How to Foster Frank Dialogue in Class on Sensitive Subjects

    by Holly Wise
    May 7, 2015
    A group of Introduction to Mass Communication students at Texas State University listen as Holly Wise talks to them about solutions journalism. Photo by Holly Wise.

    Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate delicate conversations with my students after the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism released their audit of the Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus.”

    As a journalism educator at Texas State University, this was not something I could ignore. As a human being, I was hyper-aware that I was conducting a discussion that might have profound personal meaning to my students.

    "I think we create safe places by exhibiting safety, and we encourage dialogue by being vulnerable enough to lead sensitive conversations."

    This is true on a plethora of topics: drug overdose, child abuse, suicide, car accidents, shooting deaths. The truth is that I don’t know the majority of my students’ stories and the way that I discuss these topics should respectfully reflect that.


    When I began lecturing, I wanted to know, “How do I create classrooms that are safe places for dialogue?” and “How do I encourage students to converse?”

    I think we create safe places by exhibiting safety, and we encourage dialogue by being vulnerable enough to lead sensitive conversations.

    But this is what I think, and the classroom is not about me. So I began asking my journalism students, “What can faculty members do to make their classrooms a safe place for discussion?”


    They’ve answered, and I’d like you to hear their voices.


    Q: Based on your collegiate experience, what specifically have professors done to ensure that the classroom is a safe place for students to share openly?

    A: If a conversation topic is laid bare on the table like something that might be blurted out at a dinner party, well, that starts ideas flowing. And as students join in, the topic might gain steam and seem more interesting. Conversations are interactive.

    A: Professors can make the environment honest. As students in this field we tend to be very aware of what is around us, and without an honest environment, it can hinder our creativity.

    A: The most prominent step has been to list on the syllabus that all information is kept confidential. The second step is to allow students to share openly without a formalized structure of discussion.

    A: Professors would begin the lesson with a disclaimer saying that it was a safe place to be open and honest with those in the class. They would explain that intimidation or harassment based on one’s opinion would not be tolerated.

    A: When the class sizes are smaller, I’m more likely to participate in discussion because there’s a more personal connection with my classmates and my professor.

    Photo by Holly Wise A group of Texas State University mass communication students focus their attention on a video created by one of their colleagues.

    A group of Texas State University mass communication students focus their attention on a video created by one of their colleagues. Photo by Holly Wise.

    A: Relating to a past experience is a great way that I have been able to connect with a teacher, therefore letting me feel more comfortable and open to share more deeply.

    Q: Do you remember a time when you felt uncomfortable or unwilling to share in class? What might the professor have done differently to better facilitate a conversation?

    A: When professors are looking for particular answers from the students instead of opinions, sometimes I don’t answer because I’m worried I’ll answer incorrectly.

    A: As a gay person, I have always been somewhat uncomfortable revealing that fact in a large class where I don’t really know everyone. I don’t know what consequences I might have for revealing something that has historically correlated with harassment and intimidation. While there are many “allies” on campus, LGBT concerns are often overlooked in the classroom.

    A: Professors need to learn to cut people off effectively and keep the class moving forward while officiating who’s speaking and for how long.

    A: I might be uncomfortable sharing my thoughts about something I don’t know anything about. Not unwilling exactly, because I do like to ask a lot of questions, but there are times when I would rather lurk and absorb information than add my own voice to the mix.

    A: I think a big part of making students feel comfortable as a professor is making the student feel like it is OK to not be correct all the time. The majority of students do not participate in class because they do not want to feel embarrassed by being wrong.

    A: I feel some students are worried about being humiliated in some way or brought down by the teacher’s reply to their statement.

    Q: What two pieces of advice would you give faculty on how to create a safe space for dialogue?

    A: Encourage open, honest dialogue. Even if students within a discussion disagree, make sure to explain that a disagreement doesn’t need to be an altercation. You can disagree without getting nasty and having earnest debates often leads to all parties being better off.

    Photo by Nottingham Trent University on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Nottingham Trent University on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    A: Explain why there is a need for discussion during class. Is it just to fill time and keep students from being bored, or is there something to be learned? Also, be a solid moderator. Don’t let a handful of students dominate the conversation. Look for those that don’t always raise their hand (not calling them out when they have not elected to talk, but calling on them when they do actually want to contribute).

    A: I believe faculty should create a “no judgment” zone where students feel open to sharing and creating their own ideas.

    A: I feel some classes don’t really allow for a lot of dialogue; the professors mainly just lecture and want the students to sit quietly. One piece of advice would be just to allow discussion to take place and leave time for it.

    A: Encouraging group familiarity would be the best way to promote dialogue. Also, faculty should keep the discussion fluid rather than rigid; integrate interactivity through web-based and digital collaboration; encourage different views to elaborate more fluidly; allow debate but only in formalized ways; give students the opportunity to prove their views and encourage group collaboration.

    A: Remind your students that class time is important, and that they need to think about what they want to say/ask beforehand, and then boil that down to two sentences at the most.

    A: Try not to infiltrate your lectures with opinions that are personal. Also, don’t force people to answer questions they don’t know.

    A: Faculty should enjoy the art of teaching — and it is an art form. I’m absolutely convinced of that. Have a little fun sometimes, too. Teach the students, invite their opinions, listen to them, respect them, treat them like human beings, even if they don’t deserve it, and a safe and open environment should follow naturally from that.

    Holly Wise teaches journalism at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. She is the founder and executive editor of VoiceBox Media – a news service dedicated to telling the stories of people who are making change happen in their communities. She lives in a rehabbed 1973 Holiday Rambler travel trailer with her mom and two German shepherds. She’s on Twitter.

    Tagged: dialogue discussion holly wise rolling stone texas state university

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