Good teaching often relies on productive classroom discussion. However, many of us have experienced dynamics in which our discussions take a perilous turn and a palpable tension settles over the class. The precipitating comment may have offered a provocative perspective on an issue—maybe it rather aggressively challenged something someone said, or perhaps it smacked of racism, sexism, or some other discriminatory innuendo. Generally, students respond to comments they perceive as contentious with an awkward, uncomfortable silence. Nobody says anything; body language registers a collective recoil. What can or should teachers do when situations like this occur? Constructive disagreement, argument, and debate can play instrumental roles in learning, but not unless the exchange moves forward constructively. I’d like to offer three suggestions that can help teachers safely navigate through the potentially destructive terrains of contentious comments.
Remember that student investment is a crucial and desired resource. In my experience, contention in our classrooms usually results because the student cares. He or she has an investment in the idea or what’s happened. Even contributions that are emotionally charged are offered because someone feels moved. We do well, first, to remember that caring engagement is a better and more readily engaged resource than complacency or indifference. So, our first step toward navigating contention is to recognize that more often than not, it results from a willingness to invest and engage. As such, it is a resource to be harnessed, not a tension to be feared.
Acknowledge the contention and define it as positively as possible. How we define such occurrences goes a long way toward determining how they are received. I will often end an animated and perilous discussion by stating, overtly, how fortunate we are to have classmates this invested in what we are discussing and how this kind of caring is at the root of our shared inquiry. Crucial to this step is not ignoring or brushing aside contention, pretending that we all agree when we don’t, or that our disagreements are small and inconsequential. Doing so risks heightening the negative dynamics. Taking a moment or two to say something like “the energy and investment demonstrated by your contributions is really what this class should be all about” honestly redefines what may otherwise be seen as something to be avoided rather than anticipated as the class proceeds.
Use good spirit and humor to defuse contentious contributions. I have found that well-placed, supportive humor defuses most potentially negative energy. I recently had a young woman heatedly take issue with the comments a young man made in the class. What followed was one of those “silent” gasps, literally heard around the room. My default reaction is respectful and honest humor. In this case, by combining suggestion two with this one, I said something like “Wow, Mary, you really care about this. We need to further unpack why and how this matters—and you are clearly up to that task. But in the meantime I would hate to lose to you in a poker game! Now let’s explore what you’ve said and why it matters.” I believe that humor often helps in these tension situations.
Further, though often overlooked, the beginning and ending of the class period afford teachers some special opportunities. They are more casual times, and allow us a different sort of freedom to engage our students. They are times when we can frame what will happen or has happened in class. For example, if part of the class has taken one side and another part has taken the opposite position, as they leave, I may, in a good-natured way, suggest that if they see one another outside of class they should continue the discussion. If a few students have gone after each other pretty aggressively, I have said as they leave class that I’ll buy the coffee if they’d like to meet and talk through the issues more informally. Or, as the next class session begins, I may remark on how our previous discussion really made me think—and that I found it stimulating and look forward to more engaged exchanges as the course proceeds.
These brief tips will not address the rare and extreme circumstances that require different interventions. However, in my experience, such responses enable us to constructively handle the majority of those contentious moments, transforming them into the healthy clash of different ideas and viewpoints we look forward to and depend on.
Rob Dornsife, Creighton University, Nebraska. firstname.lastname@example.org