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Having Difficult Conversations in the Classroom: Helpful Hints

Compiled and edited by Sue Hyatt, Professor of Anthropology in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI

  1.  Set the tone early in terms of etiquette. Constantly remind people of the spirit of inquiry in which we come together to talk about these issues. Acknowledge from the beginning that these conversations can be challenging.
  2. Emphasize the importance of everyone maintaining a civil discourse. Have the class collectively generate a set of ground rules for governing class discussions.
  3. Praise the students who play a positive role in facilitating these discussions, using the Student Engagement Roster. Likewise, if a student is really disruptive and violates the rules, this can also be noted on the student engagement roster but be sure to separate out the student’s behavior from the content of their remarks.
  4. Normalize these discussions. Broaden the focus beyond the specifics of the election or the current political moment to emphasize that all of our disciplines have a long engagement with issues of race and racism. Indicate to students that understanding the inequalities created by racial discrimination and white supremacy have been at the heart of much academic inquiry for at least a century and that we need to collectively re-dedicate ourselves to this important work.
  5. Frame the discussion of race in terms of material inequality.  There are statistics that can be deployed to show health and wealth disparities, etc. between different communities.  Students will sometimes try to find behavioral explanations for these disparities, as will others. (You may recall that there was an Ohio state lawmaker who tried to claim that Covid was more prevalent in Black communities because Black people did not know how to wash their hands correctly—here is the article: )

    If students bring up these kinds of behavioral explanations for disparities, present the statistics and ask whether this kind of reasoning really seems as though it would logically explain such widespread instances of inequality. Suggest alternative explanations:  lack of health insurance, poor access to healthcare, high prevalence of people in these communities who are working frontline jobs, etc.  There are lots of articles out there that provide this kind of evidence.
  6. Discourage students from framing their comments as “in my opinion.”  And, don’t do that yourself! This is not about anyone’s opinions.  It is about thinking through evidence and drawing conclusions based on that evidence. That doesn’t mean there can’t be different points of view but those perspectives should emerge as interpretations based on available data. Emphasize the importance of rooting our views in evidence.
  7. Students will often turn to unsubstantiated websites for their information.  This can be tricky to navigate. Jason M. Kelly has developed a nice resource that he has made public on “Understanding Information and Misinformation.”
  8. Encourage students to de-naturalize the idea of “opinions” as authoritative. Get them to think about how we develop our opinions, what larger contexts shape our opinions, and what role opinions play in the public sphere. Ask them to think about the differences between research or scholarship and “opinion.” 
  9. Elevate the tone of the conversation, which will reinforce to students that they are engaged in an important and worthy enterprise—which indeed they are. Present these discussions as collective efforts to understand the structural basis of inequality—how it is produced and what social and cultural mechanisms serve to sustain it. We often have these discussions in our classes already so make the conversation about the present moment consistent with the longer trajectories of our curricula. Talk about how these questions about race and inequality are fundamental to who we are as a department and as a discipline.
  10.  Get everyone to slow down and reflect on what is happening.  Maybe have them free write for 5 or 10 minutes on their emotions about what is currently happening before beginning the discussion. Tell them that these writings are for them personally and are not for sharing. People’s feelings of anger, sadness, disappointment, worry, etc. are all legitimate but we want students to then move on from the rawness of their emotions toward expressing more nuanced thoughts about what is happening.
  11. If possible, use humor to defuse the situation. There are lots of short videos online that might work for this purpose.  Maybe we can compile a list of these resources.  Use popular culture to present some of these ideas, too. For example, Lasana Kazembe uses the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s song, My Hometown, to talk about deindustrialization and the hollowing out of rural economies, which is relevant to many of our students. Lead them to think about how economic hardships shape people’s views and get them to think about what forces have brought about these economic hardships.  There are plenty of newspaper articles on such topics. Again, maybe we can compile a list of those resources
  12. As faculty, let’s make sure to provide support for one another.  These are very challenging times for us as well as for our students. We cannot focus on deepening our anti-racist practices in our teaching without offering one another genuine care.

These suggestions are based on a fabulous conversation that a number of us participated in through the IAHI Racial Justice Working Group.  Thanks to Jason M. Kelly, Lasana Kazembe, Kara Taylor, Khaula Murtadha, Les Etienne, Jennifer Thorington-Springer, Marc Mendonca, Etta Ward, and Joseph Tucker Edmonds for their contributions. I apologize if I inadvertently misrepresented any of the ideas that were put forth during our session together.

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