Pop-up Panel: Creating Class Spaces for Difficult Conversations

In November 2018, two neo-Nazi Davidson College students were doxxed online by the Carolina Worker’s Collective on Twitter. For full details about the story, see The Davidsonian. As news of the situation spread, the campus community experienced tremendous shock about the news involving their peers and there were many open spaces created for further discussion as we collectively processed the situation. Though some professors abandoned class agendas to discuss the evolving situation, others proceeded as usual, which prompted dissonance for students. DMP in collaboration with the CTL and FIRST promptly initiated a pop-up panel about how to address difficult topics with students in class spaces. The intention was for the panel to include professors from an array of disciplines including the social sciences, the humanities, and STEM. Highlights from the panel follow as we all strive to respond with support and care in light of unanticipated circumstances.

  • Take time out to disrupt business as usual. It’s okay to say you didn’t fully know what was going on. Routines and lives are being disrupted so take a pause. Abandon an agenda to open and hold space.
  • Ask questions: What is on your minds? How can I support you?
  • Some of us have too much expertise on this and may want to deliver 10-50 minute lectures on these topics. That’s not the bar though. Take a pause to recognize the impact for those on, near, work on this campus. Don’t need to have an expert do this.
  • Honesty and vulnerability are key. Talk about your own stance and feelings about what’s happening and the ongoing process of learning about white supremacy. Carol Anderson’s White Rage book is helpful on this.
  • You don’t necessarily need to begin the discussion with guiding questions – students can sit in uncomfortable silence for a bit and see where they want to take their own space for discussion.
  • In classes where students are used to participating, specific questions can help get discussion going. For example, “Where were you when this happened?” “How are you feeling?” (people may not be comfortable speaking up about it immediately.) “What have you heard?” (It is helpful to hear and intervene in rumors if you have knowledge that can ease the uncertainty. Even if you’re saying, “I don’t know but I’ll ask and follow back up with you all” rather than relying upon the rumor mill. See where the conversation goes, follow and facilitate it.
  • As a white fac member, it is important to try to model for white students how to de-center whiteness, think problematically about their white fragility and not responding with defensiveness. Prepare students to listen, and be good allies. Things like this can feel personal and we all need to understand and empathize with that too.
  • Model how to be engaged and listen.
  • About vulnerable folks in your classrooms – recognize that this conversation is really draining for them. Have generosity around assignments, extensions, put off assignments for the whole class; many students arrive here not knowing they can ask for extensions. Extend support first as the person in the power position to do so.
  • Avoid putting this work on others to explain the underlying problems to the situation to your classes. Recognize that the underrepresented and historically marginalized are always doing this labor outside of the classroom so educate yourself and do not put that labor on your colleagues, even if it comes from a good place.
  • Self-education – Curate your list and follow academics out there doing amazing things in the classroom – follow them as they are putting out free advice for you. Even if you don’t want to engage on Twitter, you can have this daily read-through.
  • Sacrifice some course content – that can be hard to give up.
  • End with students having a sense of their own power. They are very powerful! Whether they feel it or not, the administration does hear them and they’re a powerful constituency that we must listen to.
  • Orchestrate a follow up as well.
  • Think about how to get the class talking to each other to create an inclusive environment is a big effort that can do a lot of good.
  • If you are someone who thinks this is not necessary because it’s not part of your job, consider the fact that your job includes mentorship as an extension of teaching students. If you don’t want to bring up tough topics happening in society or directly in our lives during class time when something clearly disruptive has taken shape, ask yourself how you can let go of some class content and find creative ways to tie the topic to your content. Imagine: Why is this relevant? Then find ways to make it so. Do not ignore it as though it’s not happening. It’s the elephant in the room. Consider the fact that we all often walk into the class and talk about a lot of things that are not related to class content. These hard topics are no different and need processing and acknowledgment.
  • Struggling and wrestling with it is useful. It’s a red herring to say it’s not on the syllabus so I’m not going to touch it.
  • It can be awkward and uncomfortable to deal with these hard topics but we have to get over the idea that professors are perfect authorities. Our humanity and that of our students is a critical part of what it takes to wrestle with these issues.