In this section, Patricia-Maria Weinmann and Brendan de Kenessey discuss how creating a comfortable classroom culture plays an important role in helping students engage in the kinds of honest discussions that help them critically examine their positions and perspectives on important issues. Although they note there is no recipe for creating a comfortable classroom culture, they share some of the concrete strategies they use to create a classroom environment marked by acceptance, respect, and a strong sense of community.
A Space for Honest Discussions
One of the main purposes of our ethics seminar is to help students develop the skills to decide what issues they will invest in and what issues they will not. The seminar creates a space for students to openly discuss their perspectives so they can critically examine their positions. We’ve found that, in general, students are quite honest about their ethical frameworks during classroom discussions.
During one session, for example, we were discussing the practice of eating meat. A student, who had grown up in a farming community in which people were impacted by economic disparities, said, “I know you’re all going to think I’m crazy, but I just can’t get revved up about this issue. I just don’t care about pigs and cows!” At first, there was silence. Then everybody laughed. They accepted that, for her, the needs of human beings outweighed those of livestock. They didn’t respond with comments, such as, “How could you say that?” Instead, their reaction was one of, “Wow, go you for being honest with us like that!”
Students often relate the content of the course to their personal lives and share the dilemmas this surfaces. One student accepted a technology job in San Francisco and gave her final presentation on gentrification. She openly grappled with the fact that there’s a negative social effect on the local community when many people like her take technology jobs in the area. She asked herself if and how she could cope with being a part of the gentrification process.
In another final presentation, a student talked about gun control. She had grown up hunting with her family and guns were an important part of her community. She launched a very nuanced discussion about not more or less gun control, but about what kinds of gun control. She considered which policies might interfere with people’s rights, and which ones, from her perspective, would be less objectionable. This was an example of a student relating the content of course to their personal lives and feeling safe to advocate for a pro-gun position in a very liberal setting.
The ability for students to critically examine their own positions has a lot to do with the fact that we develop relationships in the class and set the tone—right from the beginning—for a non-judgmental and comfortable classroom atmosphere. This is especially important when you’re raising issues that challenge the way people live their lives and their views about how society should be. There’s no recipe for cultivating an accepting and comfortable classroom culture, but there are a few strategies we use that seem to help.
Collaboratively Developing Conversation Guidelines
During the first session of the ethics seminar, Professor Haslanger notes that the course will invite students to discuss perspectives that may problematize their worldviews. She suggests that the class will need to be a safe place if the students are going to talk about difficult subjects. Then, rather than saying, “Here are the rules,” she asks students to generate the guidelines for classroom discussions. Students talk about the importance of respect and of listening to others. The process of having students create conversation guidelines communicates, right from the start, that the classroom culture is collaborative and focused on respect.
Using Name Cards
Another concrete strategy we use for creating a comfortable classroom culture is to provide everyone with a name card. The desks are arranged in a large circle, such that everyone can see each other’s name cards. The cards are used the whole semester, as part of the classroom routine.
The name cards make it so much easier to refer to people by name. There’s no anxiety on the part of instructors about getting students’ names wrong and students can easily refer to each other when discussing their contributions to classroom discussions.
Once you start calling someone by his or her name, you feel like your relationship with that person is deeper. A sense of community begins to develop.
Students usually dread first-day-of-class introductions. You go around the room. Everyone says a little bit about his or her background. It makes everybody incredibly stressed. It’s horrible. We don’t do that. Instead, we divide students into pairs and they interview each other. Then they introduce their partners to the larger group. The stress of talking about themselves in front of the large group vanishes. It becomes more about sharing what they’ve learned about their friends. There’s laughter in the room as they interview each other. It’s a great time of sharing and of introducing everyone to each other without stressing students. This practice sets the tone for a comfortable classroom culture.
Another key strategy we use for creating a comfortable classroom culture is to share a meal with students during each seminar session. Sharing food is such a simple idea, but an absolutely fundamental way in which we communicate that we care about and for our students. Sharing a meal during the seminar also has the effect of creating a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. In any typical seminar session, students are eating and getting up to get more food. There's a nice, loose feel about it.
Adjusting the Volume of Contributions
The sense of community in our ethics seminar isn’t built overnight. It evolves over the course of the semester. Some students are enthusiastic contributors to classroom discussions right from the start, while others begin contributing only once they feel comfortable. One of the things we do to help reticent students gain momentum is to deliberately adjust the volume of different people’s contributions during discussions.
In particular, we attend to what’s happening on the periphery of a conversation, making note of students who almost raise their hands. We explicitly call on students who haven't had as much opportunity as others to speak in an effort to amplify their voices. That's why, with a group that is fairly large, it’s great to have two instructors. While one person is facilitating the discussion, the other can scan the room to identify students who may need help entering the conversation.
Another way we adjust the volume of classroom conversations is to summarize discussions in ways that illustrate arguments in favor of both sides of the controversies. If students are all rallying toward consensus on one side of a heated debate, we support the other side. We do this so that if there is a student who is silently thinking that everyone disagrees with her, she might feel there is something reasonable to be said for her side as well. The conversations are much more interesting when many sides of an issue are considered and when all voices have significant airtime.