Difficult Dialogue Meeting Learning Expectations

We had a few firestorms in the first faculty intensive, and they started early, on day one. All day long, Libby could feel the tension in the room rise, but she didn’t really know where all of it was coming from. So, at the end of the day, she asked participants to complete a Critical Incident Questionnaire. They wrote some passionate responses which she read that night.

As described by Brookfield and Preskill, a Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) is an anonymous way to find out from our students what’s really going on in the classroom. Used once a week, once a month, after a particularly difficult day, or whenever the need arises, it gives us feedback we need to hear about course content, presentation, minority voices, dominant cultures, and much more. At the same time it gives us a chance to model the kinds of active learning behaviors we hope to teach our students.

No one really likes criticism, especially if it’s in public. But by acknowledging criticism and openly discussing the particulars of it, we can model for our students the very qualities we are trying to teach them: a respect for new information and feedback, a willingness to listen and learn, and a habit of discourse that engages rather than avoids difficult truths.

We had planned the intensive to focus primarily on positive, proactive approaches to introducing controversial topics in the classroom. However, based on the number of seriously negative incidents UAA faculty members reported in their applications, we decided to address these concerns and fears first, so folks didn’t feel like they needed to keep bringing them up throughout the week. As a result, much of the first day involved techniques that addressed negative possibilities, threatening situations, and disruptive students. We hoped the arrangement would free us up to spend the rest of the week exploring proactive ways of working with conflict in the classroom.

“I thought I had adequately explained our rationale,” says Libby, “but the CIQ responses told a different story.” Some participants were disturbed by the tone of the day and concerned that it would continue throughout the week. In addition, because we had not sufficiently emphasized our desire for highly interactive presentations, many of our first day’s presenters delivered their material by formal lectures, accompanied by PowerPoint slides. About half the participants liked those teaching styles, but the rest did not. On top of this, the textbook had been written by two white males, which made some people (who had yet to read it) wonder how culturally relevant the week would turn out to be. A few were operating on misinformation that made them distrust the intentions of some of the presenters. And perhaps worst of all, much of the content seemed to be focused almost exclusively only one of the partner universities. Participants from the other, already a minority in numbers, felt marginalized. The next morning, Libby reported back to the group, they discussed these issues, and she began making adjustments. After that, we had fewer static lectures and more interactive practice. We revamped the agenda for future intensives to start working together sooner on difficult dialogues of our own, and to be far more explicit in our introductory description of how the week would unfold.

Libby now likes to take a few minutes early on the first day to warn participants about what will follow.

“This is going to be an intense week,” she says. “We’re going to try a lot of different things, and not all of them will perfectly match your interests, learning styles, or particular classroom needs. But please remember that what is tough for you may work for someone else and vice versa. That’s why all the research suggests that varying what you do in the classroom reaches more students. Experience shows that faculty learners are a lot like student learners in this regard, responding well to certain approaches and resisting or disengaging from others. This week will model some best practices for classroom teaching and introduce us to a range of approaches for proactively engaging difficult topics in the classroom. It will also give you a chance to remember what it is like to be a learner wrestling with new or uncomfortable material. Welcome to your class.”