On the first day of class, I begin creating a safe space for students to express a variety of opinions by introducing them to the idea that minority opinions and unexpected answers can foster more productive conversations than “right” or expected answers. I tell students that I’m going to call on one of them to give a wrong or unexpected answer to a simple question. Then, I call on a student and ask, “What color is the sky?” Instead of the standard answer of “blue,” students have given a variety of answers including brown, purple, and orange. With this seemingly wrong answer out there, I then ask the class, “Under what conditions could the sky actually be [brown, purple, orange]?” This simple exercise has led to ten-minute conversations on various topics including pollution, sunrises and sunsets, and wildfires. At the end of the short discussion, I point out to students that whereas the standard answer of blue would have provoked nods and little to no discussion, the unexpected answer gave us the opportunity to have a thought-provoking discussion about the color of the sky. This, I tell them, is why I encourage answers and opinions that challenge consensuses that arise during class discussions. After leading them through this exercise, I present the students with our overarching critical thinking question for the entire course: “What’s wrong with this picture?” Throughout the semester, whenever we have an apparent consensus on the topic of the day, I return to our guiding question to allow students who may not agree with the consensus to express their views and, more generally, to facilitate students’ thinking about alternative perspectives on the topic.
The exercises on the first day prime students for the second day of class in which I lead a workshop on how to discuss issues of race and racial inequalities. I provide an online module of readings and videos about racial oppression, privilege, and how to talk about controversial subjects. Before class, students read a blog post on how to disagree, choose a reading and a video to watch from the module, and then bring to class an explanation of one thing they learned, one thing that surprised them, and one question they still have about the information they’ve read and watched. I begin class with a freewrite and discussion on why it’s difficult to talk about race. During the discussion, students often express their fears about not knowing what to say or how to say it, not wanting to offend other students, and having different perspectives than the majority of students in the class. White students tend to mention their feelings of guilt and being blamed when it comes to talking about privilege. The discussion also provides opportunities for students to discuss why issues of racial inequality provoke such strong emotions and how we might have productive conversations in class in light of those emotions. Overall, the discussion lays the groundwork for talking about how to disagree in ways that promote constructive conversation.
After discussing why it’s difficult to talk about race, I ask students to form small groups to talk about the written reflections they’ve brought to class. Because students could choose from a variety of materials to watch and read, I ask them to find other students who watched and read material different from what they chose. Then, they explain the main ideas of their readings and videos to their peers before discussing what they learned, what surprised them, and the questions they still have. I let students discuss on their own for a few minutes before circulating among the groups to provide input where necessary.
These strategies get students talking about an uncomfortable topic that they usually avoid. By having these conversations on the first days of class, I signal to students that I welcome dissenting viewpoints while also giving them an opportunity to practice skills for discussing social inequalities that provoke ideological splits and strong emotions. Throughout the multiple semesters in which I’ve taught my Law and Society course in this way, I have found that starting with the exercises and workshop on multiple perspectives and how to talk about race opens the classroom space to more productive conversations throughout the semester. In these conversations, students bring up dissenting viewpoints and question their peers’ perspectives more often than in semesters when I have not provided the foundation for these discussions during the first week of class.