Talking About Affirmative Action
As the Supreme Court gets ready to review the consideration of race in admissions policies, instructors need to think about how to manage discussions of the issue -- both those that are planned and those that are unplanned.
The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, at the University of Michigan developed the following guidelines to help instructors with classroom discussions about affirmative action. The guidelines are reprinted here courtesy of the center.
When there are classroom discussions about affirmative action, it is best that they be carefully planned and informed, not simply unstructured expressions of opinion. Ideally, discussions should provide an opportunity to extend the discourse about affirmative action beyond polarized debates.
Spontaneous Discussions: Dealing with the Unanticipated
Affirmative action is a contentious topic, in part because the media often present oversimplified information and opinions about affirmative action. Also, both students and instructors at many campuses feel personally involved in the national debate because affirmative action is a current practice at their institutions. For these reasons and many others, it is better not to have unplanned discussions. If a student raises the issue of affirmative action during class, consider the following strategies:
1. Acknowledge the student who raised the issue while noting that students may vary in their responses and concerns.
2. Quickly assess whether the class would like to spend time sharing views about the topic. If students want to have a dialogue, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students could prepare. Consider the strategies outlined in the “Planned Discussions” section below.
3. If a discussion seems inappropriate or undesirable, encourage students to attend campus forums and events related to affirmative action rather than discussing the matter in class.
1. Identify an objective for the discussion. A clearly articulated objective will shape the nature of the discussion. In Improving Discussion Leadership (1980), Ronald Hyman describes five main types of
- Policy discussion – The purpose is to examine and develop positions on a policy question.
- Problem-solving discussion – The goal is to find answers to a problem or conflict.
- Explaining discussion – The objective of this past-oriented discussion is to analyze the causes or reasons for a situation.
- Predicting discussion – In this future-oriented dialogue, discussants explore possible consequences of a situation.
- Debriefing discussion – In this activity, discussants reflect on information and impressions gained from a shared activity.
2. Other objectives for a discussion about affirmative action might include:
- Connecting the topic with course material.
- Increasing awareness about the topic by providing information that is not generally addressed in informal discussions.
- Promoting critical thinking by helping students to understand the complexity of the issues.
3. Provide a common base for understanding. For example, assign readings on affirmative action, instruct students to select their own readings to bring to class, or show a video clip to prompt discussion. An instructor may also have students read short materials during class.
4. Establish ground rules for the discussion. An instructor should work with students to develop guidelines for conduct during the discussion. Some suggestions include the following:
- Listen respectfully, without interrupting.
- Respect each other’s views.
- Criticize ideas, not individuals.
- Commit to learning, not debating.
- Avoid blame and speculation.
- Avoid inflammatory language.
5. Because affirmative action is a complex topic, it is important to establish a framework for the discussion.
- Focus the discussion on a particular issue or set of issues (e.g., the admissions lawsuit, the value of diversity in higher education, affirmative action in society, alternatives to race-conscious policies).
- Prepare a list of questions to guide the discussion. The wording of questions often determines their effectiveness.
6. Maintain a focused and flowing discussion: Some suggestions:
- Begin the discussion with clear, open-ended questions. Queries should be short, simple, and easily understood by students. Avoid "double-barreled questions," which pose two problems simultaneously.
- Ask questions that prompt multiple answers rather than short factual responses or simple “yes” or “no” replies.
- Prepare specific questions to use if the class is silent or hesitant about speaking. Some examples include: “What makes this hard to discuss?” and “What needs to be clarified at this point?”
- Be prepared to probe. With probing questions, an instructor can prompt students to share more specific information, clarify an idea, elaborate on a point, or provide further explanation.
- Be prepared to redirect the discussion if students go beyond the intended focus. Drawing attention to the readings or reminding the class about the discussion objectives are useful management techniques.
- Be prepared to recapitulate and organize key points with the use of a blackboard, overhead, or flip chart.
7. In order to keep a discussion focused and purposeful, be an active facilitator rather than a passive observer. On the other hand, be careful not to over-control. A facilitator intervenes throughout the discussion to reword questions posed by students, correct misinformation, make reference to relevant reading materials or course content, and review the main points.
8. Encourage broad class participation. Do not allow the most talkative or most opinionated students to dominate the discussion. Some methods for increasing the number of discussants include:
- The Round: Give each student an opportunity to respond to a guiding question without interruption or comments. Provide students with the option to pass. After the round, discuss the responses.
- Think-Pair-Share: Give students a few minutes to respond to a question individually in writing. Divide the class into pairs or trios. Instruct the students to share their responses with group members. Provide students with explicit directions, such as “Tell each other why you chose the answer you did.” After a specified time period, have the class reconvene in order to debrief.
- Sharing Reflection Memos: Prior to the discussion, have students write a reflection memo in response to a question or set of questions that you pose. As part of the discussion, ask students to read their memos.
With each of these methods, the instructor needs to summarize the various responses and relate them to the discussion objectives.
9. Encourage students to examine the issues from a variety of possible viewpoints. Students should express viewpoints in a manner that will provide greater insight about affirmative action, rather than provoke defensiveness in classmates. Remind students that the learning process involves both articulating different perspectives and actively listening to those with divergent views. Ask students to tolerate opposition. Note that reaching a consensus is not the goal of the discussion.
10. To respect the diversity of opinions and the varying knowledge levels among students, strive for balance in the dialogue. When addressing the practices, impact, implications, and intentions of affirmative action, strive for a balanced discussion of both historical and contemporary issues, and strive for a balanced discussion of issues for individuals as well as issues for institutions or society
11. One key issue in discussions about university diversity is the opportunity for students from different backgrounds to interact and to talk in settings that are conducive to thoughtful exchange about differences. Agree to discuss this topic in a way that does not make assumptions about any members of the class (including the instructor). Some individuals have a special and complicated relationship to this issue, some impacted more than others, and some may be perceived to have special knowledge. Make sure no one is put on the spot, and recognize that students may have strong feelings and perspectives on the topic, and these feelings and perspectives may be unpredictable and complicated.
12. An instructor can utilize various techniques to diffuse growing tension in the class or between particular students by:
- Involving additional discussants who have different perspectives.
- Dividing the class into subgroups for a few minutes to closely examine a specific point.
- Instructing students to spend some time writing about a specified issue.
13. Conclude by summarizing the main points of the discussion. Students are more likely to feel that a discussion was valuable if the instructor, with the help of the class, synthesizes what has been shared.
14. It is useful to obtain student feedback about the quality of the discussion and to identify issues that may need follow-up. The Minute Paper is one strategy for obtaining feedback:
- Immediately following the discussion, give students a few minutes to write answers to the following questions: “What is the most important point you learned today?” and "What important question about affirmative action remains unanswered for you?"
- Review the student responses before your next meeting with the class. During the next class, briefly summarize the student feedback and thank the students for their participation.
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