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There are three basic ways that we hear faculty talk about difficult dialogues: in-class dialogues that were planned but did not go particularly well; in-class “hot moments” that were not anticipated and that the faculty member did not feel equipped to handle; and difficult dialogues that happen during office hours or outside of class.

In all three instances, faculty are challenged to use skills they may not have learned at any point in their disciplinary training. That lack of skill can cause them great angst, and in the most extreme situations, lead them to avoid addressing important issues directly. This is not to anyone’s advantage, and many learning opportunities can be lost. We have put together some resources to help support faculty efforts to engage with students in productive and meaningful dialogue.

A Brief Note

In in any of these discussions, it is crucial to reflect upon how our own identities and experiences may influence the dialogue. Depending upon our identities and topic of discussion, students may respond differently to these dialogues. For example, there is research that indicates how women of color are more often challenged in the classroom and must spend time legitimizing themselves. Similarly, students bring in their own histories and stories into the classroom. For these reasons, it is imperative to be cognizant of these histories and recognize how our actions and words may reinforce feelings of marginalization for some students, even though that may not be our intent. The tips below should serve as a guide, and may not be appropriate for all faculty depending upon your identity and context of the course.

A Few Tips for Planning In-Class Dialogue

  • Identify a clear purpose for discussion
  • Establish ground rules
  • Provide a common base of knowledge
  • Create a framework for the discussion that maintains focus and flow
  • Find ways to include everyone or as many different voices as possible in the discussion
  • Determine how active you will be in the discussion
  • Have a summarizing discussion and gather feedback
  • Identify university resources at the end of the discussion

(Excerpted from University of Michigan CRTL)

A Few Tips for Managing Unanticipated Hot Moments

In the Moment

  • Take a moment to consider if you are prepared to handle the issue immediately or during the next class
  • If appropriate, clarify the student comment
  • If possible, try to depersonalize the comment
  • Remind students of the discussion guidelines
  • Invite students to move around the room or write quietly
  • Give students time to reflect

After the Incident

  •  Talk with students outside of class
  •  Seek support from your own network

(Excerpted from University of Michigan CRTL)

Other Resources for Managing Difficult Dialogues

Here are a few recommendations for navigating hot-button issues in the classroom.

In Seven Bricks to Lay the Foundation for Productive Difficult Dialogues Annie Soisson describes how to prepare for difficult dialogues in the classroom.

Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education is a handbook that covers ground rules, rhetoric, debate, race, class culture and more. It helps faculty reflect on “how such discussions connect with larger learning goals” and provides “specific strategies and resources that teachers can use to create more productive conversations in their classrooms.” It is available as a free download.

Encouraging Civil Behavior in Large Classes, by Mary Deane Sorcinelli, acknowledges that faculty who teach large classes face different challenges. This article offers ideas on how to create a constructive class climate and deal with troublesome behavior.

Often in difficult conversations our defenses are up, emotions are high, and we or our students may misstep. As faculty, it’s important to remain in control, and to understand what is happening when things get derailed. Read this short article from the Harvard Business Review to help you identify what not to do, and how to identify where things go off-track: Difficult Conversations: 9 Common Mistakes


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