Teaching and Learning during Tense Moments*

Political change and resistance as well as social upheaval and protest can bring tension onto college campuses and can be felt acutely in classrooms. Faculty and instructors in every discipline have cause to prepare thoughtfully for the impact of these changes, particularly in light of the University of Chicago’s commitment to the exercise of free expression and its recognition of diversity as a core value. 

To support the efforts of faculty and instructors to help students work through tension filled moments, we provide these four suggestions:

1. Examine how disciplinary knowledge or skills might inform students’ understanding of a controversial person, group, ideas, or set of issues.

Consider the ways that your discipline might shed light on the key issues, ideas, and/or activities of a person. Present students with diverse perspectives related to the matter and try heartily to maintain balance in presenting them. Engage students in using data and information that help them deeply understand and consider reasonable positions informed by the theoretical frameworks and standards of evidence of your discipline. 

2. Use the moment to encourage students to learn and practice skills related to civil discourse.

Provide opportunities for students to engage in respectful dialogue and debates.  Find ways to encourage attentive listening and thoughtful argumentation. Practice evaluating bias in text, language, and media. Whenever debating topics about which disagreement may get heated, it is a good idea to discuss norms and expectations for civil, inclusive dialogue.

3. Be prepared for unanticipated topics

Consider taking these three steps when a student unexpectedly asks to discuss a related controversial issue or incident.

  1. Acknowledge the student who raised the issue while noting that students may vary in their concerns or willingness to discuss.
  2. Give yourself a moment to decide if you are ready and willing to engage with this topic right away.
  3. If you and the class would like to spend time sharing views about the topic, consider doing so. If a dialogue seems more productive, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students could prepare.

4. Be mindful of which students and instructors are disproportionately affected by negative rhetoric surrounding the controversial issue.

As the University of Michigan CRTL has noted, “Schools and campuses nationwide are reporting increases in the degree of harassment, targeting, stereotyping, and open hostility toward particular subgroups of students [since the 2016 election]. Both students and instructors whose identities are repeatedly targeted or negatively represented can feel unsafe, unwelcome, and/or drained emotionally and intellectually by the public discourse…” This can be similarly experienced in various contexts.

In light of such disproportionate impact, as an instructor you can:

  • be acutely sensitive to the ways in which daily, sustained feelings of anxiety and fear can impact students' ability to engage in class.
  • where possible, make particular efforts to include the voices and perspectives of these targeted groups in course materials and texts.
  • intervene when you witness incidents of hateful or biased language or behaviors -- and be prepared for moments when tensions arise in your class related to social identities.
  • through your syllabus and/or course website, direct all students to the supports on campus for reporting, healing from, and resisting racism and bigotry. These might include Student Counseling Services, Center for Identity and Inclusion, Spiritual LifeDean-on-Call, and staff throughout Campus and Student Life.

Chicago Center for Teaching staff are available to talk with faculty, graduate and post-doctoral instructors, and TAs about responding to difficult moments as they arise, as well as planning courses or class sessions. Contact us at teaching@uchicago.edu or sign up for individual consultations via GRAD Gargoyle.

* This resource is modified by Cheryl R. Richardson. It draws upon the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching resource, Teaching During a Tense Election Season.