SIP 7.3 Leading Difficult Discussions in Class and Online

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Difficult discussions are on the rise in the academy. As the political landscape in the United States becomes more intense and polarized and as the MSU Denver community feels the impact of legislation such as rescinding of the DACA program and the removal of workplace protections for transgender people, the focus of classroom discussions has gone beyond course content and into the need to discuss personal lived experience as it relates to identity. For many students, MSU Denver may be the one place where they can explore the impact of these difficult times on their personal lives, and so it becomes an imperative to create spaces where students can share, be challenged, and be affirmed in their identities while they are learning. 

Salience of identity or experiencing a microaggression may impact a student’s ability or desire to participate in class. For example, a female student walking to class may have been cat-called and suddenly, her female identity and is at the forefront. A student with undocumented parents may be worried they will be deported, making them reflect on their privilege as someone who was born in the United States. A transgender student may have a class in a building where there is no gender-inclusive restroom, and as such, fear for their safety when using a gendered restroom. We rarely know exactly what our students are dealing with when they come to class, and consequently, how various class topics may impact them. Because we cannot control when people may be triggered (having an emotional or physical reaction to something that is said or experienced), it is important when planning to consider how to lead difficult class discussions, since triggers may arise when we least expect it and change the course of inter-student dialog.  

Take a SIP of This: Leading Difficult Discussions in Class and Online

Here are some ideas on facilitating difficult dialogues: 

  1. Take time to review your syllabus and consider what topics may be controversial. Again, we will never know what may trigger a student, but it is critical to consider what issues may arise. Consider how those conversations may contribute to your overall goals for the course, rather than throw a wrench into your lesson plan. Think through the outcomes and skills you want the students to achieve through these challenging conversations.  
  2. Work with the class to set ground rules. There are many different resources and models of ground rules that apply to identity work and social justice. Models such as social justice educator Dr. Jamie Washington’s are very transferable to the classroom. Challenge students to use “I statements” and speak from own personal experience. Work to build relationships of commitment and trust, and engage with active listening techniques.  
  3. Monitor yourself, your triggers, and your own personal biases. Remember that the leader of a discussion is also a participant. When participating in or facilitating dialogue, it is natural that you may become triggered, or have an emotional or physical reaction to something that is said. What are your triggers? How do you deal with triggers? Doing some reflection ahead of time can help you continue to facilitate without responding angrily to the student who may have triggered you. Additionally, it is important to remember that everyone has bias, and often times, implicit bias shows up without awareness. Check out the Harvard Implicit Bias tests and assume that you hold stereotypes that have been influenced by the media and the cultures you are a part of. With that knowledge, take steps to counteract stereotypes.  
  4. Consider multiple modes of expression for processing difficult dialogues or topics. Give students five minutes to write down their immediate reactions, then encourage small group dyads or triads to allow more voices to process. In online forums, students could submit a written reflection on their thoughts. They can decide if they prefer to submit that reflection to the whole class or only the instructor. Everyone processes information at differing speeds and with varying levels of comfort. Offer students a 24-hour reflection window in which to post additional questions and ideas to a Blackboard discussion board. This is effective both in face to face class discussions and online discussions. Students who did not speak up in-class may post thoughts more freely in Blackboard. Considering ideas and responses later may elicit clearer understanding with deeper reflection.  
  5. Above all, see this challenge as a positive. When students dissent or disagree, they are engaged with the content and feel safe to share their points of view. Of course, we never want this to happen in a way that belittles other’s experiences or identities, so it is always good to refer back to the class ground rules once you sense a conversation or topic may be headed towards a negative outcome.  



Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Leading Difficult Discussions in Class and Online

  • Keep an eye out for the Equity-Minded Pedagogy Series, hosted multiple times each semester. Session topics include Implicit Bias, Starting Your Semester with an Equity-Minded Lens, Creating Inclusive Classroom Communities, and Teaching for Inclusive Excellence. Sessions are open to all MSU Denver faculty, and can be brought to your department as well. 
  • Chronicle of Higher Education: Yes, You Have Implicit Biases Too  

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom! 

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