Many of the differences that distinguish us also lend themselves to conflict or misunderstandings. As the classroom becomes increasingly diverse, differences between students may take on greater importance: “As long as students remain in their own culture, they take their culture for granted. When surrounded by those who are different, they become more consciously aware of their own culture” (Weaver 24). Sometimes this awareness may initially produce feelings of discomfort or even resentment at having to think about things that before seemed “natural.” It might also lead to student remarks that are inadvertently disturbing or even purposefully offensive. Whether you consider a particular remark inappropriate may vary according to your discipline, the course, the student’s word choice and tone; how you choose to respond will vary as well. The suggestions below are not meant to regulate your opinions or those of your students but to offer a range of possible responses for what many TAs and faculty feel to be a troubling, even paralyzing, situation that nevertheless calls for an immediate reaction. Primarily, these tips focus on handling infrequent inappropriate comments or heated discussions. If you are looking for additional teaching strategies to use in a course devoted largely to multicultural issues, see Peter Frederick’s essay “Walking on Eggs: Mastering the Dreaded Diversity Discussion” or the books listed in Appendix II.
Anticipating sensitive topics or conflicting opinions in response to the course material is a good way to begin. Some course topics will emphasize differences between students in ways that produce predictable disagreements. There are other times, however, when such conflicts may occur without a clear warning. In either situation, when a disturbing remark leaves other students feeling targeted, angry, or offended, it can quickly polarize the classroom in deep and troubling ways. At such points it is startlingly clear how people’s dissimilarities can create an environment that hinders learning. These moments of tension and deep disagreement will inevitably occur in the diverse classroom, whether explicitly or not. Acknowledging differences and the conflicting viewpoints they bring allows us to be more effective teachers, just as addressing our students’ uneasiness enables them to become more effective learners.
If you ignore disturbing comments or reply humorously, you could send the unwelcome message that such comments are appropriate to the college classroom. Some teachers might initially feel uncomfortable addressing such comments for fear of policing student speech or heightening the discord; however, your response to these remarks is not censorship of students’ viewpoints. Rather, it indicates that you, like other university instructors, are trying to teach students how to behave in a civilized and polite manner in the classroom, which includes not insulting other groups of students. Being responsible for educating our students means leading them to think more critically about the world and themselves. Although emotionally charged discussions may seem chaotic or intimidating, often when students are emotionally engaged they are capable of learning at a deeper level. Of course, allowing such exchanges may not seem the best option to you in every circumstance, especially if you aren’t comfortable with emotional exchanges or managing conflict. The following suggestions offer ways to diffuse potentially heated exchanges while fostering critical thinking. Depending on your comfort level, you may favor some over others.