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Controversy on Campus: Anticipating Your Response

TEP is often asked for advice about how faculty and graduate student teachers can respond in the classroom to significant issues happening outside it–say, to local or national events that spark controversy and heighten emotions. We hope these general principles and especially our Difficult Topics/Strong Emotions/Challenging Moments packet of resources can be helpful to you. We are always revising these ideas and welcome your feedback. And we are here to discuss what’s happening in your classroom: please email tep@uoregon.edu with questions or consultation requests.

(1) Acknowledge what’s happening.
Faculty and GEs might consider acknowledging what is happening rather than seeming detached from an issue that’s important to many students, especially if the class subject matter/the topics and examples the group tends to discuss seem related to these local events.

(2) Express availability, both your own and of campus resources.
It is important to not just “acknowledge,” but also to express understanding and support for students. For example “I know many of you have been thinking about the graphic demonstration on campus this week. If you’d like to talk more about this, my door is always open to you. In fact, I’m going to be in the office for a couple of extra hours tomorrow, from 1 to 3—please come by to see me. I’ve put up on our Canvas site a list of campus resources—the people in these offices are ready to hear from you.”

(3) Be sensitive to varied responses.
Remember that students will be differently impacted by these issues–some may feel particularly vulnerable or targeted.

Which leads us to…

(4) Plan ahead and be intentional about how you structure the classroom engagement.

This may go without saying but: If you’re going to get into a controversial issue in class, do it carefully and with preparation and clear aims. (This is probably not a good time for “so what do you think?”) Unless the class topic is so tightly knitted to the issues these events raise that you feel confident students already have intellectual tools to inform their responses, and are thus prepared for/have signed on for these kinds of conversations, you might want to structure how you engage it and be up front about your goals.

For example, is it something that the entire class needs to discuss aloud together, or would providing time for individual silent reflective writing be sufficient? Is your objective to use the issue as a learning opportunity for going deeper into your class content or as an occasion to highlight the relevant tools or concepts the class or discipline is providing – or is the aim more simply to create an opportunity for students to have space to process their thoughts and feelings?

Other goals might include helping students learn about campus resources or the kinds of resources you turn to, or approach you take, when faced with difficult issues and events. Regardless, it may help to structure the way you want the class to engage the issue and to be up front about the purposes for doing so. It can also help to script the words you’ll say to your students.

(5) Pause and reset the class dynamic.

If the class community seems to be suffering, you might try to “reset” it with contemplative techniques like offering three minutes of silence to breathe and re-ground ourselves together or looking at a hopeful poem or artwork not directly related to these issues (if this seems conceivable considering the content and tone of your course). If the class has a compact about what good discussion means, perhaps remind them of it and talk about how pleased you are by the way students have worked together in your classroom.

Contact TEP if you’d like to think more about what may be possible along these lines.

For more advice about working with emotions in the classroom, please see TEP Assistant Director Jason Schreiner’s advice here.

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