Conversations in the Classroom

Message to USC Faculty

From: Charles F. Zukoski, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

Dear Colleagues,

Welcome back! I hope you were able to rest and rejuvenate over the break. As we begin Spring semester, I want to offer some guidance and resources to assist in potential discussions with students related to the events of January 6 and the potential for more violence at government buildings leading up to Inauguration Day.

As faculty of this university, you can play an important role. A university campus, even a virtual one, is an ideal space in which to engage in constructive dialogue. You can encourage critical thinking about complex, consequential, and challenging issues, and guide our students as they continue their growth into civic actors. Nevertheless, these dialogues can be difficult, especially now. While some conflict and discomfort is inevitable and potentially beneficial, we are obligated to maintain the safety of the discussion space and protect our students.

Adding to the challenge of managing these conversations, you yourselves are living through this same tumultuous era. I’ve attached to this letter useful guidance from the Center for Excellence in Teaching which encourages you to reflect on your own teaching strengths and your state of mind. Suggestions are included for ways you can plan, adapt, and structure your classroom environment to promote the best outcomes for our students.

I urge you to continue to guide classroom conversations around truth and facts, evidence-based research and grounded theory. It may be helpful to set ground rules and frequently and explicitly return to them. You have both the right and  responsibility to manage disruptive behavior—for example, if a student repeatedly interrupts others to insist on only one perspective. We are committed to academic freedom and free speech, and everyone has the right to be heard but we shouldn’t accept actions that violate our non-discrimination or anti-harassment policies.

Your students may be anxious, distracted, or even distraught as they continue to grapple with national events, the global pandemic, and personal challenges so please continue to be patient and flexible.

Resources are available for students, colleagues, or staff. For faculty and staff support: the Center for Work and Family Life; for students: Counseling and Mental Health. For anonymous reports if you have concerns about students, staff, or colleagues: Trojans Care 4 Trojans (TC4T).

I wish you a strong and engaging semester.

cc: Office of the President
Academic Deans
President’s Senior Leadership Team
Provost’s Leadership Team
Academic Senate
Staff Assembly
GSG President
USG President

Managing Classroom Discussions
Additional CET resources
Highly charged classroom discussions can be very powerful educational experiences, with the right structure and planning. They do not lend themselves well to impromptu, unmoderated discussion.Students look to faculty as models for how to conduct themselves and engage with others. They need guidance in developing skills in critical thinking and examining different perspectives — especially those they disagree with. Students rely on faculty to keep discussions productive and safe. Please consider the following recommendations for class discussions about the inauguration and events at the Capitol.

  • Know Thyself
  • Before engaging in a political classroom discussion, we should ask ourselves these questions.
    • How passionately do I feel about this topic right now? Is this the right time for me?
      • Am I currently in a frame of mind where I can:
      • Set my feelings and opinions aside, and moderate a discussion that promotes critical thought and a fair examination of different perspectives?
      • Refrain from joining either side of the debate, and focus on academic principles that will allow students to reach their own conclusions?
      • Demonstrate respect and continued academic engagement with those who disagree with me on this topic?
  • How comfortable am I with political discussions?
  • Do I feel comfortable in my ability to:
    • Moderate emotionally charged discussions and promote respectful dialogue?
    • Recognize early cues that people are starting to get angry or scared?
    • De-escalate conversations?
    • Interrupt, redirect, or pause conversations if they get too heated or off topic?

*CET, CWFL , and the Office of Campus Wellbeing and Education are available to provide faculty support on these issues.

  • Be Prepared
    • Determine what your goals are for the discussion, and align your plan to those goals
    • Decide ahead of time how much you will contribute vs. moderate the discussion
    • Before the discussion, work with students to set inclusive discussion norms, and expectations for what will happen if they are violated (create, review, remind)
    • Prepare discussion questions and time limits in advance to provide structure
    • Align questions, and ask students to align answers, to the course content when possible
    • Provide guidelines for student contributions (e.g., arguments are supported by evidence or course content; facts, opinions, or anecdotes are acknowledged as such; etc.)
    • Provide a grounding exercise to begin and for use when emotions run high
    • Prepare redirection responses in advance for inappropriate questions or comments
    • Have a plan for behavior or comments that violate discussion norms or USC policy
  • Encourage a Scholar’s Mindset
    • Develop a shared vocabulary, with accurate terms, to discuss the topic
    • Keep the discussion tied to scholarship, research, theory
    • Set the expectation that evidence will be examined for each argument
    • Encourage perspective taking
    • Ensure all voices and perspectives are heard