Difficult Topics

While there is no comprehensive description or definition of “difficult topics”, the term is generally used to refer to material that raises challenging feelings, disagreements, conflicts, discomfort, triggering experiences of trauma, and connections to systemic inequality and oppression. Some examples of difficult topics include:

  • Discussing topics relating to lived experiences of oppression, harm, and injustice, such as:
    1. Racism and racial violence;
    2. Sexual violence;
    3. War, political violence, torture, detention, and incarceration;
    4. Ableism;
    5. Medical and/or psychiatric violence; and
    6. Homophobic, transphobic, and other gender- and sexuality-based forms of violence;
  • Examining violent content and images;
  • Disagreements over the concepts, terms, and language of violence, oppression, harm, discrimination, et cetera;
  • Reactions of defensiveness and/or anger when presented with information that contradicts a worldview; and
  • Discussions of topics that can be perceived as invalidating a person’s experience of harm.

Common Challenges in the Classroom

Below is a compiled list of some common challenges faculty and students of post-secondary educational institutions face when navigating difficult topics in the classroom:

  • Students experiencing discrimination, oppression, and violence may expect their courses on these topics or identities to be spaces for their experiences to be recognized and centred.
  • Students who experience discrimination, oppression, and violence may be called upon to justify or explain their experiences in ways that risk being coercive, exploitative, or invalidating.
  • New and vanguard discourses around appropriate terminology may not be evenly available to students and faculty or could be contested/under debate.
  • Students and faculty who are learning difficult knowledge for the first time may resist accepting a shift in their worldview.
  • The intersectional ways that violence manifests may make it difficult to understand or recognize how a familiar form of identity or inequality (e.g. sexuality identity) may look and be experienced differently when connected with other forms of violence (e.g. racism).
  • Faculty teaching may encounter new ideas around identity through their students and their classes, which they may not be equipped to understand or discuss (e.g. new gender identities or sexual orientations).
  • Faculty and students risk tokenizing the experiences shared by other students in the classroom (e.g. a student or professor uses a classmate’s gender identity as an example in a class discussion).
  • Faculty and students may share personal experiences, whether their own or stories about others, as examples or illustrations of learning in ways that may transgress boundaries or violate ethical principles. Consider:
    • Does the person have permission to share this experience or story with others?
    • Who is served by sharing this story–the person who has experienced harm, or the person telling the story?
    • Is there a risk that sharing this story will make someone vulnerable?
    • Is there a more appropriate way to convey a similar idea?

Assuming a Common Language in the Classroom

As students learn new concepts, they can develop strong political views and convictions in relation to course materials. When existing knowledge is uneven in the classroom, epistemic power can sometimes emerge in classroom dynamics, especially when knowledge is used to exercise authority in class discussion.

Concept: Epistemic Power and Epistemic Privilege

Epistemic privilege is the advantage of experience-based knowledge from subjugated standpoints. Feminist standpoint theory proposes that knowledge and understanding of oppression are based on the lived experiences of being oppressed. This, in turn, gives those in subjugated positions the power to know and name systems of injustice, violence, and oppression more readily than those who are in privileged subject positions.

For example, a person who is subject to racism will understand, by virtue of their experience, the system and structure of racial inequality more readily than those who are non-racialized.

While students should be encouraged to apply theories, concepts, ideas, and arguments they have developed both within and outside of the classroom, including through lived experiences, the trend to assume that specialized knowledge, for example, of gender and sexuality, should be universally shared rather than part of learning, can create a learning environment that is challenging for students with less familiarity of these topics. For example, students and faculty new to gender and sexuality discourses may not know about non-binary pronoun use or how to apply respectful language conventions in new contexts. Students and teachers alike who are new to inclusive language practices may pose questions using terms that can come across as invalidating, insulting, offensive, or challenging, and some may resist accepting a worldview that challenges their own attachments to gender and sexuality norms.

These tensions can also arise due to intergenerational and cultural differences in language used to describe identity and experience and the history of words in systems of violence (e.g. using terminology like “f*g” or “dyke” may be offensive to some while empowering to others, discussing a song or text by a Black artist that uses the “n” word). At the same time, students may find themselves sharing their experiences of oppression as part of the learning environment in the classroom, only to have those experiences invalidated, dismissed, or tokenized. In both cases, it can be difficult to navigate the tension between lived experience and learning about power and inequality.


Strategies for Fostering an Inclusive Classroom

Fostering a classroom where students are encouraged to share their epistemic privilege while also making space for respectful learning is important in classes grappling with topics relating to identity, inequality, discrimination, violence, and oppression.

The role of the instructor is to help guide and facilitate this process by:

  1. Reframing student interventions that come across as “difficult” through pedagogical terms to allow for discussion;
  2. De-escalating and de-personalizing the framing of a critique by making it applicable to the entire class or to the topic at hand (i.e. deters debate over a person’s experience or identity);
  3. Validating student experiences and contributions when they bring up or raise “difficult” material to the classroom (e.g. thanking them for sharing, apologizing if you can’t give the topic more time or space for discussion in class); and
  4. Reminding students that we do not come to the classroom with the same experiences or knowledge, and thus, it is important to self-reflect on classroom participation.
Christina Page’s open educational resource Inclusive Pedagogies (2021), develops further recommendations for inclusive approaches to classroom design, facilitation, teaching, and learning.

Best Practices for an Inclusive Classroom

Discourage competition and policing in the classroom; instead, ask students to correct, challenge, question, and interrogate one another and the instructor in a way that encourages active learning together rather than demonstrating specialized knowledge. Further, faculty can model reflexivity, self-correction, apology, and sharing experiences of how they worked through comparable or similar forms of “difficult” learning.

Facilitating Difficult Discussions

Students and faculty alike may come to the class with previous experiences with “difficult” learning that are distressing, uncomfortable, or challenging. Defensive reactions and responses are common. When a defensive response comes up, it can help to acknowledge that the topic is bringing up strong reactions and use some of these strategies:

Pause:

  • Pause class and discussion to take a few moments to reflect:
    • Identify if time and space are needed for emotional equilibrium and self-regulation (i.e. Do we need to calm down? Do a breathing exercise?);
  • Pause the discussion to return to later, making sure to specify when you’ll set time to return to this discussion (e.g. let’s pause this discussion and take time to reflect, and we’ll return to it next class);
  • Call for a classroom break;

Acknowledge:

  • Acknowledge that the different standpoints and experiences in the classroom are making it difficult to find common ground for discussion;
  • That the classroom can also act as a reflection of society so that topics cannot be easily resolved in the classroom because they are not easy to resolve in the world;
  • That the classroom can be a space that reinforces systemic violence and affirms your commitment to helping the class work through an understanding of this or offer strategies for how to transform these dynamics;
  • That the classroom cannot be a “safe space” and offer ways for everyone to return to a place where they can ensure their own well-being (e.g. to reflect on their needs vs. wants for engaging in the class); and
  • Offer opportunities and space for students to share their thoughts and feelings outside of class.

Identify:

  • Identify strategies and ways to foster the participation of all students, especially those who have been historically excluded from the classroom; and
  • Encourage curiosity and openness towards viewpoints and perspectives that are different by learning about what informs these perspectives and experiences.

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Better Practices in the Classroom by Natalie Kouri-Towe and Myloe Martel-Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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