Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Managing Controversy

There are two main types of controversy that can erupt in the classroom. The first is a result of the material, when student viewpoints diverge and productive debate is transformed into unproductive animosity. The second kind is the result of interpersonal relations between the students and TF. These two kinds of controversy are very different in cause but produce similar results: a classroom dynamic that squelches discussion and learning rather than encouraging it.

Controversy Related To the Material

Classroom controversies can be a double-edged sword. If it’s difficult to spark discussion in section, a TF will welcome any kind of controversy; other TFs—particularly those in courses that address contemporary issues, such as those in political science or sociology—find that a few students want to and expect to voice their opinions loudly and forcefully on a weekly basis.

Conflicts can be directed at you, the professor, other students, or the material itself. Dealing with these conflicts is one of the trickiest aspects of being a teacher, since the means of handling them varies with their object and intensity. In some circumstances conflict can be a great means of sparking (and continuing) discussion, so you need not feel that every conflict has to be smothered like a spark in dry grass. However, if a conflict or controversy seems to be causing a palpable sense of discomfort in the class, it’s your duty to defuse it in some way. See also the teaching module, Teaching Controversial Topics.

Controversial Course Material

Unless you’re wildly insensitive, you’ll be able to anticipate when the course material will be controversial. Controversial issues lead to situations in which students feel too intimidated by a subject to risk voicing their views, or to situations in which the strongest opinions dominate the debate. You can anticipate and compensate for a range of student responses in a number of ways.

One of the most fundamental strategies is to decide how responsible you will be for creating a safe speaking environment for all your students. You should start the class (or semester, if you’re likely to encounter controversial material frequently) by reminding students that they should be respectful and sensitive to the opinions of others. One effective way of creating an appropriate atmosphere is to ask the students themselves to devise a list of ground rules for discussion. These might include “argue with opinions, not people” and “only the woefully ignorant can use ad hominem attacks,” for example.

Nevertheless, it is quite possible that you will be faced with a student whose opinions are highly charged or extreme for any number of reasons. It can require an extraordinary amount of restraint to keep yourself from railing against these views yourself, but it is most effective in such circumstances to suggest that there might be another view, then invite another student to offer it. (It’s almost certain, of course, that a profoundly offensive comment will have students of the opposing viewpoint jumping out of their seats for the opportunity to voice it.)

If you argue with students yourself, they may feel that you are trying to shut them up. On the other hand, students may feel that the class is not a safe environment if you let flagrantly offensive comments go by without comment.

Students Who Challenge Your Authority

Student challenges to the TF’s authority often occur in the context of grading. However, there are a number of more subtle challenges that may disrupt class, such as a student

  • Interrupting you
  • Aggressively disagreeing with you
  • Talking to other students while you’re speaking
  • Appearing bored
  • Repeatedly leaving early

A disagreement may turn into a lively debate, but if the behavior is egregiously disruptive, you might not be able to deal with it in the classroom. Discuss the matter with the student outside of class to see if it’s just a cry for attention or if there is a deeper problem. If you are the target of harassing remarks, speak with the professor, DGS, the Center for Teaching and Learning [INSERT LINK], and/or a dean. In some cases, referral to the student’s residential college dean [INSERT LINK] or a University sexual and racial harassment committee [INSERT LINK] may be appropriate.

Controversy Related To the Classroom Dynamic

Controversy can also be the result of festering resentment. This happens most frequently when students perceive that the TF is treating some students differently from others, either academically or personally.

Don’t Play Favorites

Chances are you’ll notice if you’re actually playing favorites—your favorites will be the students you discuss with your fellow TFs outside of class, the ones whose papers you “just know will be good.” Favoring some students over others is unavoidable. What is avoidable is making that fact apparent.

Class morale and the classroom dynamic can be damaged just as much by the mere perception of favoritism as by actually engaging in it. Encouraging participation from everyone (by force, if necessary) is one way to avoid favoring those who speak over those who don’t.

Be Fair and Flexible

It’s important for students to feel that you’re treating everyone equally. Let the concept of evenhandedness be your guide. Don’t say to one student what is not appropriate for all. If one student successfully negotiates with you some form of extra consideration (a paper re-write, for example), then you are ethically obligated to offer the same to everyone. (Consider, too, the practical issue if word gets out among your students that some are offered something that others aren’t.)

Remember that in many cases you are the liaison between the students and professor. If some of the class asks for the opportunity for extra-credit work, discuss this with the instructor and report back to the class. Similarly, if it seems that the class is consistently lagging behind the instructor’s presentation of information, relay that to the instructor so that changes may be considered.

Cute Student? Vade retro Satana!

Ah yes, the question everyone’s been waiting for. There can be a very fine line between the professional and friendly side of teaching, especially when TFs are only a few years older than their charges, and particularly so in discussion sections, which tend to be fairly informal. If you find that you’re attracted to a student and would like to see that person in a (ahem…) “social” sense, there is but one guideline: DON’T. Simple, no?

Not only would such a relationship violate the basic ethics of the teaching profession, but it would also jeopardize your standing with the class as a whole by focusing your attention on the student. It’s also kind of creepy on your part.

Moreover, University policy expressly prohibits a teacher from having “a sexual or amorous relationship with any undergraduate student, regardless of whether the teacher currently exercises or expects to have any pedagogical or supervisory responsibilities over that student.” In other words, “Whenever a teacher is or in the future might reasonably become responsible for teaching, advising, or directly supervising a student, a sexual relationship between them is inappropriate and must be avoided,” regardless of whether the relationship is consensual (see the Appendix [INSERT LINK] for the University Policy on Teacher-Student Consensual Relations, and Definitions of Sexual Misconduct, Consent and Harassment).

But there’s another aspect of this situation that may not immediately occur to you. If you express interest in a student in a manner that is perceived as inappropriate, harassing, or even threatening, then that student has the right to take the matter to a DUS, dean, master, or other authority. Even if you felt that it was misconstrued harmless flirtation, you will still be in the position of explaining and justifying your conduct. As you can imagine, this is a situation no TF would want to be in, so adopt a social posture of friendly neutrality. You can smile at your students, you can be jovial and pleasant. But beyond that: err on the side of caution.

What if you’re the object of flirtation or proposition? It’s likely to happen to every TF at some point. First of all, be aware of one thing, as sad as it may sound: it’s never an attraction to you; it’s an attraction to the TF. If you have to deal with this situation, be tactful and discreet, but also be careful. If you receive flirtations via email, save them (for your records, not just to read and reread in order to bolster your sagging ego). If you discuss the matter with the student, you should consider having the meeting in a public area outside the classroom and having a third person present (an instructor, the DUS, a dean, but not a fellow student). This third person can vouch for your handling the situation properly, should the need to do so arise.