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How to address sensitive subjects in class?

The war between Russia and Ukraine, the conflict in Gaza or the global rise of the far-right: topics that stir up emotions but are also regularly discussed in classes at Political Science. Moreover, with a diverse group of students, there is a great diversity of life experiences, backgrounds and opinions. This can make for interesting but also heated discussions in class. How can you best deal with this, as a learning community?

News topics as a subject in class

In both the Bachelor's and Master's degree programmes in Political Science, news topics are regularly used as examples during classes to elaborate on a particular theme. After all, the study covers topics such as conflicts, migration and shifts in the political system, which we can directly link to news reports in the media. Such a recent news topic can generate interesting discussions in class, but of course it can also stir up certain feelings, especially if the topics touch on a personal level. Something that, with a diverse and international group of students, can happen regularly. It is up to the teacher and the students to manage this. But how to go about this? Three lecturers share their experiences.

Different attitudes towards democracy

One of these teachers is Maria Spirova, a lecturer of Comparative Politics and International Relations. She teaches ‘Great Debates’, a course for all Political Science master’s students. What stands out to her during these classes is that students have very different experiences with democracy. ‘This varies from experiences with the political system as a whole, democracy and corruption, and different attitudes towards political elites’, she elaborates.

‘It does create interesting discussions’, Spirova says. ‘For example, I had students from Morocco, Iran, Hungary, China,  Serbia, Russia and various countries in Latin America. So when issues of experience with democratic government are discussed, they have very different opinions.’ As a result, discussions can get heated sometimes. According to Spirova, some students tend to have very different attitudes towards the political elite, for example, or whether democracy is a good form of government.

How does she handle these situations? ‘First of all, I tell them from the beginning that we all have very different life experiences,’ Spirova says. ‘I use myself as an example: growing up in Bulgaria under a communist regime, getting used to democracy. So I encourage them to share. And on the other hand, I tell them, that even though sometimes I call upon them to share their experiences, they are not responsible for their governments and countries. They don’t represent their countries, they represent themselves. And if you don’t want to share your experience, you don’t have to.’

Student asking a question

Issues of war

Of course, issues of war come up. The most recent example for Spirova was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when it was still in the early stages, last fall. ‘I wanted to discuss it, but I didn’t want to get into who was “right” and who was “wrong” at that point. So it was more about how we can resolve it. I was trying to raise the level of abstractness, to approach it from a theoretical perspective, so we see it as an example of political science as opposed to approaching it from the two different allegiances, something that we all have an opinion about.’

Studying migration

Another experience is shared by Katharina Natter, who researches and teaches about migration politics from a comparative perspective. She teaches a seminar in the third year of the Bachelor’s programme International Relations and Organisations, called ‘Politics of Migration’. In this seminar, refugee reception policies around the globe are being discussed. For example, Natter and her students compare Columbia’s response to Venezuelan refugees with the EU’s response to Ukrainian and Syrian refugees, as well as Turkey’s response to Syrian refugees over the past decade. The class engages with sensitive issues such as race, religion, national identity and discrimination. ‘As IRO’s student body is very diverse, I often have students from refugee origin countries in my class, so discussing these issues can be triggering and very personal,’ comments Natter.

‘To mitigate this,’ Natter continues, ‘I usually do three things: Ahead of the session, I ask students from Venezuela, Syria and Ukraine whether they are okay with us doing the comparative analytical exercise. If there are any concerns, I adapt or change the in-class discussion focus. During the session, then, I make sure to give enough space for these students to express themselves and provide their perspective on the issue. I also ensure a safe discussion space by emphasising the importance of respectful listening and perspective-taking, so that the discussion does not become alienating or hurtful for anyone in class.’ After the class, Natter does a quick briefing with students to see whether there are any feelings or reactions they would like to talk about. ‘While all of this is of course no guarantee for a constructive, smooth class conversation, open communication about the challenges involved in discussing such sensitive issues is certainly a first step for a more fruitful and secure class conversation,’ she concludes.

Respectful and honest disagreement

Creating a safe space to discuss sensitive subjects in a meaningful way, is also the main objective of Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl. Besides being a lecturer at Leiden University’s Institute of Political Science, he researches the military and political dynamics of civil wars, and the Middle East.  

He teaches a bachelor's thesis seminar on civil wars, in which difficult and controversial topics are regularly brought to the table – the causes of violence against civilians; the impact of foreign intervention; why individuals participate in armed rebellion; why a person carries out violence against a fellow human being. ‘To facilitate our conversations,’ Schulhofer-Wohl explains, ‘one of the most important steps is to create an atmosphere of respect and trust within the classroom. I work with the students so that we achieve shared expectations that guide us throughout the course:  The classroom is a space for learning and discovery; each of us understands that it's possible we'll disagree with what another says, even that we'll find the words difficult and uncomfortable to hear; that we will listen even in these circumstances; and that we will try to openly share our discomfort and our concerns with each other in the moment. Respectful and honest disagreement, open exchange of personal perspectives, combined with curiosity and a sense of possibility, offers us opportunities: the ability to question our existing opinions and beliefs, to revise or reinforce them, and ultimately the true gift of learning together with others.’

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