Navigating Difficult Moments in Your Course

As per the Union College faculty manual (Section V.II (PDF page 142)), faculty are “entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing a subject, but should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to the subject at hand or which creates an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning educational environment.” 

Nonetheless, in the realm of every academic discipline, numerous potentially contentious subjects, content, and dialogues exist that merit a constructive exploration in the classroom. Consequently, undergraduate students must actively cultivate essential skills—such as articulating diverse perspectives, engaging in attentive listening, and approaching discussions with empathy—to effectively collaborate and address complex, real-world challenges. As educators, it falls upon us to purposefully exemplify and facilitate the development of these constructive engagement skills in impactful ways. Simply expecting students to collaborate, delve into sensitive topics, or tackle challenging material without providing clear guidance risks disruptions and may significantly hinder the learning process.

This article aims to help faculty design a course structure that can help mitigate potential disruptive moments that may arise throughout the term. Consider the following before teaching your next course:

  1. Don’t Promise a Safe Space

  2. Set Up Community Agreements

  3. Navigating Hot Moments

  4. How to do Group Work

Don’t Promise a Safe Space

You’ve likely heard the term “safe space.” But what is the problem with promising safe spaces in dialogue? Watch this video (~9 min) by Professor Bob Bordone to learn about the dangers of using the term safe space when it comes to facilitating conflict and difficult conversations in the classroom (and find out what to do instead!).

Professor Bordone is Senior Fellow at Harvard Law School and the Founder and former Director of Harvard Law Schools Negotiation Mediation Clinical Program. He is also the Founder and Principal of the Cambridge Negotiation Institute and has written and taught on negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution for more than 20 years.


Set Up Community Agreements

You’ve just heard Professor Bordone talk about a few rules for setting up “low-risk” spaces for challenging dialogue including 1) setting up ground rules, 2) allowing people to be “raggedy”, and 3) normalizing breaks. Here are a few more guides to skim through to mine ideas to manage challenging class dynamics:

  • Group Agreements: by Harvard Bok Center. “Also referred to as class norms, participation norms, ground rules, community agreements, or group contracts”, these “are rules, intentions, or guidelines for behavior and interaction that are communally formulated and agreed upon. They are a tool for fostering participation, inclusivity, and habits of explicit consent and accountability in the classroom. [...] It’s helpful to review the agreements once or twice in the weeks following the initial formulation session so that students have a chance to edit, subtract, or elaborate on agreements. After that, make sure to return to the agreements throughout the semester so that they don’t slip from memory.”

  • Guidelines For Classroom Interactions: by University of Michigan CRLT. (also see Guidelines for Discussion)

  • Getting Started with Establishing Ground Rules: By Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation

Navigating Hot Moments

  • Navigating Difficult Moments: by Harvard Bok Center. “While there’s often no single “right” response, as the instructor, how you address difficult moments in the classroom has implications for learning. Your response can communicate indifference or even hostility; alternatively, it can show that you’re aware of your classroom’s dynamics, you aim to promote learning even through struggle, and you care about your students’ well-being.” Read this article to gain some concrete ideas for responding productively. 

How to do Group Work 

A curated list of resources, by David Collinge, Sr. Learning Designer, Inclusive Pedagogy and Stacie Cassat Green, Instructional Design Consultant (need to login with Union Google account to access)


Article ID: 159168
Mon 11/27/23 3:23 PM
Tue 11/28/23 4:26 PM