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Faculty Share Insights on Discussing Controversial Topics in the Classroom

Most current Duke students have grown up in politically fractured times, and they may not have been exposed to opposing viewpoints. “If we do our work as intended, we’ll encourage our students to engage in difficult topics in depth,” said Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of psychology and neuroscience, global health and medicine. But many colleagues said their students were resistant to having tough conversations.

“Faculty come to us all the time and ask, ‘I’m dealing with a difficult topic and I really want to engage my students in exploring different points of view; how do I manage that situation?’ said Abbas Benmamoun, vice provost for faculty advancement.

Last month, the Office for Faculty Advancement presented a workshop for 65 participants on discussing contentious and controversial topics in the classroom. Bennett moderated a discussion featuring two experienced professors. Here are brief excerpts:

Recognize that we’re all learning together

A woman smiles

Deondra Rose, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Political Science and History, and Director of Polis: Center for Politics

I’m a political scientist, and this political environment is fraught with contention. It’s difficult to engage with political topics and avoid controversial subjects. For me, this has been quite a journey. I should start with a confession: I didn’t get it right early on. Students were kind enough to pull me aside after class [and talk with me]. I’ve had to let go of a lot of defensiveness and anxiety, and be willing to be wrong and be upfront with my students. … I’m learning with you. Let me know where I’m missing the mark.

A man smiles

John Rose, Associate Director of the Civil Discourse Project at the Kenan Institute for Ethics

I’ve been at this for three and a half years, and I’m still learning myself. When you talk about civil discourse, you can walk away thinking this is so hard I shouldn’t try, but I think we should all make an effort to foster civil discourse in the classroom. I ask my students to always assume goodwill. That’s one way that intellectual charity shows itself. We as a group decide, we’re not going to cancel each other. It’s more like a moral pact than a legal contract. I say to students, let’s see if we can build a community in which we trust each other and become vulnerable.

Prepare yourself and your students

Deondra Rose

Some of my biggest missteps have been the result of being too comfortable, speaking too freely and not taking care with my words. The progress I’ve made over time has been from incorporating a lot more intentionality. … There is a lot of important work to be done when preparing to have a complex conversation. When you wing it, that’s when you can get into difficulties.

At Sanford, one advantage of our interdisciplinarity is being able to tap into the immense and broad-reaching expertise of our colleagues. Just about any conversation could become a difficult one if not handled correctly, especially when people’s identities are on the line. It’s important to recognize the scope and bounds of our own expertise and where there are places we might need some backup. Asking, what am I prepared to do in this space and what support is out there? That’s worked for me.

John Rose

In my class on polarization, I spend the first half reviewing the literature on polarization, and then we get into the case studies.

I tell students, we are going to talk about some controversial things. You have to know what you’re getting into. I’ve had some students drop early. I think our Duke students are much more resilient than maybe we give them credit for. They’re up for the challenge. I tell them it’s going to be tough. You’re going to work as hard as possible to speak honestly in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily offend.

Help students become more comfortable with dissent

Deondra Rose

I think of myself as an intellectual D.J. I curate the syllabus, then play the referee — modeling, facilitating, helping my students. … My hope is that my courses help students to be more free, to explore, to say what they think. My sense is that a lot of students are hesitant. If we provide models of how to dissent … [I think that’s] really valuable.

John Rose

My students don’t want to dissent. Part of what makes them fearful of dissent is a kind of preprofessional mindset. They’re worried about jeopardizing their post-graduation jobs. … I polled my students last year in two classes: Do you self-censor on controversial topics, even among close friends? Sixty-eight percent said yes. That’s way too high.

I think civil discourse happens best when we are physically present with each other, and when we know each other in ways that are nonpolitical. … I do a day on cross-ideological friendships. I’ve been amazed by some of the friendships that have come out of my classes between people who think very differently. It can be done. In these hyperpolarized times, the future of our democracy may depend on it.

Main image: Deondra Rose, shown teaching a seminar in 2015, drew on her classroom experiences to guide faculty colleagues in approaching difficult discussions. (Photo: Les Todd/Duke University)