Dealing with Controversy in the Classroom

Posted on: April 21st, 2017 by Carol Scheidenhelm

The current political environment is evolving so rapidly that we, as educators, need to continuously react to situations we have become aware of within days—or even hours—of class time. This constant flow of politically-charged information and alternative facts presents unprecedented challenges to our previously held convictions about free speech in the classroom. Many faculty simply avoid the controversy and steer discussion around the topics that are most sensitive while others deal with the controversy head on despite the discomfort the discussion may cause to some.

In his article “Teaching Difficult Conversations: Navigating the Tension,” Charles Camosy provides examples about handling controversial topics from his ethics classes. He shares that we need to prepare students for how to handle discussing difficult topics as a means to expose biases and open students to hearing opinions that may differ from their own. One strategy he recommends is stating in the syllabus that topics in the course will be difficult and may challenge their beliefs. Another approach that has worked well for Camosy is to avoid the standard debate rhetoric:  “instead of teaching the issue by examining arguments on the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ sides of the debate, we examine the values and goals of the many different constituencies. When the issue is taught through a lens which opens up common ground—rather than one which assumes an ‘us vs. them’ binary—we see that many policies . . . could be supported by people on multiple sides of the debate” (27).

If we consistently avoid the difficult discussions and never challenge students to examine their positions, we are not preparing them fully for a healthy approach to inclusivity and fairness. As Camosy points out, it is important for faculty to avoid clichés of labels (radical feminist, anti-science, etc.) but more openly engage in discussions on the goals rather than the sides; this ensures that the argument is not about being for or against government medical programs but for the need to provide quality health care to all people, with critical discussion and evaluation of the actual issues.

Camosy, Charles. “Teaching Difficult Conversations: Navigating the Tension.” Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education. no. 51, 2017, pp. 26-27.

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