Teaching Controversial Issues Initiative


This project was initiated at the request of the Faculty of Arts in recognition that their courses frequently involve controversial content that can prove challenging from a teaching and learning perspective.  A case-based pilot workshop entitled Teaching controversial issues: What, why and how? was collaboratively developed by Florentine Strzelczyk (Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Arts), Valerie Pruegger and Carol Berenson.  The aim of the 2 hour session is to enhance student learning on controversial issues by providing instructors with techniques and tools to create an inclusive learning environment, facilitate engagement, and handle challenges in the classroom should they arise.  Following the pilot for the Faculty of Arts audience, subsequent workshops have variously been tailored to the needs of specific departments, offered in interdisciplinary settings (including the University of Calgary Learning and Teaching Conference in 2015 and the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities Conference in 2016), and delivered to both faculty and graduate students. It is apparent that controversial topics are not only the terrain of the Faculty of Arts – individuals from a range of faculties (such as nursing, vet med, medicine, education, management, and science) have attended the workshop which has been delivered a total of 10 times to approximately 180 individuals at UCalgary since its inception in January 2015.

Valerie Pruegger and Carol Berenson, facilitators of the Teaching Controversial Issues workshop
Valerie Pruegger and Carol Berenson, facilitators of the Teaching Controversial Issues workshop

Interest in this initiative has extended well beyond UCalgary.  A conference presentation about the Teaching Controversial Issues program was presented at the 2015 Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLEH) conference in Vancouver with considerable response from participants attending the session.  Follow up communication and requests for more information came from educational developers at UBC, the University of Waterloo, and Queens.  On November 10th, 2016 a session was hosted at the Professional and Organizational Development Network (POD) conference in Louisville, Kentucky to a group of 50 educational developers from across the US who were eager to engage around supporting their faculty members to teach controversial issues — particularly in, what they characterized as, politically challenging times.

Documentation and Materials

University of Calgary 2015 Teaching and Learning conference proceedings (ppt and annotated bibliography handout): http://prism.ucalgary.ca/handle/1880/50574

EDU website resources: http://ucalgary.ca/taylorinstitute/edu/resources/controversial-issues

UToday articles:

University Affairs article — Valerie and Carol were interviewed along with colleagues from across the country for this article: Johnson, Tim (November, 2015). How to confront the uncomfortable. University Affairs. Retrieved from www.universityaffairs.ca / November2015

Assessment Strategies and Results

Both qualitative and quantitative evaluation data have been collected at each delivery of the workshop. Participants consistently (83 to 100 % of the time) rate their overall workshop experience as very good to excellent.  Qualitative findings highlight the following key takeaways for participants:

1)     Practical strategies:
Ground rules set in the beginning of the course
Cultivating active listening – no notes/laptops, paraphrasing before speaking
Separating fact from opinion – ideas versus the individual

2)     The importance of designing learning activities and advance planning:
Debate/discussion does not just happen, it requires planning and orchestration
Set task and expectations before hand
I learned that I need to design my courses around the principles we learned today – course design is so necessary!
Planning ahead for derailers is important

3)     Opportunities to reflect on teaching practice and impact:
This reaffirmed the importance of self-reflection and unpacking arguments
Don’t be an impermeable instructor – “giving” a little can help diffuse tensions and foster learning in difficult situations
I’m already doing some good preventative work with my students, I’m going to make sure I continue doing what works

 Feedback received thus far has also included requests for a session that would consider instructor identity in the teaching of controversial issues. This is currently in development (see Refection and Impact section for more information).

Reflection and Impact

The Teaching Controversial Issues workshop has been well-attended at UCalgary and evaluation data indicate that program outcomes are being met.  Early on evaluations of the program also suggested that participants wanted more time to talk with their colleagues.  We responded by eliminating some of the content of the workshop in order to allow more time for discussion of the case studies and the evidence-based strategies we offer at the end of the session.

As the scope of the workshop audience increases, we continue to add new cases to our repertoire that might be pertinent to a range of disciplines.  We also ask champions (those who invite us to their specific department or faculty) to produce cases of their own that would be relevant to their context – this is a step towards building the capacity of our colleagues to do case-based work.

Finally, some participants have asked us to think about how instructor identity might play out in terms of classroom management and learning environment issues.  Valerie and Carol are currently developing an offshoot workshop designed to take an appreciative approach to supporting instructors who face identity-based challenges in the classroom.  This workshop will be rolled out in the winter of 2017 at the EDU, and plans are underway to offer a version of this session at the STHLE conference in Halifax in June.

In these times of debates about free speech and trigger warnings, the teaching of controversial issues is rife with challenge and controversy.  Claims that the university is, first and foremost, a place for the free and open sharing of ideas might be agreeable to us all.  However, considerable skills are required to effectively facilitate learning in this environment.  Faculty and graduate students who are on the front lines of teaching in controversial terrain have been both interested in and appreciative of the teaching controversial Issues initiative.  We anticipate ongoing demand for this intervention which has proven to be more broadly significant than we initially anticipated.

Project collaborators: Carol Berenson, Valerie Pruegger (Director, Office of Equity, Diversity, and Protected Disclosure)

ePortfolio author: Carol Berenson

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