Teaching resources and activities
Once you have identified potentially sensitive topics, perhaps through discussion with colleagues, you will need to think about what teaching and learning resources and methods might be most appropriate.
Choose resources carefully to frame issues in a nuanced rather than an inflammatory way. Difficult content is sometimes necessary, but consider minimising unnecessary distress e.g. images and film can be disproportionately jarring (Plath, 2013).
Communicating with students
Decide whether (and how) to communicate the content of resources or activities to students in advance, to enable them to better prepare.
You may wish to choose a format that allows you to take more control than usual: you may want to take more time at the start of the session to introduce the issue, and recontextualise at later points. This might suit topics where you know students have a lot of strongly-felt misconceptions. An alternative is to centre student discussion, encouraging students to thoroughly interrogate their understanding. This requires time and careful handling.
Some common activities may be unsuitable as they encourage an adversarial style (e.g. formal debates) or pressure students (e.g. cold calling). Free-form plenary discussion can be hard to moderate, allowing confident students to dominate and/or enabling incautious remarks. Consider alternative ways students can contribute, such as through short written contributions (online or on paper). This allows more thinking time, and enables quieter students to contribute. Some formats also allow teachers to choose which contributions to share.
You should consider how you might explicitly address emotions. Acknowledging the challenges can reduce resentment and resistance. For example, you could start the session by asking about students’ experience of the readings.
You may find it useful to negotiate ground-rules at the start of a term, and these can be revisited and revised for individual topics. Students can contribute, and teachers offer non-negotiable rules. Some common examples:
argue the point not the person
avoid generalising language (‘we’ / ‘nobody’ / ‘everybody’)
don’t interrupt each other; don’t dominate discussion
be prepared to critically discuss anything that we contribute, including personal experience
avoid derogatory language (with specific guidance on using historical language)
Know what is feasible in terms of flexibility for students struggling with emotive content: can assessment deadlines be moved? If attendance is mandatory, how flexible can participation be? Can students leave a seminar if they become severely distressed, and do they know this?