Discussing Controversial Issues in the Classroom

Man giving presentation


Controversial political, social, and identity issues are inescapable in our world, and they affect us all not just as people, but also as educators and learners. Faculty and students can sometimes shy away from conversations pertaining to difficult topics because they might feel ill-equipped to facilitate discussions or are afraid they might say something offensive.  However, these conversations are essential to giving students a voice, making them feel seen and supported in the classroom, and helping them to connect more deeply with the course material. Addressing these topics in curricula as well as integrating them in class discussions reflects and acknowledges the contemporary equity issues that impact our lives. As Dr. Liza Talusan, an educator, facilitator, and author of The Identity-Conscious Educator, explains, “when we shy away from these topics, we miss opportunities to help young people explore challenging topics with people they trust (i.e., their teachers and their peers); to connect current events with our own curriculum that students have been spending a considerable amount of time exploring; and to give young people a place to ask challenging questions that help them make sense of the world.” 

With this in mind, we invited faculty, staff, and students to join us for a two-part workshop where we offered resources and ideas on how to approach these issues with respect and understanding. These issues might include discussing LGBT rights in political science classrooms, addressing gender equality in STEM classes, and acknowledging racist incidents on campus, among many, many others. These issues can arise naturally in our classrooms, and in our students' lives, in a variety of ways. We serve our students best when we provide a space for these discussions to occur. 

We are grateful for the work of Dr. Uttara Manohar, the Faculty Development Center’s Faculty Fellow for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and Jessi Kwek, an FDC student worker, in envisioning and implementing this programming.

Part 1

When: Tuesday, January 31, 2023, from 3:30-5:00 PM

Where: Room 310A in the Student Center

The first part of the workshop included an introduction to the challenges associated with addressing controversial issues that may come up in the classroom. These issues may arise directly as part of course material, or in response to current events that may be stressing to students in a way that prevents them from fully engaging in class (including hateful graffiti or demonstrations on campus, major national events, and anything in between). We heard from both students and faculty about why these issues are important to address, and got their perspective on how to best handle these discussions. Participants then engaged in small group discussions - which again included both faculty and students - about how these issues present themselves in our classrooms, including how they come up differently in specific fields, and brainstorm ways to engage classes in these discussions.

View the PowerPoint Slides from Session 1

Part 2

When: Tuesday February 21, 2023, from 3:30-5:00 PM

Where: Room 352 in the Student Center

The second part of the workshop, held on February 21 from 3:30 to 5:00, builded on the conversations from the first session, and offered a toolkit for how to approach controversial issues in different contexts. Participants had the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue, reflect on what they learned during their small group discussions, and consider ideas for how to best respond to these challenges. Students and faculty then had the opportunity to reflect on these tools and brainstorm together one new thing they intend to try in their facilitation of and participation in class discussions around sensitive topics. 

View the PowerPoint Slides from Session 2

If you have any questions regarding these events or your registration for these events, please contact the Bruce K. Nelson Faculty Development Center ([email protected]).