Image of students discussing assignments.

Preparations for the spring 2016 UI Themes Semester, Just Living, have encouraged many instructors to consider how best to incorporate and facilitate difficult dialogues around social justice. 

“While authentically exploring social oppression can be challenging, engaging in difficult dialogues about racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, politics, and religion are necessary,” says Sherry Watt, associate professor of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies. “These dialogues allow for exploration and eventual action that address the social problems that lead to emotional and physical violence in our society.”

While acknowledging and anticipating the potential for emotionally charged discussion, instructors and students who explicitly tackle difficult topics can also achieve important learning goals, including acquiring fundamental knowledge, cultivating critical thinking skills, and applying learning beyond the classroom.

Watt adds that “breaking the silence and working through the fear actually creates the possibility that we can address the inequities that limit the expression of our true selves and restricts both those with dominant and marginalized identities in our communities.”

Many of the most useful strategies for teaching difficult dialogues are those that facilitate good discussion in any classroom:

  • A thoughtfully written course description can provide notice that students will be engaging in difficult dialogues.  
  • Asking students to draft a set of guidelines for in-class discussion can help to ensure that classrooms are “brave” spaces where students are encouraged to wrestle with new ideas. This exercise works well early in the semester, and some instructors ask students to revisit the guidelines again later in the course to reflect new insights they have gained on how to practice thoughtful, evidence-based, respectful discussion (see p. 20 of the new 6th edition of the Handbook for Teaching Excellence, available from the Center for Teaching).  
  • Students may offer more thoughtful comments during discussion if given a chance to organize their thoughts in a minute-paper or with a peer in a think-pair-share exercise, in which students first contemplate a question, try out their response on another student, and then share their revised response with the class.  
  • Lengthier reflective writing about the process of the learning students are undertaking can help them process new ideas or heated discussions.  
  • The “five-minute rule” requires students to concisely provide serious consideration to an idea or concept in a limited time. The timeframe may also help maintain a respectful conversation and avoid comments that are or seem to be personal attacks
  • Encourage students to ask themselves:  What’s interesting or helpful about what is being said?  What are some intriguing perspectives that others might not have noticed?  What would be different if I believed this view, if I accepted it as true?  In what sense and under what conditions might this idea be true? What is the evidence or justification for what I am saying?*

For more ideas, see this handout on diversity in teaching from the OTLT webpage. 


The OTLT Center for Teaching lending library has resources that provide strategies for incorporating difficult dialogues into teaching. *These questions and the five-minute techniques are detailed in:

Brookfield, S. & Preskill, S. (1999) Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

In recent weeks, staff members have co-presented with Assistant Professor of History Keisha Blain a graduate student workshop, Lessons from the #Charlestonsyllabus, and with the Department of Gender, Women's & Sexuality Studies a teaching workshop for the Social Justice After Ferguson conference.