Covering Controversial Topics in a Polarized Classroom 

Crumpled paper in the shape of two heads facing each other. One head's mouth is covered by a giant red x representing censorship

Controversial topics in higher education are far from a new phenomenon, but the pressures of teaching in the era of call-out culture have introduced a new layer of vulnerability when approaching certain topics within the classroom.  

Many instructors, out of fear of backlash, choose self-censorship or avoid controversial topics entirely. However, avoiding relevant topics is a disservice to students who would benefit from the development of unique perspectives and deeper understanding gained from engaging in critically conscious discourse of current events.  

How can an instructor approach difficult topics from an academic perspective without presumed bias?

Wooden peg people with icons representing a debate.

Five helpful tips for leading controversial topics in your online classroom: 

  1. Set the tone: Establish clear ground rules that include what will and will not be allowed within these discussions as well as the consequences of ignoring these rules. Be entirely transparent about what will be covered so that students have an opportunity to make an informed decision about taking your course. Include information about how you intend to approach these topics, whether it be through presenting varying moral perspectives or contentious historical context.  
  1. Moderate emotions: It’s easy for emotion to take over when discussing controversial topics, but it is important to model the behavior you would like for students to exhibit. Moderating any strong emotions, whether negative or positive, is essential. Show students how to reframe their feelings into productive discourse and how to remain respectful of one another when engaging in a heated discussion. Disagreements are inevitable, but they should never devolve into personal attacks.  
  1. Keep the train on the tracks: Make sure to always align the discussion with your course material. Use these discussions to further develop ideas raised within your course lectures, readings, and assessments. If a conversation begins to derail itself, bring it back to the topic at hand. Pedagogy has a place in controversial discourse.  
  1. Foster hesitation: Remind students that it is okay to remain silent while they explore their own ideas and perspectives about a particular subject. Uncertainty is a normal part of the development of an independent view.  
  1. Be supportive: While exhibiting empathy within your role is essential, you must also be prepared to provide additional support to students who have personal connections to the topic at hand. Students may share deeply personal, emotional disclosures as part of these discussions. Be familiar with campus counseling resources should a student of concern presents themselves. Use these resources to create opportunities for students to express themselves safely and freely outside of the classroom.  

Controversial discussions can be used as positive pedagogical tools to reinforce learning. By utilizing some of these strategies, instructors can navigate difficult subject matter with limited hostility, and in turn, create an environment that fosters the development of individual perspectives and opinions for all learners.   

Christina Schettini is a Project Manager for the FIU Online Learning Design team. Through her work, she supports the development of effective and engaging learning experiences in the online modality.

Related posts