During a course, there may be parts of the curriculum that present or invite exposure and student participation around topics and issues that may be considered controversial, personal, or sensitive to students in the class. It is exceedingly difficult to predict which topics students might find controversial or sensitive, and treating them so based on assumptions and stereotypes may cause additional harm. At the same time, the learning objectives and strategies employed in the course may either require analysis and discussion of controversial or sensitive issues or the course may be obstructed by avoidance of these issues to the detriment of the student learning experience.
The goal is to give students the opportunity to be aware of what is coming in a course curriculum, to understand why a potentially sensitive topic is part of the course, and to ask questions and respond to the instructor to get more information to support their learning. It is also important to know how to respond to a student if they are offended, inform them of the support available to them for care and concern, and know what to do if a student’s response becomes a conduct issue. Bear in mind that any aspect of learning can create degrees of discomfort in students and is therefore not a reason to shut down dialogue. Learning comes in part through dialogue of diverse perspectives if those perspectives do not dehumanize or marginalize participants.
Use Inclusive Course Design
- Build an environment of inclusion with attention to student well-being from the very start.
- Here is a list of ten things you can do to build awareness and support in your course.
- The discussion forum may introduce difficult conversations. Here are some strategies to help build structure before, during, and after a difficult or uncomfortable conversation.
- Explain to students how a sensitive or controversial topic is part of the course in terms of where it aligns with course objectives and outcomes.
- Express your expectations to the students and explain that students will not be penalized for having differing opinions about a controversial topic.
Respond to Students During the Course
- Should a student become defensive or agitated during a conversation, support them first. Seek a pedagogical response before a referral to Student Conduct.
- Understand some of the signals that a student is in distress and understand your professional boundaries.
- Familiarize yourself with the Red Folder, which contains resources and instructions on how to Recognize, Respond, and Refer students who are in distress.
- If a student becomes disruptive in their response, it is important to be present in that situation, support the student who is disruptive, and support the students affected by the disruption. Here is a short protocol to help guide that response.
- Also review guidance from Penn State Educational Equity on Classroom Disruption Protocols.
- The World Campus Online Faculty Development self-guided short course OL 1200: Student Support and Advocacy in Online Learning offers a comprehensive overview of how to best support and respond to students, especially for topics and issues they deem sensitive, controversial, or personally difficult.
Practice Personal Boundaries and Self-Care
Not every situation can or should be managed by the instructor. The Red Folder referenced above can help you discern your role in the process. However, if a student should become offensive or abusive toward the instructor, it is reasonable for the instructor to seek institutional support.
- If the instructor believes that the behavior has violated the Code of Conduct, it may merit or require submitting a report.
- Discuss issues of student misconduct toward instructors with immediate supervisors or Faculty Ombudspersons to seek support and guidance.
- If you require support for your own mental well-being, the University has resources available. Consult the Health Advocate for available options.