Reflective Practice, Teach@CUNY

Teaching Amidst Turmoil

Four speech bubbles, overlaying one another

by Luke Waltzer

Many faculty, staff, and students at CUNY have been traumatized by the ongoing violence in the Middle East. Even for those without personal connections to the war, the scenes and reporting from Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and protests around the world have stirred deep emotions, including fear, anger, grief, loneliness, and uncertainty. For educators whose work is built upon a foundation of universal values—who believe that human beings should be free to live in peace and dignity—the ongoing conflict is deeply upsetting.

Classrooms at CUNY are diverse, charged spaces where conflict can easily escalate. This creates challenges for graduate teaching fellows and adjuncts who may have less experience navigating difficult conversations in the classroom than more senior colleagues, and who may also be processing their own roiled emotions.

Managing all this is not easy. Thinking about your role as an inclusive educator, preparing strategies and expectations for how to facilitate difficult conversations, and being mindful about the wellness of both your students and yourself can help.

The Instructor’s Role

Your role as an instructor is not to advocate for one perspective over another, but to help your students grow in their ability to express their opinions, belief systems, and commitments within the frameworks established by the course. This does not mean that you should not have a perspective, or even that you should not share your perspective. But it does mean that you should be aware of the power you have in your role as the facilitator of the course, and the responsibility that this brings.

This responsibility is distinct from the role you may play as an activist, or in your community, or in your family, your house of worship, or other spaces where difficult conversations occur. It should be approached with the goal of building community (though not necessarily agreement), minimizing any harm that may be done, and helping students become more able to pursue their educational goals.

Being Inclusive

Being an inclusive educator is a practice and a habit of mind that should inform all decisions that we make when we plan and teach our courses. A student’s sense of belonging is impacted by who and what we include in our syllabi, how we design our assignments and discussions, the tone we take when we interact, how we assess or evaluate student learning, and much more. Being inclusive also requires us to hold space for students whose views conflict fundamentally with other members of the class, or our own.

It’s challenging to respond when tensions escalate to an extent where harm may be caused to individuals, the learning environment, or both. If the course has been inclusive from the start, and if you and your students have established expectations for how you will relate to each other in classroom discussions, it is easier to identify when a line has been crossed. Sometimes the line is clear, and our responsibility is to articulate why it’s been crossed and why that is not acceptable in the learning space for which we are responsible. Sometimes the line is less clear, and we benefit from having strategies and structures prepared to navigate tense moments.

Difficult Discussions

Difficult conversations can come on slowly or quickly. They can be triggered by class material, or unrelated to the topic of the day. We can be prepared for them or invite them, or we can be caught by surprise. They can be affirming and invigorating, damaging and upsetting, or somewhere in-between.

You might invite your students to help create the “guidelines” for classroom engagement, indicating the importance of being able to have difficult discussions within a learning community and the necessity of a structure to facilitate this work. This could start with a discussion of what makes a conversation “productive” within the context of your course. This can happen at the beginning of the course, and it can also happen when you anticipate a difficult dialogue might be coming.

Here are some strategies:

  • settle on a particular method for determining the order of speaking (such as taking stack);
  • repeatedly push the discussion to focus on ideas and not groups or individuals;
  • insist that comments be connected to course material;
  • establish the habit where students use “I” statements instead of “you” statements, which helps us think about how our words may be received by others.

Building consensus around the rules of discussion, as early as possible, gives you a foundation to refer back to should you feel the need to de-escalate a conversation.

Effectively navigating difficult conversations requires facilitators to be attuned to the mood of the room, to their own emotional impulses, and to individual feelings. It can be helpful to acknowledge that difficult conversations can be painful and scary, but that they can also be generative.

It might also be helpful for us to tell students about our own unease in facilitating such conversations, and to invite their collaboration in tending to the communal space. If you feel you can’t get a read on your students’ emotions, consider deploying an anonymous poll, or a quick temperature check (“thumbs up if you’re okay, sideways if you’re not sure, down if you’re not”), or an exit ticket. Remind students that they can take a break from the class if they are feeling overwhelmed or need a pause.

Students may say something that challenges our ability to control our own emotions and stabilize our reaction; it’s important to recognize these moments, to be in tune with our own feelings and bodies, and to have strategies prepared to move the conversation forward and/or change directions should it feel necessary. In these moments, you might call for a 5 minute break, or ask the class to engage in a few minutes of quiet free writing.

We should be prepared to intervene should a student direct a comment or a challenge to a classmate in a personal way or say something that inflames tensions or insults a group of people. These are rare occurrences, though they become more possible in tense political contexts.

In these situations, we can:

  • ask for clarification, giving students a chance to articulate their point as a specific, verifiable claim;
  • correct demonstrably false information, sharing our sources;
  • refocus a comment on ideas rather than people;
  • place a comment within the framework of the course or discipline;
  • draw other students into the conversation, asking them to help each other focus on ideas, while also taking care to avoid piling on any one student or displacing upon students our responsibility to hold the space of the discussion;
  • Move the conversation to a meta level: “let’s talk about why these tensions exist and are boiling over, and what we can learn from them.”

It also may be necessary during a difficult conversation to call out and reject hateful, violent rhetoric that targets individuals or groups. If this happens, you can refer back to the class expectations and, if the comment has violated them, say this directly, and why you think it’s a problem. It’s also important to acknowledge if harm has been done, and indicate that you will follow up privately with students involved and, if a threat is involved, escalate through appropriate channels.

It is okay, should you feel that the discussion is beyond your ability to facilitate, to stop the discussion and move on to another topic, or to end class early with a pledge to reflect, read, and regroup for the next session.

Grace and Wellness

Teaching is draining, as is being a college student. It’s okay to acknowledge that we don’t know how to process the suffering that accompanies conflict, whether that conflict touches us directly or not. As teachers, we are in a position to extend grace to our students. We have the opportunity to extend grace through assignments, class policies, and grading. We also have the opportunity to extend grace by holding space for students to work through difficult ideas, and to make mistakes that they learn from without being buried by the consequences. We also can refer students to resources that provide support beyond what we can offer, such as campus wellness and counseling centers. Extending grace is an act of care, and makes a positive contribution to the wellness of a community, and the individuals who inhabit it.

It’s important to also acknowledge that there may be limits to the grace that we are able to extend, and that being aware of those limits is also part of our responsibility. We must care for ourselves, set and protect boundaries, and adapt when a situation feels beyond our control.

Remember that you are part of a large community of committed educators at CUNY, and do not have to navigate these challenges alone. The TLC holds open office hours Monday-Thursday, as well as by appointment. The Graduate Center’s Wellness Center offers counseling and mental health services. The campuses where you will have additional support services for students and faculty.

Luke Waltzer is director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the Graduate Center, and a faculty member in Digital Humanities and the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate Program.