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CRLT offers tips for talking about tough subjects of the day

Two of the issues headlining the news these days, the war with Iraq and the affirmative action lawsuits, undoubtedly are on the minds of students who may wish to discuss their feelings in the classroom. To help facilitate constructive dialogue about these often very emotional issues, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) offers guidelines for faculty and graduate student instructors to use in class discussions.

"These current events in which many students and instructors have a direct interest, and which have relevance to many different disciplines, also present complex pedagogical considerations," says A.T. Miller, coordinator of Multicultural Teaching and Learning.

"One key issue in classroom discussions on these topics is the opportunity for students from different backgrounds to interact and talk in settings that are conducive to thoughtful exchange. The guidelines provide support for U-M instructors, as well as instructors across the country who use our Web site, to make these issues that matter in people's lives right now also positive intellectual experiences. That's what often inhibits instructors from pursuing these discussions, because they are so immediate."

In discussing either topic, Miller says, it is important to establish ground rules with the class. Suggestions include:

• Listen respectfully without interruption

• Respect the views of others

• Criticize ideas, not individuals

• Avoid blame and speculation

• Avoid inflammatory language.

When it comes to discussing the war, the site suggests being sensitive to individuals who have a special and complicated relationship to the war. This could include those who have personal connections to the U.S. armed forces, those from the Middle East, or other international faculty and students who may feel they are being treated differently during the crisis. CRLT suggests allowing students to express anger and frustrations, within limits, but to avoid further polarization.

CRLT urges instructors who have strong views that may make it difficult for them to lead a discussion, or who do not feel it an appropriate use of class time, to state that at the outset and move on.

The affirmative action guidelines suggest faculty members act as active facilitators rather than passive observers without over-controlling. They also suggest assigning readings or showing a video clip on affirmative action so that students will have a common base for understanding.

The Web site offers a number of techniques for conducting discussions on both topics that allow all students the opportunity to participate.

The war guidelines can be found at http://www.crlt.umich.edu/wariniraqdiscussion.html#issues. For affirmative action discussion tips, go to http://www.crlt.umich.edu/affaction.html.

To discuss additional strategies or concerns, contact CRLT consultants at (734) 764-0505 or by e-mail at crlt@umich.edu.

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