27 Sep 2017

How to Tackle Tough Topics in the Classroom

How to Tackle Tough Topics in the Classroom

In an age of polarized opinions, psychology educators are amplifying their efforts to promote more understanding

The day after the 2016 presidential election, assistant psychology professor Evelyn Hunter, PhD, knew she had to be prepared for different types of discussion in the three classes she was teaching that day at Presbyterian College, a small, mostly white liberal arts college in Clinton, South Carolina.

"I realized it was going to be hard for me to concentrate on just lecturing, and that students would be activated by the results, too," says Hunter, who is African-American and says that she was concerned about how the election results might affect people of color.

Fortunately, Hunter was armed with techniques that allowed her to safely introduce the topic of difficult dialogues for discussion, which she had gleaned from co-writing a paper on the topic as a graduate student, and later watching others conduct difficult dialogues and then conducting them herself. She grouped the students in circles, first emphasizing the importance of respecting and valuing everyone's opinions, then inviting them to air their thoughts and concerns. A biracial student said she felt hated by other students and that no one seemed bothered by that. White students revealed they felt that others unfairly viewed them as racists for voting for Donald J. Trump.

The conversation appeared to enlighten some, while leaving others uncomfortable—and that is part of the process, says Hunter, now an assistant professor at Auburn University. "Earlier in my career, I thought that a good dialogue meant everyone left happy and feeling great about it, but that's not always realistic," says Hunter. "If the dialogue is truly difficult and it's really a necessary conversation, maybe it's not the best thing if we all stay in our comfort zones."

Leaving things unsaid does not mean they do not exist, she adds. "I believe we give things more power to do harm when we allow them to remain unexposed."

Hunter's approach to such discussions is just one of many ways that psychology educators are helping students address tough social issues. Known by terms like "difficult dialogues" and "challenging conversations," the work can take myriad forms, including brief discussions about current events, classes dedicated to key themes, and planned events that focus on hot-button topics within local communities. The work isn't easy, but it's highly rewarding, says Sue C. Jacobs, PhD, a professor at Oklahoma State University and fellow of APA Div. 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology), who has been training others in difficult dialogues since 2009.

"We live in a world of bullet points," Jacobs says, "but to have truly difficult dialogues, you have to go underneath the bullet points and listen to other people."

Preparing students

For two main reasons, colleges and universities are key places to hold such exchanges, adds psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, president emerita of Spelman College and author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race," slated for a 20th-anniversary edition this year. For one, universities are one of the few places that young adults from diverse backgrounds come together and share the same spaces. For another, they're settings where these dialogues can take place in a safe and structured way, with positive, educational outcomes as the goal.

"From an educator's viewpoint, it seems a shame not to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to prepare the next generation for effective leadership"—in this case, by fostering the ability to successfully engage with a wide range of people, Tatum says.

Not surprisingly, this work can meet with opposition. Administrators and fellow faculty may consider such discussions too political or too removed from what they see as the central aim of education, namely, imparting objective information to students. And for their own reasons, faculty may be leery of getting involved—fearing the disapproval of colleagues, a diminished shot at tenure or even ignorance about the subject matter. But in an increasingly complex world where personal aspects of identity are ever more salient at school, work and in other contexts, facilitators believe these difficult dialogues are essential.

"Most of our students have never thought about why they think the things they think," says Oklahoma State University professor and APA Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology) fellow Shelia Kennison, PhD, who infuses difficult dialogue strategies into her undergraduate courses. The conversations allow the students to learn about themselves and other people "in a way that is more uniting than dividing," she says.

A starting point

The term "difficult dialogues" was first used in 2005 by the Ford Foundation to support work that would address a national concern: growing racial and religious tensions on U.S. campuses in the wake of 9/11. Through a competitive process, the foundation awarded 27 colleges and universities up to $100,000 to launch relevant projects in the area, for a total of $2.5 million.

That same work continues today, with more relevance than ever, many say. Although the foundation's funding ended in 2008, many campuses have continued to make creative and sustained efforts to address the plethora of challenging social issues that seem to arise on a daily basis. The pros and cons of gun control, environmental versus economic concerns, racial profiling, gender identity and sexual orientation issues, religious versus scientific belief systems, issues related to climate change—almost any charged social topic provides fodder for deeper discussion, says Libby Roderick, who directs the Difficult Dialogues Initiative at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), which received some of the original Ford Foundation funding.

Given psychologists' expertise in human behavior and motivation, they are particularly strong players in this arena, as are sociologists and social workers, Tatum adds. That said, she'd like to see more faculty involved.

"I think every instructor can benefit from developing their capacity to facilitate what might feel like an uncomfortable conversation," Tatum says.

Only by imagination

Educators are incorporating difficult dialogues in a variety of creative ways. They can be a small but integral part of classroom activity, as with Hunter's election-related forum. They may be mandated adjuncts to traditional classes, per an Indiana University initiative called "Community Conversations," developed by psychologist and assistant professor Kerrie G. Wilkins-Yel, PhD. The effort requires students who are taking sections of the same class to meet in small groups once during the semester, and engage for two hours in a difficult dialogues process.

The format has the unique benefit of engaging a large number of students while maintaining the fundamental tenets of effective group dialogue, says Wilkins-Yel. At least two students in each group are of "marginalized identities," ensuring that the discussion is truly diverse, as opposed to simply including one "token" member of a minority group who might feel put on the spot, she says.

In other cases, entire classes are devoted to difficult dialogues. Last year, for instance, the counseling psychology department at the University of Missouri—another institution originally funded by the Ford Foundation—launched a graduate-level program focused entirely on helping students practice difficult dialogue skills and gain the tools to facilitate such discussions.

Other universities, like UAA, have centered on faculty development: Trainers there have taught difficult dialogue techniques to some 150 faculty members who are using the skills in a variety of ways.

These conversations are happening outside the classroom, as well. In Anchorage, UAA's Center for Advancing ­Faculty Excellence hosts a popular annual debate and faculty forum that's open to the public. There, students who are part of an internationally acclaimed debate team introduce a contentious topic—a recent example is whether the state's limited budget should go toward investing in the university or an oil and gas pipeline—and debate it for 40 minutes. They're followed by four faculty members who add their disciplines' perspectives to the conversation. After that, community members are invited to participate. 

"People come out of these things lit up," Roderick says. A common response: "‘This is what we're supposed to be doing; this is what higher ed is for,'" she says.

Stepping stones

Whatever form the work takes, there are several basic guidelines to keep in mind, educators involved in this work say. In general, preparation is key—it can include gaining specific training in the area; learning from manuals and other materials designed to walk educators through the process and its challenges; and attending conference and workshop presentations. At this year's APA Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., for example, Webster University psychology professor Linda Woolf, PhD, chaired a symposium on methods for addressing intolerance and hate on campuses, including difficult dialogues. Also, the biennial National Multicultural Conference & Summit regularly includes material on difficult dialogues. The Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center—created by facilitators to continue the work started by the Ford Foundation—hosts a biennial conference specifically on difficult dialogues; the next is slated for sometime in 2018 (see Resources below for more).

Once educators have received the training to start such conversations, it's important to lay a strong foundation for the discussion at the beginning of the conversation—one that emphasizes students' rights to express their thoughts and opinions and to respectfully disagree, no matter how intense a session becomes, says Wilkins-Yel. She also highlights expectations of how students should behave: They should actively listen to fellow students, talk in the first person and enter dialogues with a spirit of curiosity, for example.

Tiffany G. Townsend, PhD, senior director of APA's Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs, urges educators to underscore that everyone has biases—­educators included—a tack that ­lowers defenses and gets students into a more receptive frame of mind for dialogue. To this end, it's also important that educators examine their own beliefs: Doing so "ensures that their biases don't color the conversation or inadvertently instill the very divisions that they are trying to address with the conversation," Townsend notes.

It helps to infuse relevant research into these conversations as often as possible, says Woolf. For instance, if a topic involves sexual orientation and gender identity, a discussion host can showcase research demonstrating the misinformation about and the effects of discrimination and violence against LGBTQIA people, which can help expand students' viewpoint on the topic.

To meet fellow educators who want to foster more of these discussions, psychologists may want to contact Div. 17's Subcommittee on Social Action, Jacobs recommends. Educators can also form groups with other interested faculty on their campuses.

Those who teach difficult dialogues say the work is like planting seeds—it may not ­produce immediate results, but it eventually bears fruit. "Students tend to come back long after the fact and say these dialogues were a formative experience for them," Kennison says. 

Resources

Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center 
Holds a biennial conference on difficult dialogues. www.difficultdialogues.org

University of Alaska's Difficult Dialogues Initiative 
Free handbooks and other information. www.difficultdialoguesuaa.org/handbook/landing

Promoting Student Engagement: Vol. 2, APA's Div. 2 (Teaching of Psychology) 
Chapters on infusing diversity, peace-related and other relevant material into difficult dialogues. Free download. http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/pse2011/vol2/index.php

By Tori DeAngelis


This article was originally published in the September 2017 Monitor on Psychology

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