Faculty Encourage Difficult Classroom Conversations

Susan Tohn, a professor in the Boston College School of Social Work, and Sarah Castricum, senior instructional developer at the Center for Teaching Excellence, collaborated for a presentation on “Cultivating Courageous Classroom Conversations” on Tuesday—one of the many events organized as part of BC’s International Education Week.

Castricum opened the presentation by defining courageous conversations and their importance in the classroom: Topics that lie at the intersection of diversity and inequality, in which individuals’ lived experiences that may be characterized by pain and injustice constitute a difficult dialogue in the classroom. Castricum planned to use the discussion to create strategies in which these topics may be discussed in a comfortable classroom environment.

“Often we experience these events as difficult dialogues, and our goal is very much to think in terms of transforming them into courageous conversations,” she said. “Our goal is for everyone to leave today not with the whole world solved but with hopefully one concrete strategy that you can take away and use in the setting that’s most important to you, especially in terms of occurrences in the classroom in which we can make this transition happen.”

Tohn continued with an emphasis on conversations in the classroom and how the structures of certain classes facilitate conversation, while others can struggle in pursuit of achieving difficult dialogues. Tohn referenced that the School of Social Work has found that a research-based class has more trouble providing open space for conversation than a practice class setting.

“In order to have these courageous conversations, we have to be able to go outside of that box of research and academia, and we have be able to be uncomfortable and curious about each other,” Tohn said. “For these conversations to really go in a way that would achieve the most courageous conversation, people are going to have to get uncomfortable.

“If we all stay polite and comfortable, we are not going to get to the place we need to get to for whatever that difficult topic is to be openly discussed.”

The structure of the event then moved into small group discussion, where faculty and students intermixed to share experiences of difficult dialogues in the classroom. Steffano Montano, a doctoral candidate of theology and education in the School of Theology and Ministry, shared his experience as a professor dealing with Islamophobia in the classroom following the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I felt like the whole time neither the student who was most upset or myself were really able to communicate or listen to each other,” he said. “There was a lot of anger on my side and her side of the room, and it wasn’t manageable. In that situation what I feel like I could have done was have everybody start talking about what they felt and how it affected them and how it might have related to the whole course.

“But I didn’t know how to do that in the moment,” he said.

The discussion was opened up to the entire classroom, and Tohn wrote down the strategies that could be used by both faculty and students when faced with uncomfortable discussion topics in the classroom. Professors’ ability to enact flexible agendas in order to facilitate unprecedented discussion was emphasized, as well as the strategy of diffusing the tension that can potentially arise in those situations.

Castricum closed with stressing the importance of setting guidelines in the classroom for these discussions to be safely executed. Handouts with the guidelines used by the School of Social Work were available, in addition to activities and discussion questions that could be used to initiate conversations over sensitive subjects.

“We want to be thinking about what can be done proactively before we even get into the classroom or the initial moments of being in class that can make a difference in how these discussions go,” Castricum said. “We found the useful values to keep in mind when forming these guidelines to be empathy, trust, courage, and curiosity.

“I think that that’s what makes the difference. Setting those guidelines in the classroom and understanding which guidelines to be mindful of in these conversations.”

Featured Image by Katie Genirs / Height Editor