Many instructors seek support handling polarizing topics that may arise in the classroom. The CTL has compiled a series of considerations to support conversations in the classroom. 

    First Amendment Rights in the Classroom: The Balance Between Our Rights and Responsibilities

    The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    The first amendment protects people’s speech from government censorship. It does not mean that there are no consequences for comments that students make in the classroom environment or other course contexts such as Zoom meeting and chats, discussion threads, and office hours. The faculty member, instructor, or graduate student instructor determines the parameters of engagement, including which topics will be considered relevant to the course.

    For classroom discussions

    We recommend downloading the Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom Memo Updated (PDF) and visiting our campus websites addressing academic freedom: 

     Free Expression

     Academic freedom shapes and protects work of faculty, students 

    Fostering respectful communication in the classroom

    • Assist students in identifying the common values underlying strong opinions.
    • Create thought experiments by asking “Let’s suppose X is true and we try to view this situation through that world view for 2 minutes. Then we will share our observations and thoughts.”
    • Help students elucidate assumptions by examining what has been normalized for them. Begin by asking “What do we presume to be true in this situation, and what exceptions can we identify?”
    • Encourage class communities to use points of confusion for research and exchange: “Let’s break this up into research teams and then share what we learn together.”
    • Having a particular set of beliefs should not impact a person’s standing. In order to make sure this is true, civility and caution should be a priority. Remind students to think of people with different views as a resource rather than a roadblock: “What can you learn from them about how other people think and experience the world?”
    • Model respectful behavior and communication at all times, in both verbal and non-verbal offerings.

    Structuring civil discourse

    • Track conversations by stating topics clearly, and encourage students to preface their contributions by stating how their comments relate to the central topic. Write down suggestions for unrelated topics and follow up with another time slot to address them. 
    • Build in frequent pauses. This allows a few moments for students to collect, organize and capture their thoughts before launching conversations. 
    • Set agreements for commentaries and use timers to stay within those guidelines.
    • In videoconferencing applications, consider disengaging private chat functions to keep the channel of communication focused within the collective.
    • Establish classroom norms/guidelines. Clearly define what you mean by uncivil, harassing or threatening behavior prior to opening discussions. Step in to intervene immediately if you observe it occurring. The class is relying on you to maintain fairness.

    Keeping the learning space open during charged topics of conversation

    Allow questions to nudge the conversation forward: 

    • “I hear you and wish to sincerely consider this feedback. May I ask you a few questions to help me situate this information better in my understanding?”
    • “The information you are presenting is unsettling and difficult for me, but I want you to know that I’m interested in understanding what you are offering.”

    Revisit or establish rules of engagement

    • Revisit classroom norms that have been established. This should include what is expected of them and what students can expect from you as well. Address appropriate use of the chat window and screen sharing in Zoom. If this hasn’t been articulated previously, create expectations together. Ask students to collaborate on creating classroom norms for engaging in charged discussions. Identify the behaviors that convey respectful discussion (giving others the benefit of the doubt, letting people finish making their point, sharing the conversation, trying hard to be curious about someone else’s point of view, etc.). Likewise, have them identify what would constitute a lack of respect (i.e., name calling, sarcasm, cutting someone off, talking over other people, eye rolling, not making an effort to understand, etc.).This is a critical step that makes it possible for you and your students to respond to problematic comments and derailed conversations.
    • Use these explicit expectations about what behavior is expected and what is unacceptable to moderate discussion and watch closely for transgressions. Working with the group, swiftly address behaviors or comments that are out of bounds.
    • Find consensus with your students on how to repair when someone goes out-of-bounds or missteps. 
    Don't Do
    Tell people they are wrong Ask people what value or experiences led them there
    Ask how someone could ever believe something Ask when a particular belief started for them
    Interrupt people Give a moment to make sure they are done
    Instead of "Yeah, but, what about..." Try, "Could you please tell me more..."
    Assume you know their motives Ask about their goals and hopes
    Blame them for your anger or frustration Explain your anger or frustration and take responsibility for it

    Model intellectual humility by using Fumble Forward

    To promote open exchange in a charged subject matter, students preface their public commentary by saying “I’m about to fumble with my words.” The community responds as a chorus with “Fumble Forward!” It is a social agreement/contract to let confusion be a vital part of discourse. Perhaps a student is unsure of the terminologies needed to join a conversation. Perhaps they are unsure if their questions will be offensive. Perhaps they don’t have fully formulated ideas and opinions yet. But for the next few minutes, all have agreed to suspend judgement, lean in and help each other clarify through a process of corrective, delicate or clumsy verbal surgery. Fumble Forward allows participants to stay open and speak from the heart with diplomacy, even if their voices are trembling and they can’t find confident, stable ground. Fumble Forward gives all a starting place to back away from sounding off on each other. We can diplomatically move towards true listening and communication.

    Utilize misinformation as an opportunity

    Utilize misinformation as an opportunity to inspire research and procedures for checking the veracity of sources. Invite all to participate in this shared fact-checking process.