Controversial or Sensitive Topics
Opportunity in COST: Educational Benefit of Teaching Controversial or Sensitive Topics
Instructors in higher education find themselves precariously balanced between the relative academic inexperience of their audience and the relative academic freedom allotted to their educational pursuits. This could lead to authentic and beneficial discussion of controversial and sensitive topics (Kraatz et al. 2022). However, a desire to uphold the status quo and avoid adverse student reactions (and evaluations) tends to lean in the opposite direction, particularly among untenured faculty. The purpose of this guide is to provide a background on teaching controversial and sensitive topics (COST) in higher education and introduce the benefits of such practices. Rather than a prescription for introducing such practices, the remaining third of the guide will be focused on considerations before and after introducing such topics and handling potentially adverse outcomes.
The very definitions of “controversial” and “sensitive” topics are a controversy themselves. Following the epistemic criteria for “controversial” content proposed by Dearden (1984, 86), topics may be considered controversial if “contrary views can be held on it without those views being contrary to reason.” Examples of backgrounds for such content include cases where:
- “we simply have insufficient evidence to settle the matter, though in principle there is no reason why it should not be settled as more or better evidence becomes available”
- “consideration-making criteria are agreed but the weight to be given them is not”
Controversial topics may include, but are not limited to, sensitive topics. Sensitive topics can broadly be defined as those likely to evoke emotional responses, particularly discomfort and distress (Winstone and Kinchin 2017). These responses can occur from mere exposure to the topics, but they are more likely to be elicited by discussion, and particularly by debate. Examples of each category, many of which are discussed in the literature, are shown in the diagram below.
Note that “sensitive” and “controversial” are not static classifications. Any topic has the potential to evoke emotional responses and/or debate in the classroom. Certain topics have a history of consistently fitting into such categories, but educators should not assume that any topic will or will not be deemed COST by their students.
Research on the inclusion and application of these topics has grown in recent decades but has primarily been siloed to specific disciplines, with greater prevalence among the humanities than the sciences. While many of these studies come from outside the United States and focus on secondary education, many (if not all) of the academic benefits apply in American higher education settings. Traditional college students in the United States are coming from the relative structure of secondary education into an environment full of novel experiences and self-discovery (Perry 1968).
Appropriate inclusion of COST provides many academic benefits (Kraatz et al. 2022). While many of these are broad objectives of higher education in general, others are more specific benefits that can be gleaned from active learning and are epitomized in the discussion of COST (Mason and Briggs 2011). These academic benefits include promoting:
- Academic Freedom
- Critical Thinking
Addressing COST helps to promote academic freedom by establishing and encouraging the independence of both the instructor and each learner. Some disciplines have innate content that can be considered controversial or sensitive. Instructors who shy away from these topics can be viewed as scared to do so or censored by administration. Wholeheartedly discussing these topics in an academic context provides weight to the discipline and can garner respect from students for both the instructor and the institution. Additionally, COST (especially those considered taboo) can pique interest in the topic/class and foster curiosity. For example, a discussion on Social Darwinism after introducing natural selection might inspire a student to investigate what groups were discriminated against in the American eugenics movement.
In some sensitive topics, and especially in the case of controversial topics, students are introduced to content that has no “right answer.” This encourages critical thinking not only about the content, but also about themselves. The college years are a crucial time in identity development for students (Perry 1968), and preparing for addressing controversial issues either actively or passively in class encourages students to identify their own beliefs and, especially if challenged, their biases. Discussion, and particularly debate, help develop the ability to evaluate arguments (Hess 2009, Healy 2012). In the case of COST, students are forced to view the same topic from a diversity of viewpoints.
These diverse perspectives among students can naturally lead to discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion—both in the classroom and in the discipline. Regardless of their institution, instructors should be aware that some valid perspectives might not be present or voiced in their classroom. Beck et al. (2018) propose that this critical pedagogy in higher education can be supplemented by literature in much the same way secondary (high school) literature classes often introduce such topics (i.e. discussions of the Holocaust through the reading of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas).
Considerations in Application
While many instructors may be enamored by the benefits listed above, there is good cause for the hesitancy in addressing COST in higher education. Merely including these topics or having a “discussion day” does not ensure these benefits. Appropriate discussion of COST includes significant preparation and intentional topic choice.
While the benefits above may be clear to the instructor prior to and during the class, he or she should not assume that students will be able to identify them as well. Transparency in educational goals and design is often encouraged, but especially applicable here. Students should be made aware of the benefits of both the topic addressed and form but in a broad educational sense as well as specific importance to the class. The academic benefits listed above need to be encouraged and emphasized throughout the class in order for them to develop and be retained.
When it comes to topics, decisions need to be made with many things in mind. The first and foremost is the benefit to the students. COST are not merely beneficial by the nature of what they are. Shock-and-awe has little educational value in the classroom and students may struggle to adequately address a topic perceived to be delivered in isolation. Additionally, many COST by definition will make students uncomfortable (with or without discussion/debate). An adequate warning may be made before discussing such topics (when they are brought up intentionally), but studies investigating the academic benefit of “trigger warnings” have found mixed results (Cebula et al. 2022). “Confirming” behaviors such as verbal or nonverbal recognition provide an alternative to trigger warnings that are more widely applicable in the classroom and beneficial to student learning (Ellis 2000). Instructors should use their best professional and personal judgment in deciding topics, perspectives, and degree of forewarning included in discussion of COST.
Additionally, caution is advised for the potential for students to take structured COST discussions as a green light for provoking the class about other topics or at other times. COST discussions need not be strictly structured to particular class periods, but instructors may benefit from integrating them in a very structured way in order to both forewarn students who may experience discomfort and to adhere to established guidelines for discussion, should they exist. Enthusiastic students wishing to address inappropriate topics or viewpoints or play “devil’s advocate” may arise. Advice for actions to take in these and related scenarios can be found in the teaching guide on Classroom Incivilities. Appropriate discussion of COST means respecting diverse opinions in the classroom. However, positions exhibiting bigotry or viewpoints contrary to any professional members of the field need to be managed. Recall that one of the characteristics of controversial topics was that the contrary viewpoints not be contrary to reason.
To be done well, instructors should be intentional in choice and implementation of COST, aligning both to course objectives. The importance of the content and exercises should be clear to students and not introduced in isolation. Overall, teaching controversial material in college classes can challenge students intellectually, promote critical thinking and analysis, and encourage a more inclusive and diverse learning environment.
Recommendations from Other Universities
Beck, S. A., Bodur, Y., Walker-DeVose, D., Town, C., & Smith, T. (2018). Reading about What It Is Really Like Is Eye-Opening: Literature for Youth and College-Level Critical Pedagogy. Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy, 28(1), 19–37. https://doi.org/10.1353/tnf.2018.0002
Cebula, K., Macleod, G., Stone, K., & Chan S.W.Y. (2022). Student experiences of learning about potentially emotionally sensitive topics: Trigger warnings are not the whole story. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 46(8), 1120-1134. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2022.2055449
Ellis K. (2000). Perceived Teacher Confirmation: The Development and Validation of an Instrument and Two Studies of the Relationship to Cognitive and Affective Learning. Human Communication Research, 26(2), 264-291. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.2000.tb00758.x
Hess, D. E. (2009). Controversy in the classroom. Routledge.
Healey, R. L. (2012). The Power of Debate: Reflections on the Potential of Debates for Engaging Students in Critical Thinking about Controversial Geographical Topics. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 36(2), 239–257. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2011.619522
Kraatz, E., von Spiegel, J., Sayers, R., & Brady, A. C. (2022). Should we “just stick to the facts”? The benefit of controversial conversations in classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 61(3), 312–324. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405841.2022.2096381
Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the College Years: A scheme. Jossey-Bass.
Winstone, N. E., & Kinchin, I. M. (2017). Teaching Sensitive Issues: Psychological literacy as an antidote to pedagogic frailty. Psychology Teaching Review, 23(1), 15–29. https://doi.org/10.53841/bpsptr.2017.23.1.15
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