Engaging Controversy Faculty Intensives

Design and Pedagogy

A faculty committee from both campuses and a variety of disciplines (including rhetoric, religious studies, communication, and Alaska Native studies) designed the intensive curriculum; committee members also served as presenters during the intensive itself. The week-long summer curriculum addressed academic freedom, how to prevent or respond to disruptive students, and multicultural ways of knowing, in addition to a wide variety of strategies and techniques for proactively introducing controversial topics and conducting effective civil discourse in the classroom. We used interactive group exercises extensively in the intensive; faculty became learners of the structures and strategies proposed for possible use in their own classrooms. These strategies are outlined in detail in the handbook we produced entitled Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education. Many more are available in Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005) which served as the text for the faculty intensives.


Faculty members from both universities applied to participate and were paid for their time. Thirty-two fellows, representing both relatively new and seasoned professors, were selected from 18 disciplines across the two institutions. The goal was to create a committed cohort that would attend the intensive and serve as a support network for each other after the project concluded. Participants were contractually obligated to apply, document and assess what they learned in their classrooms the following year, engage students in one or more difficult dialogues, and field-test one or more new techniques. They were also required to submit at least two short reflective essays (on strategies, topics or philosophical issues related to teaching controversial topics) and report on their experiences to their colleagues. Finally, participants needed to organize and conduct one university or community workshop on a topic related to difficult dialogues.


Four methods were used to assess the project:

  1. A pre- and post-test during the faculty intensive, and a year-later test of participant perceptions of their new skills and knowledge of difficult dialogues practice and of the roles and responsibilities related to academic freedom;
  2. End-of-term evaluations of student outcomes in those classes testing difficult dialogue techniques;
  3. Extensive qualitative review and self-assessment by participating faculty members; and
  4. Qualitative assessment by staff of the campus and community activities centering upon the Books of the Year.

The data showed that faculty members felt significantly more knowledgeable, well-prepared, and confident about facilitating discussions on difficult or controversial topics. There was also significant improvement in a faculty member’s likelihood of teaching controversial issues. Significant gains were also noted in the ability to create inclusive classrooms where students could safely talk about issues without fear of being sanctioned by students or the teacher. The faculty gained significantly greater understanding and confidence in addressing disruptive students in the classroom. The data indicated that the faculty development initiative was a success, so much so that we continued it for two successive cohorts using internal funds.

Student outcomes were also positive, based on end-of-term course evaluations from the classes participating in the project. Students were significantly more comfortable speaking openly about a controversial topic and felt the instructor was effective in creating difficult dialogue opportunities. Although only 240 out of 500 students completed the evaluations, many others were exposed to the classroom practices and community dialogues generated by our project.