Difficult discussions

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Difficult discussions

Jill Leet-Otley consistently prioritizes discussion of important current events in her classes.

Jill Leet-Otley consistently prioritizes discussion of important current events in her classes.

Martel DenHartog ('19) | Chips

Jill Leet-Otley consistently prioritizes discussion of important current events in her classes.

Martel DenHartog ('19) | Chips

Martel DenHartog ('19) | Chips

Jill Leet-Otley consistently prioritizes discussion of important current events in her classes.

Martel DenHartog, Staff Writer

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Across campus, individuals are tasked with processing local, national, and global traumatic events in their own ways. Some faculty provide space in classrooms to address these issues, while others do not. The decision to dedicate class time to discussion for things like last spring’s hate incidents or the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, for example, is based on a variety of factors, as professors select criteria in different ways.

Professor of Africana Studies and English Novian Whitsitt believes faculty have a responsibility to discuss the climate of students’ fears and concerns when events, such as the spring’s hate incidents, are so immediate.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with content of the courses,” Whitsitt said. “Students need an opportunity to discuss what’s going on. I think there are times where we have to get away from the syllabus completely, if the situation was that serious, and I think last spring was.”

Other professors recognize the importance of being empathetic to student needs, but see value of spending class time on syllabus material.

“Some people were not as capable of concentrating on the material [after the hate incidents], and I want people to understand that I knew that,” Professor of Chemistry Olga Michels said. “There was some room for discussion and an open door to come chat outside of class, but we still needed to carry on with our work. I’m under some pressure with the [chemistry] content driven by national exams and prerequisite courses.”

Staying current with knowledge for the GRE or other national exams is not of concern for Professor of Economics Steve Holland, who noted that discussion of the hate incidents, or related issues, must benefit the objectives and goals of the class. Two criteria drove this decision.

“It could just be something happening in the world that’s directly related to what we’re talking about; there’s a direct pedagogical value of talking about that and relating it to what we’re doing in class,” Holland said. “The other criteria, which I used last spring, were the importance for classroom dynamics.”

The choice to discuss national events depends on relevance to students and to herself for Associate Professor of Political Science Carly Hayden Foster.

“With the Kavanaugh hearings, I don’t feel like I’ve found a good way to deal with it yet,” Foster said. “I know it’s something that a lot of students are talking about, but I also know it is something very polarizing. I don’t want to get into a heated debate in class on the polarizing issues, especially knowing that that might be particularly hurtful to some students that have experienced trauma.”

Several faculty members also feel that striking the appropriate balance between talking about traumatic events, staying connected to course content, and recognizing priorities and feelings of students is a delicate thing to accomplish.

“I generally don’t want to ignore [traumatic events], but I also recognize that these are personal and emotional issues,” Foster said. “The classroom is not always an appropriate place to bring it up but ignoring it doesn’t always work either.”

Rebecka Green (‘19) values when her professors address topics of concern for students.

“Professors have to read the temperature of their classrooms and students,” Green said. “If it’s something that students and the campus is perceiving as significant to bring up, I think it should be a possibility, especially for people who may not feel they can talk about these things with their friends or their family; sometimes their classroom is the only space for that.”

If the classroom is sometimes the only space for students to discuss these things with faculty and peers in a constructive way, the risk comes when professors do not feel well equipped to facilitate discussions. Recent professional development and inclusivity workshops are aiding this, though Whitsitt argued it is not difficult for any instructor on campus to identify their classroom as a safe space for students.

“I tend to let conversations happen on their own,” Whitsitt said. “I make class time for people to share their feelings or insights; students are very adept at expressing themselves and generating a thoughtful exchange. There is little that — in some ways — an instructor has to do, other than just get it started and create a space for dialogue and students will do that.”

Some departments make time for discussion while others do not. In education courses, bringing up current events in class is the obvious choice for Assistant Professor of Education Jill Leet-Otley.

“I care about all the kids; knowing students from the global majority and white students who were devastated by [the hate incidents], was so apparent to me,” Leet-Otley said. “It would seem like a disservice not to [talk about it], with something so raw and immediate. Current [national] events, like the Kavanaugh stuff, is trickier. I was too emotional about it, and I wasn’t in the right frame to facilitate a dialogue.”

Leet-Otley said faculty must know their comfort levels, but not use this as an excuse not to talk about issues in class. Michels accomplishes this by prefacing brief discussions on traumatic topics by saying that she is likely not the expert in the room, but she is willing to listen.

Addressing traumatic issues takes different forms, be that free writing, as Leet-Otley instructed, creating alternate assignments, such as attending diversity trainings on campus, allowing extensions on assignment due dates, or opening up a classroom-wide discussion about personal feelings or related class content.

Jackson Churchill (‘20) believes it is up to each professor to choose how they address these topics in class.

“I respect the decision to remain content-focused,” Churchill said. “But opening the door for an open dialogue is generally well-received by the students.”

Some faculty believe that pushing students to feel challenged academically and socially should not be discouraged, rather, classroom environments must feel safe enough to allow students to grow under discomfort.

“I would like to think that as an instructor working at a school like Luther, one would be aware of how concerned students are when these moments occur,” Whitsitt said. “It is completely necessary for every instructor to plug in and let students know that they are thinking about them and help students feel more comfortable despite the crisis.”

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