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Inclusive, Socially Just Teaching: Challenging Conversations

Find resources to guide your approach to classroom approaches

Challenging conversations are essential for learning. They can push students to reconsider the appropriateness and accuracy of prior knowledge and assumptions and help construct new knowledge. It's thus important to carefully plan how to conduct these conversations and how to react when discomfort becomes hostile or dangerous.


Preparation for the Discussion Facilitator

Surface and seek to understand your own limits and biases

Create a community to go to for reflection, feedback, and comfort

Establish solid relationships with people who are different from me

Learn about current social problems and their impacts on others

Questions for Self Assessment:
Do I feel ill-prepared to talk about racism, ableism, heterosexism, religious privilege, classism, or…? If so, commit to learning more about the issues by studying history, following current events, and the perspectives of oppressed groups.
Do I reroute classroom discussions when I sense discomfort in the room? If so, commit to riding out the discussion next time.
Do I feel isolated in my teaching about oppression? If so, commit to identifying a colleague with whom I can co-teach, plan or debrief. 
Do I worry about my ability to answer students’ questions about particular forms of oppression? If so, commit to accepting that I don’t have all the answers and embrace the opportunity to learn with my students.

Class Preparation

State your commitment for challenging, worthwhile discussions on your syllabus   

Provide a framework or a set of priorities for discussions

When we discuss social problems and concerns, we will seek to understand the social and historical roots of a situation, use an intersectional lens to see multiple dynamics at play, and highlight the distinct vulnerabilities of particular people.

Create community agreements or discussion norms with students 

Discuss microaggressions and how they will be handled

Conduct a Conversation

Consider presenting a case or posing a real-world problem that demands a socially just response

Prepare and ask pointed questions that challenge dominant assumptions and biases 

Build in time for silent reflection
Ask students to write about the case and how it challenges what they believe or have been taught
Discuss students' ideas about underlying assumptions and how to handle the case
Promote evidence-based engagement, allowing experiential and empirical evidence to be used in support for their assertions
Challenge commonplace, easy assumptions and biases
Encourage rich explanations and descriptions of marginalized perspectives 
Make space for strong emotions
Do not resort to silence
Consider seeking several resolutions of the case and discuss which seem most just, knowing that more than one response can be 'right'

React to an Eruption


Pull on your reserves of patience, humility, and confidence
Make observations about what is happening, ask questions, and deal with the emotions
Remind students of the community agreements and that this discussion will be messy
Provide space and time for students to write quietly
Make space for some students to have strong emotions and others to be detached; do not place one above the other
Re-center the conversation using the concepts and frameworks discussed before
Intersectionality – remind students that this helps us center, understand, and intervene in socially just ways

Intervene if a microaggression has occurred – note that the impact of a student’s statement insulted the integrity of another


Seek regular, anonymous feedback on the class climate

After an eruption, ask for anonymous responses for that specific day:

  • At what moment were you most engaged as a learner?
  • At what moment were you least engaged as a learner?
  • What action did anyone take did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action did you find most confusing or least helpful?
  • What surprised you?

Summarize student feedback and discuss a high-level summary with students

Primary References and Other Resources

Landis, K. (2008) Start Talking: A handbook for engaging difficult dialogues in higher education. The University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.

Murray-Johnson, K. (2019) (En)gauging Self Toward a Practical Framework for Race Talk Adult Learning 30(1)
Sue, D W (2015)
Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race Hoboken, NJ: Wiley


Managing Difficult Conversations from The Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Indiana University Bloomington