It can’t be missed, the challenges of civility in everyday discourse that have been heightened by the current election cycle. But politics alone haven’t brought about the issues of discomfort in verbal exchanges in the classroom. The concept of the “trigger warning” has been around for a few years as a way of alerting students to conversations or course material that may lead to their discomfort, or even re-trigger some painful memories from a prior traumatic life experience. According to a recent article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, some have used it as “heads up” and a “basic courtesy” to the students in the room. Others claim that it is “political correctness run amok” and could actually inhibit deeper discussions in the classroom, hindering intellectual conversations, and create a shadow of censorship in the academic environment. In a backlash, the University of Chicago went so far as to inform incoming students:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces,’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
But the topic of trigger warnings is not alone in the conversation on creating spaces where challenging classroom and college discourse can make students uncomfortable. Embracing Tension in the Classroom was the title of a short article by Geniece Crawford Mondé in a recent issue of The Teaching Professor. In that article, Mondé describes the difference between positive and negative tension and how, by embracing the former, one can avoid the latter and create an engaging learning environment. Mondé goes on to use the term “hot moments” to describe the potential for discussions that can go off the rails leading to disrespectful and acrimonious discussions. By contrast, positive tension serves the learning objectives and is carefully guided, often built from reading material that sparks discussion. She suggests that the use of fictitious narratives can help avoid hot moments by “stripping an issue of its real-world status.”
Of course, the alternative challenge to educators is to help build a connection, empathy, and understanding of a subject, something that other educators have described as creating truly deep learning. Transferring that knowledge gained through deeper learning becomes a key 21st Century skill. How does one take their understanding of a pivotal historical moment and transfer that to a modern day situation? That is part of the conversation that happens in the classroom, and sometimes that conversation can be heated, the “hot moment” described by Mondé. The challenge is to identify the difference between a “heated” exchange and a “passionate” one.
But what, then, are misfires? From a pure communications standpoint, misfires can occur when an educator presents a behavior that undermines their own effectiveness in the classroom. We’ve all done it. We’re all human. There are behaviors, however, that we can modify to overcome the likelihood of misfires. Then, when one occurs, its impact is lessened on successful learning. Jennifer Waldeck suggests that our own attitude can project a lack of commitment to teaching that can undermine our effectiveness. Who wants to learn from someone who acts as if they hate being there? Verbal abuse, lazy behavior, and incompetence are just a few of the things she mentions as something we might be guilty of in the classroom. A student may even challenge an educator (or vice versa) with the refrain “you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” And, of course, many educators are offended by a challenge to what a student may call “an opinion” in regards to course content or even grading and assessment.
So what is an educator to do? First… don’t take it personally. Take a deep breath. Make it a partnership with the student from the very start. You are on an educational journey, one that should be built upon a partnership of trust and respect. Encourage challenges and provide guidance on how to shape conclusions based on discerning research and reliable resources. Review your syllabus and the tone that you take in it. Is the entire document written in terms of a threat? Is everything negative and punitive? Sometimes, just rewriting the content in a way that frames the educational experience as a positive one can make all the difference. Do your projects have rubrics that are fair and understandable? Consider having the students take a stab at grading their own work. In my experience, given this challenge, they are often harder on themselves than I would be. And the end result is they have a renewed appreciation for how difficult your job can be when it comes to assessing a student’s work.
All in all, just put your best foot forward. Show students your passion for the subject, not your disdain for their lack of understanding it. Share your own stories of how you came to understand the material, your “ah-ha!” moments. Learn from your students, from every challenge, awkward experience, and difficult conversation. Remember that, in the end, you are the grown-up who can astutely guide the student as they navigate new knowledge and its impact on their life’s view. And you can do that in a way that helps them make their own discoveries and resolutions.
Remember also that, as you get older, the students get younger – their experiences grow farther and farther away from your own. Listen and learn from them. Ask them to provide the thoughtful insights connecting the material to their own experiences. Show that you are learning from them, too.
Trigger warnings can provide a heads up. Tension can be a useful tool in the classroom. And occasional misfires can happen. But challenging conversations can also provide amazing opportunities to create true connections that make learning more meaningful and longlasting.