Guiding Discussions that Students May Find Controversial

TAs should reflect on how to best establish the kind of community that they wish to cultivate in their classes. To create an environment which is comfortable and supportive, where students feel their ideas are taken seriously is not a task that can be achieved in a day or a week. Rather, it is the work of many weeks, the culmination of many small gestures, words, and actions that determines the climate of a class. The TA must be the leader in setting a standard of civility for the class. Encourage all students to participate in discussions, but allow everyone to enter the conversation at the level at which they feel comfortable. Never denigrate students or treat their comments with contempt; a single ill-advised word may undo many weeks of effort. Get to know the students so that they feel they are recognized as individuals in the class.

Whether a discussion is planned or spontaneous will have an enormous effect on the role assumed by the TA. In planning a discussion on a potentially explosive topic, a TA is able to anticipate many issues that might arise. By having a clear goal in mind for the discussion and a definite direction in which to steer it, the TA is usually able to exercise the necessary control over the entire process. This is not to say that the discussion should be so tightly orchestrated that students feel they are being told what to think, but only that the teacher will be more alert to areas that will be non-productive or inflammatory, and so be able to guide students back onto safer ground. Unplanned digressions into highly controversial areas, however, require a sure hand and calm head. Sometimes an issue seems to dominate campus life for a while—students are talking about it in their residence halls, in the dining halls, and in other classes—and their emotional engagement with the issue spills out in the classroom during a tangentially-related discussion. A decision whether to allow the digression or to get back on track at once must be made quickly. If the TA allows the class to explore the topic, he or she must be confident that the discussion will advance the students' understanding, not merely allow them an opportunity to repeat tired old arguments.

Students will often have conflicting opinions which can become very personal and emotional. By establishing some guidelines for the discussion at the beginning of the semester, TAs can help students to remember that all of their comments should be grounded in mutual dignity and respect. Make it clear that no matter how heated the discussion becomes, personal attacks and inappropriate or biased remarks are not acceptable. By establishing a standard of honest and reasonable debate students will be more willing to take risks in articulating their thoughts without fear of harassment and learning can be more productive.

Do not be afraid of conflict in the classroom. For the most part, trust your students to work through the issues themselves and to get beyond the tense moments; consider it part of the learning process. If the class is getting too raucous, however, and tempers are flaring, break for a few minutes. Ask students to consider what has been said and to write down their reactions to the words and the emotions that have been expressed. This will give the class an opportunity to cool down and refocus while giving you the chance to evaluate what has been going on and consider strategies for using the excitement and energy in a positive way. Individual students who overstep the bounds of civility should be dealt with immediately. If a student begins to shout, ask him or her to take a time-out, to calm down and think before rejoining the conversation. Stress that it is a conversation. More difficult is the student whose comments are totally unacceptable. Some teachers take the student to task immediately; others ask the student probing questions about the remark in an effort to help the student understand why it is unacceptable. This strategy requires more skill and effort, but gives the student a chance to reflect upon the remarks in a less emotional manner and, perhaps, learn from it.

©2017, School of Graduate Studies, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey