by Jason Schreiner and Lee Rumbarger

In a recent TEP/UO Online workshop about closing this extraordinary term, taught at a distance during a pandemic, we discussed ways to bring into focus what students learned—especially the resilience they demonstrated and the urgency of their new knowledge and skills for building a different, better world.

Now, with the May 25 killing of George Floyd in police custody, intense grief and anger at another example of lethal state power exerted against a person of color, and protests rumbling across the United States and world, UO’s spring term draws to a close in a context of intensifying social unrest.

Understandably, many of us are seeking to express a range of emotions. But unlike previous experiences of heightened racial sensitivity and social turmoil, when we could come together in our classrooms, students and instructors are giving voice to their feelings and ideas in emails, Canvas discussion fora, and Zoom meetings. Familiar social cues, including facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, etc. are altered or missing entirely (especially in asynchronous exchanges). Indeed, for most students and instructors alike, remote class contexts are not typical modes of interaction and learning; their use has come with stress, anxiety, ambiguity, uncertainty, unfamiliar timing, and taxing cognitive loads.

These conditions, J. Luke Wood and Frank Harris III indicate in a recent webinar, amplify the potential for implicit bias and microagressions to influence our perceptions, understanding, judgment, expressions, and other actions.

Wood and Harris note anecdotal evidence of an uptick early in spring of remote classroom incidents of racial bias and microagressions, or what Ibram X. Kendi more candidly calls racist abuse (Kendi 2019, 47). Add to this already challenging context the depths of strong emotions and unrest erupting after the killing of George Floyd – on the heels of the recent killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, not to mention the racial disparities in health outcomes due to COVID-19 – and we are experiencing an unprecedented teaching and learning situation.

How do we respond as instructors to the challenge of an immediate situation loaded with strong emotions at the end of an already challenging term? How can we bring meaningful closure to our classes at this time? 

Educators who regularly teach issues of difference, power and agency, including the content of racism, economic inequality, police violence, social unrest, and other facets we are witnessing so visibly now, have developed a variety of pedagogies for engaging students in learning this content and in learning important skills for addressing the issues productively.

In a subsequent post we will outline some of these approaches to help instructors plan for summer courses (and beyond) in what we know will continue to be a challenging teaching and learning context. Here we highlight some of the important principles and effective strategies that any instructor can use immediately to close the term in a constructive way:

Acknowledgement. One does not need to be a content expert, know every news detail, or have plans to include student discussion of these issues to acknowledge the social unrest shaking our country and the difficulties that some students are experiencing because of it. Provost Philips has asked that “all faculty recognize that students may be going through a particularly tough period that makes it difficult for them to focus on their schoolwork.” You can do this in a message to the class, especially if the class is asynchronous, or as part of a live class session. It doesn’t need to be elaborate or include your opinion about what is happening; even a basic, genuine expression of concern about our current social situation and of care for student well-being will do important work. Acknowledgement is even more important if students have already given expression to their thoughts or feelings in class contributions, particularly if interactions have become heated (see below for specific strategies in response to heated moments). TEP is happy to help you craft a message of acknowledgement.

Affirmation. As noted above, it can be helpful to close the term by highlighting the capacities and specific skills that students have learned during this extraordinary term. Many of these same capacities and skills can be affirmed as resources for engaging with the current social situation, for instance the capacities for resilience, flexibility, empathy, and motivation to work through discomforting and unfamiliar territory in order to learn and grow as a person. Affirmation of student agency in the face of uncertainty and powers seemingly beyond one’s control can help ground students’ emotions as a source of efficacy and power, especially when directed in constructive ways through actions that students can take now. More specifically, if your class already examined issues of power and difference, or taught skills of historical attention, careful close reading, or ethical dialogue, you can remind students of the knowledge and skills they can now bring to bear on these current events. You can tell them you’re proud of their work throughout the term to develop these skills, which you hope can bring them solace, or determination, or insight now.

Availability and Support. Many students look to instructors for support during challenging times. This is especially true in the remote learning context when connection with peers is curtailed. Being available for students at this time is therefore important, and so is providing students with information about support options, such as the UO Counseling Center, which includes resources on mental health and racial violence and actions students can take. Consider adding extra office support hours – something that many instructors already do at the end of a term. For example, you could include in your acknowledgement message a note such as, “I know many of you have been thinking about the recent police killing of George Floyd, its many precedents and impacts. If you’d like to talk more about this, I am available to you. In fact, I’m going to be on Zoom for a couple of extra hours tomorrow, from 1 to 3—please drop by to see me. The UO Counseling Center is also available to you, and its website includes resources on mental health and racial violence, black mental health, and actions students can take.”

Participation Guidelines. Many instructors establish or invite students into collaboration to develop participation expectations, guidelines or ground rules at the beginning of a term, for example the discussion and engagement guidelines for remote participation provided in TEP’s Remote Starter Syllabus, which many instructors adopted this past term. Now is a time to call these up to reaffirm how the class can finish the term constructively. Even if you did not establish participation guidelines earlier in the term, you can still identify important guidelines for finishing the term productively and invite students to contribute their insights. Guidelines can also serve as touchstones for skill development and metacognitive engagement with the present moment (see Intentionality below).

Intentionality. This may go without saying but if you’re to raise the current urgent events in class, plan for how to make that engagement productive and meaningful. Be explicit about your goals for the discussion, name how you’d like to proceed (using guidelines or specific protocols, such as supporting statements with evidence, say, or remembering that each of our views is a “partial opening onto a whole” but not generalizable), focus the discussion on a specific prompt (a quotation, image, video, story, scenario), and build in time for reflection. If you feel direct engagement with the specific issues of the current moment is not appropriate for your course, you can opt instead to have students engage in metacognitive work and skill development. For instance, if you established participation guidelines earlier in the term (see Participation Guidelines above), you can have students reflect on the guidelines to determine which are most useful for helping the class navigate the present moment, which the students could use more practice with, and which things might be missing but now are clearly needed in light of current events. If you did not establish guidelines, you can have students engage in a group reflection exercise in which they identify guidelines for participation they think are essential for engaging in productive class interaction moving forward into uncertain times. Such reflection exercises can reinforce that none of us is perfectly prepared for challenging moments but nonetheless we have the capacity to engage them productively – yet another affirmation of our agency.  See TEP’s Strategies for Engaging with Difficult Topics, Strong Emotions, and Challenging Moments in the Classroom for more ideas about how to bring challenging moments into your class.

Protocols for Heated Moments. When intense emotions or entrenched opinions boil up in a class, things can get heated. There is no perfect remedy for such situations, and productive pathways forward will vary from class to class. But it is important for instructors and students to respond with care and skill. Having a protocol or specific plan of action ready is helpful. Such protocols can be developed when establishing classroom guidelines (e.g. “What should we do when things get contentious and heated?”), but there are also a variety of existing protocols you can use. Two possible approaches include the following:

RAVEN

  • Redirect (acknowledge and intervene, correct, or pull someone aside)
  • Ask probing question for clarity (“I think I hear you say…what did you mean by that?”)
  • Values clarification (“What you just said is not in alignment with our institutional values that prioritize equity and inclusion”)
  • Emphasize your own thoughts and feelings (“When I hear your comment, I think or feel…”)
  • Next steps (“The next time you encounter this situation, you may want to consider doing…”)

For more information about the RAVEN framework, visit: https://diverseeducation.com/article/176397/

OTFD – Open The Front Door Framework

  • Observe: Concrete, factual observations, not evaluative (“I noticed…”)
  • Think: Thoughts based on observation (“I think…”)
  • Feel: Emotions (“I feel…”)
  • Desire: Specific request or inquiry about desired outcome (“I would like…”)

TEP is here for you to be a sounding board or discuss your end-of-term plans. We are honored to support your efforts to be present for your students during these difficult times.

 

TEP’s Strategies for Engaging with Difficult Topics, Strong Emotions, and Challenging Moments in the Classroom packet is available.


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