March 14, 2017
Class discussions can sometimes turn into arguments when students disagree with one another, or have differing viewpoints on certain subjects.
On Feb. 15, a forum with a panel of four faculty members and a facilitator was held for faculty to discuss how to address controversial topics in the classroom.
As politics and other topics are talked about or introduced in a class, instructors and professors outline student codes of conducts in their syllabi at the beginning of each semester in hopes to set the tone for the classroom environment.
Anna Kosloski, assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs, said it is important to address difficult topics in class.
“If we’re ever going to find any middle ground, we have to be able to first figure out how to navigate these terrains, how to be able to have civil discourse, to talk about these things that may be emotionally, morally or politically charged in some way, but I think it’s good practice for when you leave the environment of the classroom…” she said.
Dena Samuels, assistant professor in the Women’s and Ethnic Studies Program and director of the Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion, said being comfortable in the classroom is overrated.
Samuels added that she discusses topics like race, gender and sexuality in class.
“If you’re not pushing yourself and you’re totally comfortable in classes where there’s a controversial issue, I feel like you’re missing an opportunity to learn and grow,” Samuels said.
“As educators, we have a responsibility to make sure our students are discussing things that maybe could be seen as controversial, because that’s what college is about,” Kosloski said.
Samuels said that it’s important to make sure everyone feels included in discussions.
“There’s the potential for students to resist (controversial topics), basically, to demonstrate some resistance in some way, or be challenged or feel like their ideas are being excluded, or that there’s a right and a wrong.”
Strategies for handling controversial topics include holding debates and setting clear community expectations for the semester.
“It’s not about changing opinions, but it’s trying to make sure the opinions are rooted in fact as well as finding an appreciation for understanding the other side’s opinion,” said Kosloski.
Kosloski holds debates in class to address the death penalty, a highly controversial topic. She said that understanding someone else’s stance is important to solidifying your own arguments.
“People have their opinions and their beliefs, but it’s important to work through and understand why these opinions or these convictions people have about something that is so controversial—where do they come from?” she said.
Samuels said she avoids debating in classes when it is not productive. When this is the case, it is clearly stated in her syllabus.
“I’m interested in students learning a perspective they’ve never heard of before, and I’m not going to sit there and debate whether or not, for example, racism exists. That’s a waste of other students’ time,” she said.
Kosloski uses reflections in her classes to encourage participation from all students, including those who may not have verbally expressed their opinions in the classroom.
Some professors also use contracts to set the tone of the class and encourage respect, she said.
Professors Jeff Scholes, assistant professor in the philosophy department, and associate university council Jennifer George also participated in the panel, facilitated by Terry Schwartz, interim vice chancellor for Academic Affairs