Courageous Conversations:
Facilitating Controversial Discussions in the Classroom
In a presidential election year students may be more likely to bring up controversial topics and events.  A presidential election raises the importance of social and economic issues for many people and the need to be "right" on an issue has greater immediacy. There seems to be more at stake during a presidential election year because a new administration sets the agenda for domestic policy, has the power to appoint federal judges, and makes important foreign policy decision.  This political intensity may mean that students in your classes will want to take on current events or political controversies with more vehemence.  How can we take advantage of this heighted attention to public affairs in our courses and facilitate conversations that increase understanding of complicated issues and improve civil discourse. 

Here are some ideas for facilitating courageous conversations from Vanderbilt University's Center for Teaching:

1. Identify potential controversies. Think about which topics may come up in your course(s).  You'll feel more prepared if you've done some initial thinking about difficult discussions that may emerge because of your course content. 
2. Lay some ground rules for discussion at the beginning of the term and return to those rules before embarking on a difficult discussion.  Hold students accountable to those rules as well.  Some ideas for these ground rules may be:
a. no name calling, no yelling, no personal attacks
b. only one person talks at a time....no interruptions.  If students are afraid they won't remember an idea before their turn to speak, ask them to write down their thoughts. 
c. invoke the Vegas rule - what happens in class, stays in class
3. Ask students to present the opinion that is in opposition to their own stance.  Asking a student to explain another's viewpoint can help improve understanding of a controversial issue. 
4.  Call "time out" when necessary.  Take a short break.  Ask students to pause and create a written response to the verbal debate that is happening in class.  Revisit the discussion rules and then restart the discussion using students' written work as discussion prompts. 

Here are some additional resources on facilitating difficult dialogues in the classroom.  
September is National Voter Registration Month. In support of voter registration initiatives
that are happening on campus, all of the INtopFORM tips this month will focus on using the issues and opportunities of a presidential-election year in your courses and improving civil discourse among students.