a specific type of content warning that attempts to forewarn students of content that may be especially troubling to specific individuals (e.g. individuals who have experienced trauma related to violence, abuse, racism, etc.).
There are multiple ways to implement such warnings and some may be more suitable than others depending on the type of course. For example, if your course is about Indigenous modern issues, it may be redundant to mark each module, reading, and discussion with warnings. In such cases a blanket warning might be more appropriate, with additional warnings for specific modules covering different topics. Ultimately, it is up to the instructor to determine how best to implement them.
Before facilitating a discussion, it is important to consider how your own experiences relate to the topic. How have you come to know what you know or think what you think? What are your implicit biases, privileges, and blind spots? Attitudes can (and should) evolve over time as we learn and grow. Discussing moments when your own ideas shifted may help model the open-mindedness and conscientious self-reflection that you hope to inspire (Indiana University, n.d.).
Recognize the diversity of your students
On many issues, students’ viewpoints may be influenced by their personal identities and experiences (e.g. family life, religion, culture, etc.). Challenging an idea, therefore, may be viewed as a personal challenge as well. Being aware of these deeper origins of student opinions, both for you and their peers, is useful in preparing for difficult discussions (Indiana University, n.d.).
Establish discussion guidelines in advance
Work with students to establish a set of guidelines for discussions; their input is important here so the rules become part of the learning community, not just rules the instructor imposes (Indiana University, n.d.). Students also hold themselves personally accountable for adhering to these expectations because they played a part in developing them, and for the same reason, are more likely to recall expectations when they are brought up during the discussion itself (e.g. in the case whereby a student attacks his/her peer for their opinion: “Please recall the expectations we made for our discussions, that we critique ideas, not individuals.”).
Some possible guidelines include:
- Listen respectfully, without interrupting
- Allow everyone the opportunity to speak
- Critique ideas, not individuals or groups
- Avoid blame and speculation
- Avoid inflammatory language
- Ask questions
- Do not expect any individuals to speak on behalf of their gender, ethnic group, class, status, etc.
In a synchronous course, the instructor and students can develop such guidelines together in real time, using an online communication tool (i.e. Zoom). In an asynchronous course, a discussion forum may be used for cultivating ideas from the instructor and their students over a given period (e.g. “Module #1 – Task #1: Please identify the expectations that you feel we should adhere to during group discussions. Student responses will be used to create our course ‘Discussions Guidelines’”). In either case, ensure guidelines are shared on the course site prior to the first discussion. Doing so means students will know exactly what is expected of them (and of the instructor) during discussions.
Assign a pre-discussion task
Provide students an article or show a video clip related to the discussion topic to prompt thinking. Ask students to complete a reflective task in advance that helps them understand and articulate their views. Such pre-discussion activities provide students a common base for understanding the discussion topic focus.
Begin with a “warm up” discussion
Consider first introducing a less complex or emotionally-charged topic for discussion, rather than starting immediately with a controversial or sensitive one. Provide students time to reflect on how that discussion went, so that they can learn how to successfully navigate future discussions and build trust with you and their peers.
2. During Discussions
Set an objective for the discussion
Contextualize the discussion within your course and disciplinary contexts. Be clear with your students why you are having this conversation and what learning outcomes you expect. This can be done verbally, or, it can be posted online (e.g. within the directions for an online discussion forum). When working with students live in a synchronous course, be ready to reiterate these goals throughout the discussion, and ask the students to redirect the conversation in ways that return to these goals when necessary. In an asynchronous course, see that you regularly survey (and are actively contributing to) discussion threads to ensure the same (instructors should be an active participant throughout discussions in both synchronous and asynchronous courses).
Establish a safe environment
In order for students to express their opinions and participate in discussions about difficult topics, they need to feel safe and not fear retaliation for comments they may make during the discussion. To establish a safe environment, start by reviewing the course’s pre-established “discussions guidelines” with students, or in an asynchronous course, post a link to the guidelines for students to review themselves while navigating the course site. You can also bring attention to content/trigger warnings before the discussion begins.
There are steps instructors can take to support a sense of safety:
- Reach out, provide space and encourage students to connect with them or another trusted professional to talk about their safety concerns. Offer students a way to connect if there is something that they need help with or are worried about (e.g. listing links to the various institutional student services/supports somewhere visible on the course site).
- Encourage students to access supports outside of the institutional environment (e.g. friends, family members, tele-counsellors, etc.).
- Recommend or include in modules, self care activities that students can do at home or outdoors
- Maintain and communicate predictable routines
- Provide opportunities for students to complete activities that affirm their competence, sense of self-worth and feelings of safety
Be an active facilitator
As the instructor you should neither dominate the discussion nor passively observe. Your role as the teacher should include intervening in the discussion to (University of Michigan, n.d.):
- Provide reminders about respecting the right of others to have differing opinions
- Re-word questions posed by students
- Correct misinformation
- Ask for clarification
- Review the discussion focus
- Make reference to relevant reading materials or course content
Address the difficulty
Be prepared to deal with tense or emotional moments. When discussing sensitive issues or difficult topics, it is very possible that some students will get angry or upset. If there is some hesitancy in the conversation, consider asking why it is difficult to discuss. Admitting your own discomfort in addressing such issues can make students more comfortable with their own discomfort, especially if you explain or model how you can work past it (Indiana University, n.d.).
In both synchronous and asynchronous courses, instructors should provide their professional contact information for students and encourage them to connect if they require support. Instructors may also post the contact information for relevant institutional student supports somewhere visible on the course page or within the given module (e.g. First Peoples House of Learning, Counselling Services, etc.).
There is a good chance that discussions about sensitive topics may become heated. The main goal of fostering civility is to protect your students from feeling personally attacked. If the conversation gets off-topic, you may want to reach some sort of closure to the immediate discussion and explain why it has concluded. In an asynchronous course particularly, instructors can use a private channel (private chat, email, etc.) to speak directly to the students who require redirection or support.
Summarize discussion and gather student feedback
It is very important to conclude a discussion by summarizing the main points. Students are more likely to feel that a discussion was valuable if the instructor synthesizes what has been shared or identifies the key issues explored. In an asynchronous course, this may be done by creating a “summary” thread in follow-up to the end of an allotted discussion period.
To obtain student feedback about the quality of the discussion and to identify issues that may need follow-up, you can ask students to respond to questions like these in a separate forum on the course site:
- What are the three most important points you learned today?
- What important questions remain unanswered for you?
- What did you learn specifically from what someone else said that you would not have thought of on your own?
Use their responses to develop ideas about future discussions that will help build community and support differing viewpoints.
Reflecting plays a key role in two ways:
- Encourage students to reflect on the comments made by other students. Ask them to think about whether there are new ideas, opinions or opportunities for further discussions, awareness, and reflection.
- Reflect on your own experience facilitating the discussion. Consider the knowledge, skills, and strategies you employed during the discussion. What worked well and in what areas could changes or improvements be made?
Indiana University. (n.d.). Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions. Retrieved from Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning: https://citl.indiana.edu/teaching-resources/diversity-inclusion/managing...
Moore, A., & Deshaies, M. (2012 ). Ten Tips for Facilitating Classroom Discussions on Sensitive Topics. Twin Cities Public Television, Inc.
University of Michigan. (n.d.). Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics. Retrieved from Center for Research on Teaching & Learning: http://crlt.umich.edu/publinks/generalguidelines
Written by: Mitchell Huguenin
Edited by: Joel Baetz
Last Updated: 30 August 2020