Sarah Koon-Magnin Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice University of South Alabama
In the summer of 2015, the “Teaching Tips” column focused on the use of "constructive controversy" (Johnson & Johnson, 2007) as a technique for helping engage students, increase critical thinking, and foster appreciation for diversity. Many members of the division regularly teach courses dealing with controversial subject matter, including topics such as gender-based violence, human trafficking, sexual assault, domestic violence, conceptions of virginity and sexual behavior, racism, pornography, and sex work. Several DWC members shared their tips for successfully incorporating constructive controversy in the classroom. These tips, compiled below, cover a variety of useful topics including guidelines for classroom discussion, working through controversial topics in online courses, and overcoming students’ fears in writing courses. Please take a look at the helpful comments below and take advantage of any resources you feel would be beneficial.
Molly Dragiewicz wrote, “My advice for teaching controversial issues (and anything really) is to teach about the debates. Students need to understand who disagrees with whom and about what. This is also a very productive way to prepare students to write lit reviews. If you know the debates well you will have a pretty good understanding of the field. When teaching about sex differences in domestic violence, I have students complete common violence measures. They can easily figure out for themselves what some of the main problems are and this is more powerful and memorable than explaining the shortcomings of measures. I also use domestic violence homicides to illustrate how counting even deaths to describe the distribution of DV is more complicated than it looks at first glance.”
Natalie Sokoloff shared two classroom activities that utilize constructive controversy and could be modified to use for a variety of courses/topics:
“(1) I used to teach lots of classes with debates. What constitutes rape? How would you treat a DV case? (Then students were put in groups and had to come up with an answer and present to other groups…Much discussion and disagreement).
(2) Also, I'd give a case study out (e.g. of pregnant mother who took drugs and was arrested either during pregnancy or after baby's birth). I always used groups and each group had to come up with a decision about how the mother should be treated and then each group would report their results. There was always much discussion and disagreement.”
Robert B. Jenkot provided a set of guidelines for classroom discussion that he uses when teaching classes in Gender &/or Race & Ethnic Relations. The list was developed by Lynn Weber and published in Women's Studies Quarterly 18 (Spring/Summer 1990):126-134. A discussion and revised version was published in “Empowering Students Through Classroom Discussion Guidelines,” in Marybeth C. Stalp and Julie Childers, eds., Teaching Sociological Concepts and the Sociology of Gender, Washington, D.C.: American Sociological Association Teaching Resources Center, 2000, and 2005 (2nd Edition). As an example, one such guideline is: “Agree to combat actively the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so that we can break down the walls that prohibit group cooperation and group gain.”
Corina Schulze shared the following comments about how to incorporate constructive controversy in online courses by using discussion forums:
“The basics: Few points are assigned to participation as grading requirements are minimal. I note that comments have been posted, dialogues versus monologues prevail, and posts have occurred with some frequency (for full grading requirements, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org). In class, I do not shy away from stressing that these forums are “easy points” to stress that their participation is mostly unstructured and that they are not graded on their writing prowess. Long-winded posts are discouraged as they are told that these are simply online versions of “speeches.” This provides the student with a safe place to communicate because they see that insightful conversations are rewarded. I am careful not to dominate conversations or chastise students for their lack of reading or research into a topic. My role is to guide, provide help when needed, and to keep students motivated.
An example: I always post a question and/or story to initiate the conversation students quickly discover that new directions/interpretations are encouraged. In my Gender & Criminal Justice course, I begin the semester by posing a question about feminism, the ever-contentious subject, (e.g. “What do you know about feminism?” “Why are people reluctant to self-identify as feminists?”). Students generally take this a step farther by personalizing and introducing outside information. They freely discuss why they do or not identify as a feminist...and do so with enthusiasm. This is difficult to accomplish in the classroom setting. Moreover, I have found that student responses are friendly, respectful, and genuinely inquisitive about one another’s often opposing viewpoints. Though I actively foster this positive engagement, this is also a function of the forum itself in which identities and responses are known and more-or-less permanent.
Student responses: They are positive and tend towards that casual variety instructors generally don’t want to hear (e.g. “it’s fun,” “it’s easy,” “I just get to give my opinion...”). Unbeknownst to most, they are learning, thinking about new topics in new ways, and allowing me to see these thought processes.”
Nancy Dickinson begins each semester in which she teaches a writing-intensive course with this exercise: “I provide all students with a double-sided postcard, both sides marked ‘no names please, identity confidential, content public.’ Side one is titled [course number] Worst Case Scenario and side two is [course number] Best Case Scenario. I encourage students to imagine/project/confess their worst fears then happiest possible conclusions to the course. By the next class I collect the anonymous replies and show first the Worst Care answers in an Excel spreadsheet after Class #2's intro PowerPoint slide. I read them out or have class members volunteer to read them out; students visibly relax when this commonality of terrors is exposed. By the time we get to Best Case answers I feel grade and performance anxiety have been well normed. Answers range from terrors about life devolving into student loan hell and homelessness to delusions of superhero if classroom performances and the showering of enduring admiration and successes.”
Hal Pepinsky wrote, “It is not so much about what to teach, as how to teach radical feminism, what Birgit Brock-Utne called educating for peace rather than educating about peace--how I taught about power and peacemaking.” For a discussion of this approach, please refer to: Pepinsky, Hal. (2006) "Peacemaking in the Classroom," Contemporary Justice Review: Issues in Criminal, Social, and Restorative Justice, 9:4, 427-442, DOI: 10.1080/10282580601014359 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10282580601014359)
Whether it is an introductory lecture class or an upper-level seminar, it is likely that our courses contain at least some information that may be received by students as controversial. Using the tactics outlined above can help to ensure that the controversy is constructive rather than conflict-inducing and that students are exposed to new or difficult subject matter in a safe environment.