Embracing Diversity of Opinion: Iowa Sociologists Discuss Teaching Challenges

On Friday February 10, 2017 the Department of Sociology’s diversity committee sponsored a discussion session for faculty and graduate teaching assistants focused on managing challenging situations in the classroom. The session was led by Jean Florman and Anna Flaming from the Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology. A number of important topics were covered, including how to support students with differing views and backgrounds, how to work with students who may have a challenging time understanding course materials, and how to navigate difficult situations.

SstudentsFlorman and Flaming encouraged faculty and graduate teaching assistants to open the lines of communication with students beginning on the first day of the semester. They introduced attendees to “The Four Questions Assignment,” available on the Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology’s website. The exercise, which they suggested course instructors include as a part of their introductory materials on the first day of class, asks students to think critically about what they hope to gain from the class during the semester. Florman and Flaming explained that this can be helpful for students and faculty as the semester progresses. If students have identified their goals at the beginning of the semester, then they will have a more nuanced understanding of the importance of engaging difficult subjects and considering diverse perspectives when they arise.

Attendees also discussed the importance of keeping the lines of communication with students open throughout the semester, particularly if they are having trouble with course material. The department’s wide array of courses covers a number of difficult topics ranging from gender inequality to racial inequality to crime and deviance. Some students, particularly those in their first and second years, may have limited experience discussing these topics in a classroom setting. In addition, different theoretical perspectives may be challenging to grasp. Attendees shared strategies for teaching about difficult topics and for reaching out to students who may be having a difficult time engaging. Strategies discussed included assigning written responses, contacting students directly to schedule meetings if they are reluctant to visit office hours, trying to use examples during class that illustrate concepts and that everyone can relate to, and showing documentary films.

In addition, attendees discussed the importance of holding regular department discussions and workshops that provide support for faculty and graduate students throughout the semester. Because the department’s courses often cover topics that are of increasing local and national significance, many agreed that it is crucial that instructors work together to continue to develop strategies for ensuring that the classroom remains a comfortable space for students from all backgrounds. Florman and Flaming also encouraged attendees to take advantage of the numerous resources available at the Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology. For example, the office offers an early career instructor program designed to provide support to faculty in their first three years of teaching at the university. The office also offers one-on-one meetings with instructors at all levels of teaching to discuss any issues that come up during the semester. In addition, they hold regular professional development sessions for instructors throughout the semester and offer a number of teaching tools on their website.

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