Handling hot conversations in college classes

The US’s approach to free speech prioritizes individual expression by the speaker over the safety of the listener. In contrast, in the nations we like to compare ourselves to, free speech is often organized around the harm that speech does to others.

This is a major difference, but for those of us who teach in the US, it doesn’t mean that our classes become free-for-alls. Part of teaching students to engage ideas is teaching them to do so in a way that listeners can hear. Students have an obligation to present ideas that are relevant to the class, cogent (or on their way to being cogent), informed, and audience-aware. Otherwise, they are wasting their classmates’ time, which is a kind of theft.

How can we help students share “hot” ideas in a way that prevents them from turning into a fire and hurting people, including by wasting their time?

A few tips:

  1. Require evidence of reading before allowing students to share their ideas with their classmates. The issue is practical: the classroom is a space that requires us to have some things in common, and readings are one of them. The issue is also one of respect: you can’t join the conversation unless you know what we’re talking about. This single strategy increases the quality of the conversation tremendously, and it shows respect for the subject matter. Use reading journals to help students identify parts of the reading they find important and process before sharing. Use a guide to the reading to prompt them to answer specific, difficult questions that are likely to produce heated exchange. Focus on comprehension, rather than simply asking students to react. Require students to annotate a text and submit it for a grade.
  2. Practice saying “Let’s put a pin in that.” Yes, it’s corporate-speak, but don’t think about corkboards and pushpins–think about grenades. You are putting the pin back in a grenade so it doesn’t blow up in the foxhole of your classroom. Say to students, “I’d like to think about your comment more. Everyone get out a piece of paper and write down what you heard said. I’d like you to reflect on it for a few minutes.” You can ask students to bring these back to class for a future discussion, turn them in anonymously for you to get a sense of how the class is understanding the comment, or turn them in with names on to be returned to student next class for discussion. DO NOT use outlying comments to create a “two sides” conversation. If in a conversation about affirmation action, you say “One student said that affirmation action lets unqualified Black people rise above the level of their merit,” you aren’t protecting that person’s privacy; however, if you say, “Some people say that affirmation action lets unqualified Black people rise about their level of merit,” you’re suggesting that this position is more common than it is. And, in any case, that statement will hurt students of color. So be thoughtful in how you use any information you collect.
  3. Assign perspectives for students to explore, and don’t allow them to argue for settled claims and nonissues. Start the conversation further down the road: “Group A will argue that universal basic income is the best way to combat poverty. Group B will argue that higher taxes on corporations that pay poverty wages is the best way. Group C will argue that increasing the minimum wage is the best way.” All of these rest on the idea that poverty is bad and should be solved.
  4. Invite students to listen to people they care about who have a different perspective before they talk with their classmates, who they have fewer investments in. “Ask someone of a different generation/gender/religion/ political background about their experiences with racism. Your job is simply to listen and ask questions that invite them to share more, not to correct them.” This helps them practice listening without reacting, and it lets them choose someone they are safe with.
  5. Use small groups in your discussion boards to control fires. Keep discussion groups to 1/5 of the class size, if possible, so that if someone says something unkind, it doesn’t spread to the whole class.
  6. Create no-judgment zones. Conservative students are the ones who most complain about not being able to speak freely in class. Give all students a chance to work out their ideas in a judgment-free zone, like a reading journal that you don’t even read. Assign credit based on word count alone.
  7. Don’t allow students to write papers you don’t want to read. Since you likely can’t predict every topic they’d write about, gate assignments so that a topic is due far in advance, and let students know you have veto power. You can also assign topics, thesis statements, or audiences. (“How would you persuade the mayor of our city to fund education at a higher level?”). You can also offer a variety of topics, including ones more likely to appeal to conservative students but that don’t carry the risk of harm. For example, you could supply thesis statements like Farm workers should unionize to increase the security of our food supply or Gun owners should be leaders in reducing gun violence. Both of these don’t clearly fall into “conservative” or “progressive” policies, so students of different political perspectives should find them challenging. The key here is to press students to make new arguments to them, not simply to show up and state what they already believe. (If students are required to share texts digitally with each other, require an acknowledgment on the paper that this topic or thesis statement was assigned and that the work may not reflect the opinion of the author.)

What do you do to keep hot conversations from getting out of control?

veareflejos | Fire painting, Fire art, Fire drawing
Above, a painting of a forest fire by Alexei Kuzmich Denisov-Uralsky, early 1900s. It shows a fline of fire moving through trees.

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