Responding to Disrespectful Exchanges
It is widely held that one of the primary goals of a university is to develop critical thinkers. One component of critical thinking is the ability to engage in a critical dialogue or debate. To develop this skill, it is necessary to provide students with opportunities to engage in discussions in which diverse opinions are encouraged. Critical dialogue or debate will typically include controversial or values-based issues that have multiple perspectives. In such situations, there is the possibility that discussions may break down into ugly or hurtful exchanges, for example, a disrespectful personal attack, rather than the hoped-for respectful exchange of differing perspectives. The danger here is the temptation to avoid controversial or value-based topics all together in order to remove any possibility of an uncomfortable or hurtful situation in the classroom. This would be a great disservice.
Now, perhaps more than ever, our students need the ability to articulate values-based arguments, while at the same time attempting to understand the thinking behind other perspectives. Our students need to feel safe in our classrooms. They should certainly not fear being personally attacked – especially when it comes to their identity (race, gender, sexual identity and (dis)ability). At the same time, our university classrooms are spaces in which our students need to have opportunities to voice (and listen to other’s) ideas and values, including those based in ignorance and false assumptions. If this seems daunting, take heart in the fact that there are many helpful resources and strategies to help in developing and maintaining a respectful classroom climate. The following are suggested practices to set a respectful tone in your classroom:
- Consider asking students to help establish norms. Methods for doing this can include silent whiteboard discussion or concept mapping. For example: “What do you mean by respect?”
- Use silent whiteboard discussion as a method for students to decide on classroom rules of engagement.
- On one side of the board students list what helps them learn.
- On the other side of the board they list what doesn’t help them learn.
- Post the lists on the course web site. This strategy helps multilingual students and others who may prefer writing to speaking. (It is a useful alternative to traditional or online discussion for other topics as well.)
- A classroom response system allows a version of a silent board discussion for larger classes. It’s useful as a check-in, but note you cannot grade responses, even as participation.
- Ask students to provide examples of the difference between excitement and disruption in the classroom.
- Give students a starter list of discussion guidelines on day one:
- In small groups, students review the starter guidelines (which were developed by other students in other classes).
- Students can add to, revise, and subtract from the guidelines.
- The final version goes up on the course website and serves as a resource and go-to document for the class.
- Afterwards, discuss the guidelines and include talk about respectful communication—because it’s not just what we say it, it’s also how we say it.
- Choose or invite students to pick a “pause word.” When someone is offended or confused in class, they can say the pause word. The person using the word signals that they would like the instructor to deal with it, or they would like to unpack the moment.
- Preview the conversations that will take place in the course (especially those about stereotypes and social constructions) by showing or assigning Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009, 18 min. & 9 sec.) This TED Talk explains how dangerous it is to think you know something about a person when you only know one thing about them, one “category.” Discuss the TED Talk in class and link it to discussions and assignments to come.
- Explain to and practice with students the difference between criticism (feelings and opinions) and critique (engagement with the text).
- Clarify with students the difference between being uncomfortable — often necessary to learning — and having the classroom be a safe space.
(For more examples, see Strategies for managing class discussion - Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Washington):
Consider including in your syllabus a statement communicating your expectations with regards to respectful dialogue and discussion. Here is an example:
Student/faculty responsibilities: Class dialogue/discussion/participation
We are co-creators of our learning environment. It is our collective responsibility to develop a supportive learning environment for everyone. Listening with respect and an open mind, striving to understand others’ views, and articulating your own point of view will help foster the creation of this environment. We engage our differences with the intent to build community, not to put down the other and distance our self from the other. Being mindful to not monopolize discussion and/or interrupt others will also help foster a dialogic environment.
The following guidelines can add to the richness of our discussion:
- We assume that persons are always doing the best that they can, including the persons in this learning environment.
- We acknowledge that systematic oppression exists based on privileged positions and specific to race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and other social variables and identities.
- We posit that assigning blame to persons in socially marginal positions is counter-productive to our practice. We can learn much about the dominant culture by looking at how it constructs the lives of those on its social margins.
- While we may question or take issue with another class member’s ideology, we will not demean, devalue, or attempt to humiliate another person based on her/his experiences, value system, or construction of meaning.
- We have a professional obligation to actively challenge myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so we can break down the walls that prohibit group cooperation and growth.
[Adapted from Lynn Weber Cannon (1990). Fostering positive race, class and gender dynamics in the classroom. Women Studies Quarterly, 1 & 2, 126-134.]
We are a learning community. As such, we are expected to engage with difference. Part of functioning as a learning community is to engage in dialogue in respectful ways that supports learning for all of us and that holds us accountable to each other. Our learning community asks us to trust and take risks in being vulnerable.
Here are some guidelines that we try to use in our learning process:
- LISTEN WELL and be present to each member of our group and class.
- Assume that I might miss things others see and see things others miss.
- Raise my views in such a way that I encourage others to raise theirs.
- Inquire into others’ views while inviting them to inquire into mine.
- Extend the same listening to others I would wish them to extend to me.
- Surface my feelings in such a way that I make it easier for others to surface theirs.
- Regard my views as a perspective onto the world, not the world itself.
- Beware of either-or thinking.
- Beware of my assumptions of others and their motivations.
- Test my assumptions about how and why people say or do things.
- Be authentic in my engagement with all members of our class.
Statement courtesy of:
- Gino Aisenberg, Associate Dean, Diversity and Student Affairs, The Graduate School; and Associate Professor, School of Social Work, University of Washington
- Adaurennaya C. Onyewuenyi, Predoctoral Lecturer, The Graduate School, University of Washington
Source: Responding to disruptions and incivility in the classroom. Center for Teaching and Learning (University of Washington). Retrieved from: http://www.washington.edu/teaching/teaching-resources/engaging-students-in-learning/responding-to-disruptions-and-incivility-in-the-classroom/