Discussing Controversial Issues in Class

Facilitating Conversations About Controversial Issues

Proactive strategies – laying the ground

  • Set expectations early; let the class know if you are discussing controversial issues. Establish discussion ground rules for discussion during first week of class (see Brookfield guidelines for developing ground rules)
  • Model civil behavior in your own actions, language, and demeanor, and model for them ways to disagree respectfully.
  • Integrate ice-breakers and community building exercises throughout the semester but especially during the first few weeks
  • Develop ways to support students learning each others’ names
  • It’s ok to acknowledge that you had an emotional reaction to election; normalize strong feeling for students while modeling how to moderate emotion and reframe into useful dialogue.
  • Link discussion to course learning objectives and our mission to cultivate critical thinking. Why are we doing this?
  • Cultivate active listening (see discussion exercises from Stephen Brookfield)
  • Practice structured debate; have student practice taking positions they disagree with (empathy building)

When a “hot moment” happens unexpectedly

  • A student may try to initiate discussion about the election at a time when you’re not prepared for it. You can acknowledge why the student is interested and explain that you want to think further about how to engage the topic carefully and return to it later.
  • If incivility occurs – intervene. Communicate clearly and openly that these behaviors violate our St. Thomas Convictions and won’t be tolerated.
  • Acknowledge emotions, e.g., “It’s not unusual for people to get passionate/emotional about this topic, but we’ve agreed to discuss these issues in a civil manner”
  • Revisit your discussion ground rules to restore civility
  • If you use mindfulness meditation in class, take a 2-3 minute meditation break
  • Try 5 minutes of free-writing; allow students to share if willing
  • If possible, try opening up discussion again, after the cooling down period
  • It’s ok to return later to a hard moment. Not everything has to be solved right when it happens. If you are too uncomfortable or unable to address in the moment, say “I need some time to think about this. We’ll come back to it in the next class.”
  • At the end of class -- always provide an assessment opportunity; a good model is Stephen Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionnaire

Revisiting in the next class session

  • Review the results of the assessment in a way that allows people to be anonymous
  • Make the controversy a teachable moment
  • Provide structured way for students to express themselves; see Stephen Brookfield discussion strategies for ideas
  • Provide an assessment opportunity at the end of class (e.g., Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionnaire; see link above)

Keep in mind. . .

  • There may be uncivil side conversations going on outside of your hearing but affecting nearby students. Give students ample opportunity to communicate with you privately about class dynamics (a good tool is Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionnaire) and if you discover uncivil behaviors have occurred, communicate clearly and openly to the whole class that these behaviors violate our St. Thomas Convictions and won’t be tolerated.
  • Whatever political beliefs you hold, you are responsible for creating an inclusive environment where students feel free to disagree, where they can practice thinking critically, and where they have room to grow intellectually. What you model is crucial – your comportment, your compassion, your commitment to pursuing truth and upholding the dignity of each member of our community.

Assignments faculty have found to be effective in engaging controversy in the classroom

  • Dr. Heather Shirey: Using Brave Space to acknowledge that we all come to the conversation from different places, while at the same time we have to find some shared ground.


Faculty Developer Kerry Ann Rockquemore provided this advice aimed at faculty of color living through difficult racist moments in our culture and experiencing "battle fatigue." Faculty who are on the front lines and teaching topics related to politics, social change, and current events may feel similarly after the recent election. All faculty can benefit from taking a moment to focus on self-care, on maintaining one's physical and psychological balance.

Dear Kerry Ann: Radical Self-Care - National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity