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The value of discussing difficult topics in the classroom

Genocide, racism, intolerance – presenting tricky subjects in class doesn’t have to be an ordeal.


Covering some of the worst atrocities in documented history, there’s no doubt that the subject matter discussed in Frank Chalk’s classes is very tough stuff. “My students are confronted with enormous, terrible, horrible events. They read about it, see films about it, and then have to imagine and analyze it,” says Dr. Chalk, a history professor and director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.

Beyond the obvious discomfort that comes with discussing such suffering, the material can often affect students in unexpected ways, says Dr. Chalk. He notes that those who have experienced sexual or physical abuse are particularly vulnerable: the images and ideas can bring back long-buried emotions and memories, as these students often identify with the helplessness of the victims they’re studying.

Still, after more than three decades of teaching in this area – including a large, long-running first-year class on the Holocaust – Dr. Chalk says that only a handful of students have ever shown any outward signs of distress. That probably has a lot to do with the way that this long-time professor frames the subject matter and subsequent discussions. “My role is to make sure I don’t lead my students into a minefield without a way out of it,” says Dr. Chalk.

Classroom discussions on difficult or delicate topics can be a potential powder keg or, conversely, a conversation killer as students, feeling awkward, choose to stay silent. From sexism to racism, genocide, politics, terrorism and even bioethics, instructors are faced with the daunting prospect of raising extremely thorny issues and getting their students to discuss them. However, professors who’ve been there say that, when properly approached, these discussions can be some of the best, with students coming away with invaluable lessons learned.

For Dr. Chalk, having what he calls a “safety valve” is paramount. His first lecture in any course starts with an explanation that if anyone feels uncomfortable, for any reason, they have his permission – and in fact, encouragement – to leave the class immediately, without explanation. It’s something he also includes in the course syllabus. He adds that students are also never obligated to talk to him about it afterward – their absence is explanation enough.

Such warnings, typically called “trigger warnings,” are becoming more commonplace in classes like these, explains Carol Berenson, an edu-cational development consultant at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, and Valerie Pruegger, director of the office of diversity, equity and protected disclosure, both at the University of Calgary. The two recently collaborated on a series of workshops on this topic. They say that the goal, above all, is to ensure that students always feel safe. For example, Dr. Berenson notes that one of her classes deals with violence against women, and that’s always a potential trigger.

“At the start, I let students know about campus resources for support, should they need it, and I invite them to check in with me personally,” says Dr. Berenson. “That’s worked really well. The students hear that I care about them, and I understand that they’re real people with histories and experiences.”

Drs. Berenson and Pruegger add that having proper structures in place from the start can have a positive effect on discussions down the road. Ground rules that are preferably set by the class itself, and understood by everyone, should be in place. Group work is good, while phones and anything else that might distract are bad (including, they say, notetaking – although it’s hard to convince some profs that students should put their pens away). Power relationships should be flattened out whenever possible – feeling less powerful or less valuable always hampers a discussion – and this can sometimes be accomplished physically, by taking students out of rows and putting them in clusters, or a big circle, depending on the class size.

Creating a sense of community in the class also is vital, and students must be engaged. One way Dr. Pruegger encourages the latter is to have students give mandatory, interactive oral presentations on any topic they choose (within the parameters of the class). She admits that this can sometimes be fear-inducing. She recalls the time a very introverted student in her class decided to present three major religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and pick a winner. “We had students from all three, plus more, in the class. I was pretty nervous,” she says with a laugh. But the student did an excellent job, and it all worked out, in part because of the community spirit in the classroom. “Afterward, he had all the Muslim, Christian and Jewish students going up to him and saying, ‘Dude, I don’t agree with you, but that was awesome.’”

Yet even the best-structured class can spin out of control, especially when dealing with the touchiest subjects. Zopito Marini, a professor of child and youth studies at Brock University and a 3M National Teaching Fellow, notes that the topics which hit closest to home often spark the most fireworks – especially those related to parenting. Corporal punishment, in particular, is a flash point, one that Dr. Marini admits he was less able to control in his earlier years in the classroom. “The first time, I didn’t have any fallback strategies, and it was not a fruitful discussion,” he says. “The language quickened, it got louder, and people retracted into their corners, with no effort at meeting in the middle.”

So now, Dr. Marini insists that his students keep their emotions in check, in part by modeling a civil-but-principled approach himself and by giving students a preliminary talk on what language is acceptable (and not) in his classroom – both verbal and nonverbal. “Sometimes you can say a lot by saying nothing. Young people are really good at that,” says Dr. Marini.

Moreover, to prevent the debate from going in circles, and to ensure that his students are on solid ground and not just standing on unfounded opinion, Dr. Marini will sometimes challenge each side to present academic research to back up their claims. “Some topics, people will argue with absolutely no evidence,” he notes. “I say, ‘Okay, let’s see what the evidence shows.’ Then it becomes a good pedagogical moment.”

Robert Lapp, professor of English at Mount Allison University and president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, says that his biggest challenge with tricky topics is to reach those students who are content to quietly stand by the wayside, barely dipping a toe into a difficult debate. That’s why he sometimes sees the need to provoke. “It can help to be deliberately shocking,” he says.

While Dr. Lapp admits that sometimes “shock therapy” doesn’t work in his classes – in certain cases, it pushes students even further into their shells – he observes that it is often a useful tool. Noting that the topics he’s addressing – racism, sexism, violence – are relevant both in past literature and in contemporary society, Dr. Lapp seeks to link literary texts with (shocking) up-to-date material.

For example, in a recent first-year poetry class, Dr. Lapp taught a passage called Ballad of Birmingham, a poem about church bombings in the Deep South during the civil rights movement. After watching videos and other related materials from that era, the class then listened to a recent song by the punk-techno band Le Tigre called “Bang! Bang!,” about shootings of black youth by New York City police officers.

“The whole tone of the song is completely in your face, very angry, and makes use of the F-word quite freely,” says Dr. Lapp. “It’s designed to be offensive, because the issue behind it is equally offensive – the guy in the song [Amadou Diallo] had been shot 41 times.”

Dr. Lapp engaged a younger teaching assistant to help lead the discussion, which ventured into a variety of big themes. For example, Le Tigre is an all-white band and the students in the class also were all white, which led to discussions on the appropriateness of one group debating another group’s issues. Beyond that, they also talked about Mount Allison’s black students’ association (Black Students for Advocacy, Awareness and Togetherness) and their claims of racism against the school, and other current events. It all led to an electric atmosphere in the classroom.

“There was no shouting. In fact, you could hear a pin drop. A lot of people were just thoughtful,” says Dr. Lapp. “We knew we were on really tricky ground, something that is, in some ways, outside the purview of a poetry class. We had touched on something way bigger.” Dr. Lapp notes that crossing into uncomfortable territory is, in some ways, the goal of a liberal arts education.

The same can be said for the applied fields, says Christy Simpson, associate professor of bioethics at Dalhousie University. In Dr. Simpson’s field, potentially fiery topics range from subjects like abortion and assisted suicide to less obvious topics like screening and reproductive choices and geriatric care. She will often spark a discussion through the use of a relevant case study – for example, she teaches medical residents about potentially futile care and will voice an opinion on, say, when another round of chemotherapy should be withheld for an almost certainly terminal patient – and then she lets the class run with it. “I love it when it goes from me teaching, to them debating the different perspectives among themselves,” she says.

While she gives her students plenty of room to contemplate and decompress, and always ensures that they feel safe, Dr. Simpson argues that students need to be drawn out of their bubble of familiarity and comfort for their own good. “I want to see genuine engagement and interest and an openness to exploring a topic, knowing that it can be hard and uncomfortable,” she says.

Dr. Simpson sees the value in discomfort, which, in her classes, has stemmed from a couple of different sources. For starters, she says, it’s rare in our society and culture to discuss such visceral, heartfelt values in an open setting. Moreover, in some cases, students stumble across a revelation about themselves that’s not always pretty, like a bias or prejudice they hadn’t previously recognized. And finding ways to express these deeply personal issues can itself be gutting. “Their stomach is upset, or they can’t sleep, or they’re getting a headache, because they can’t put words to what they’re feeling. Part of our role in university, and in teaching and learning, is to help people express that,” she says. “Our role is to help people think about difficult issues more critically – individually and together.”

The end result of all these difficult discussions, professors say, is ultimately to create students who will make use of these sometimes difficult lessons to go on and make a difference. For Concordia’s Dr. Chalk, all the killing and bloodshed discussed in his class are tough, but talking about these things is worth it, both for the intellectual exercise they embody and the results they reap.

“The gratuitous cruelty along the way is relevant when it tells us something about people’s motives, but it’s not the object of the whole exercise,” he says. “The students that graduate from my classes go on to work in diplomacy, intelligence, policing, and relief work that helps the victims of these events – and to help prevent things like these from happening.”

Tim Johnson
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  1. Valerie Pruegger / October 7, 2015 at 15:09

    Hi Tim, you did a great job with this article and nicely captured what we are trying to achieve with active learning, student engagement and exploring areas that make us uncomfortable! Kudos!

  2. Dr. RTFM / October 9, 2015 at 12:49

    It would be nice if the author discussed how to bring up the truly difficult topics which are those which do not conform to the standard intellectual prejudices. For example, how does one discuss the concept that women earning less than men is generally caused by the choices made by people (e.g., men work for more years, for longer hours, in more dangerous occupations)? How does one discuss the concept that consent to an action such as wearing the niqab is not, in and of itself, sufficient to allow it? (For example, one cannot connect to become a slave; one cannot consent to have a body part removed (unless it is a sexual organ; why the difference?), etc.) How does one discuss the concept that just because some person is able to articulate that she was not forced to wear a niqab another woman who is forced to wear it might not be able to make that choice to speak? How does one discuss the concept that men are aboriginal men are twice as likely to be murdered as aboriginal women and yet two of the three main political parties want an inquiry into murdered aboriginal women but are saying nothing about murdered aboriginal men?

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