Difficult Dialogues

Difficult Dialogues Faculty Learning Community


Difficult Dialogues is a national program designed to promote and protect academic freedom and religious, cultural, and political pluralism on university campuses. Originally launched by two UAA/APU Ford Foundation grants, this project equips UAA faculty with the skills, knowledge and support to proactively and effectively introduce controversial topics into the classroom and, where necessary, field unanticipated controversy that arises.  See UAA Difficult Dialogues Website

The premise of the project is that assisting students to develop the skills and confidence to engage constructively across differences is central to the functioning of a democracy and, therefore, a university’s mission.  It also recognizes that difficult dialogues between indigenous and academic cultures involve some of the most critical issues facing higher education and humanity today.

There are two strands to this project, both of which center around UAA-produced texts, described below:


Engaging Controversy:

Start-Talking-Cover-225  Start Talking:  A Handbook for Engaging Controversy in Higher Education introduces faculty to strategies for introducing controversial topics in the classroom.

Alaska Native Ways of Teaching:

stoptalking  Stop Talking:  Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education introduces faculty to 10,000-year old Alaska Native pedagogies as well as key difficult dialogues between indigenous and academic communities.

 Resources for Addressing Faculty Bullying:

toxic friday     Toxic Friday is a multimedia resource-a book, website, and online video-to address and prevent faculty-to-faculty bullying in higher education. The video uses interactive theater to portray some common toxic behaviors within academic departments. Together, these materials help readers identify, discuss, and implement solutions that create lasting change.  

Responding to Student Questions about the Presidential Elections

Last week’s election marked the end of an exceptionally vitriolic and divisive presidential election cycle, but things don’t stop with the tallying of the popular and Electoral College votes. As I’m sure you know, there have been marches in communities across the country, college students have responded to the election results, and there is a growing list of racially-charged incidents, many of themoccurring on or near college campuses. The issues raised as a result of this campaign and election cycle are important to our campus community and to our society. The concerns and frustrations voiced by voters on all sides of the election are something that may be relevant to your teaching. Even in courses where elections might not seem precisely “on topic,” you may find that students want to talk with you and with other students about this very important moment in our national experience. Toward that end, I’d like to offer you some resources that may help you negotiate your way through this difficult context.  

First, we want to re-emphasize a November 11 email to the faculty listserv from Drs. Jervette Ward (English) and Gabe Garcia (Health Sciences). Speaking as co-Chairs of the Faculty Senate Diversity Committee, Drs. Ward and Garcia called for faculty to reaffirm our institutional commitment to diversity, inclusion, and a respectful campus community. They reminded us of the need for UAA to be a place “that promotes and embraces individual differences, whether it be our ideas, religion, gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, gender identify, disability, age, and socioeconomic status.” In addition, they highlighted key resources faculty may find useful for identifying students who may be feeling marginalized frustrated or those who are experiencing a high level of stress associated with the election cycle and the outcome of the election. These resources include the Students in Conflict & Crisis brochure, the Words Hurt brochure, the UAA Student Health and Counseling Center, the Diversity website, the Multicultural Center, and the Student Health and Counseling Center.

Second, I want to remind you about CAFE’s extensive, nationally-recognized work in Difficult Dialogues. The UAA faculty community has access to a range of resources designed to support your teaching at this potentially difficult time. For instance, our first Difficult Dialogues publication, Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom, includes a variety of exceptional, faculty-authored pieces and provides a wide range of strategies for exploring and addressing charged topics across disciplines. Whether you are working to intentionallyintroduce and explore a difficult topic in your class or just have one that comes up over the course of the semester (like after a hard fought election cycle), the essays in Start Talking are likely to provide useful ideas for you in those challenging moments.  The full text is available free of charge online at the Difficult Dialogues website. Please feel free to share this resource with other academics! I know you’re busy and pressed for time, so if you are interested but need to prioritize your reading time, consider Chapters 3 (Race, Class, Culture) and 5 (Business, Politics, Social Justice) as they are the most relevant to the current situation. Do not hesitate to connect with Libby Roderick, Associate Director of CAFE and Director of our Difficult Dialogues work. Many of you may know Libby as an exceptionally gifted facilitator, but what you may not know is that she holds a leadership position with the national Difficult Dialogues Resource Center. She is in demand as a speaker on this topic regionally, nationally, and internationally, and is a wealth of knowledge on the huge body of work related to Difficult Dialogues. She is readily available to assist you, and we’re fortunate to have her as a resource here.

Finally, CAFE is fortunate to be affiliated with a much larger community of faculty development and support centers across the country. Our national conference occurred just after the announcement of election results, and many institutions were quick to share resources and make recommendations for information that could help faculty guide student discussions and ensure healthy, respectful, supportive, and informed discourse at this very divisive time.  This may have been the first presidential election for many of our “traditional” aged students, making it that much more high profile for them. Given the nature of our campus and community, students may be quite happy with the results or could be completely devastated. In addition, given the results and patterns of voting among younger voters, veterans, and students of color, there are a range of issues and questions that may come up in class. The key is not to shut down discussion or tell them that our civic life has no place on a college campus. It’s better, perhaps, to see yourself in the role of facilitator, maybe even working to set aside your own positions or your own vote to help students as they work to process their experiences and place them in larger contexts. We’re happy to be able to share some of the resources and recommendations from other teaching centers with you (see below). We hope these are helpful as you guide students in the inclusive, respectful, and educational discussion of important and challenging topics. Don’t hesitate to let us know if you have other related resources that you have found helpful.

Please watch for future CAFE programming designed to help you and your students explore controversial topics. And please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have other questions on this topic.

All my best,

Shawnalee Whitney, Director

Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence

Recommended Resources

Can A Divided America Heal? A 20 minute TED interview with social psychologist Dr. John Haidt, author of the critically-acclaimed book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Filmed in November 2016, this conversation explores polarization in the US and elsewhere, as well as possible paths forward. 

Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics A brief guide to handling Difficult Dialogues from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.

How scholars can make Facebook debates less hurtful and more meaningful An essay exploring nine strategies that may be used in social media contexts to improve dialogue and discussion. While we guide students in their use of class-related online discussions, many of them notice that other online discussions in their lives are quite a bit more divisive. This piece might be a good starting point for a discussion on how students may set the tone and lead by example in to engage in meaningful, informed, civil discourse in a range of personal and professional contexts.

Returning to the Classroom after the Election This piece from the Center for Research on Learning at Teaching at the University of Michigan explores approaches for those who choose to engage students on the topic of the election, as well as approaches for those who would prefer to keep it external to class. This may be helpful if you feel the topic is simply too far outside the realm of your class or that discussions could be too charged and, as a result, end up creating a harmful teaching and learning environment.

Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom A book available free online  and via the Consortium Library that shares faculty-authored essays and strategies for intentionally introducing and guiding Difficult Dialogues in classroom settings, as well as ways to respond when challenging topics come up in class in unanticipated ways.

Teaching in Response to the Election is a post from the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. The author offers thoughts on the role of faculty self-care and how that influences students who may be experiencing stress related to the recent campaign. In addition, there are links to very helpful resources on Teaching in Times of Crisis and to Vanderbilt’s own Difficult Dialogues work.