Learn About Your Context

First, it can be helpful to identify what is “challenging” about a particular conversation. This involves some preparation in understanding yourself, your students, and the people and structures that might best support you as you move forward. We suggest the following: 

  • Know yourself, your biography, and your teaching values (see, for example, the Introduction and Chapter 1 in hooks 1994). Your pedagogical approach might be informed by your experiences and your disciplines (as in Pittman 2010 and Williams and Conyers 2016). Your experiences might inform whether you decide to facilitate a challenging conversation or choose a different strategy to address a challenging topic. These reflection questions might give you a place to begin.
  • Learn about your students and how challenging conversations are likely to support their learning (Pasque et al. 2013). Be mindful of assumptions that are not borne out by the experiences of your students, in your courses (Adedoyin 2022). There are a number of strategies you can use to learn about students in your classes and in your field, such as pre-course surveys, introduction videos, or class time to support community-building.
  • Discuss “cases” or examples of challenging conversations with your teaching colleagues, in your particular context. What kinds of class materials or events are likely to be challenging for your students and why? What kinds of approaches are likely to best support student learning? Identify and discuss how you’d respond to those examples. 
  • Build your own knowledge of facilitation skills so that you can be reflective and responsive to the conversation developing in your class. Learn how to ask good questions, introduce pauses for thinking and summarizing, make space for all students to contribute, and share with students what you’re noticing in the conversation (Dugué, Fisher, and Roderick 2020Lang 2015Watkins 2019).
  • Draft and practice language you’d use to open a conversation, maintain or redirect a conversation, or close a conversation. You can ask students to “say more,” for example, if you’d like them to expand their thinking, or “it sounds like… is that right?” to clarify a comment. You can encourage a multiplicity of voices by asking whether anyone has another interpretation, or say, “let’s hear from someone who hasn’t yet had a chance to speak.” Choose language that feels authentic to you.
  • Identify and connect with your teaching communities who can support you should a challenging conversation go viral (Barre et al. 2023Pettit 2021). You might identify peers and colleagues in positions of power who can support you in your pedagogical choices. 
  • Learn about the institutional protections that exist to support you in your pedagogical choices, e.g., institutional policies and syllabus language. Know which policies support students’ access to education. Links to UMN-specific policies are included in the attached resource document.