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Managing Controversial Discussions in the Classroom and Online

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Section on Public Administration Education
February 10, 2017



I am excited to introduce the first in a series of quarterly columns sponsored by the Section on Public Administration Education (SPAE) and written by our members! This column is an effort to help advance one of SPAE’s main purposes as defined in our charter – to provide a “forum for information exchange among members in regard to innovative curricula and pedagogical approaches.” This column is also part of a larger effort by the SPAE Executive Board and its members to help advance the quality of teaching in our field.

 In 2017, this effort includes:

  • Sponsoring the 40th Annual Teaching Public Administration Conference (TPAC) at the University of Nebraska Omaha, May 31 to June 2, 2017 – we invite you to submit a proposal and/or register for TPAC.

I invite you to take advantage of these opportunities to engage in dialogue about, and improve, one of the most fundamentally critical activities we do to advance public service and the public interest – teaching. Start by reading this timely column by Michael Popejoy about effectively managing classroom discussions on important, yet controversial topics.

Alex Heckman, SPAE Chair
Chair, Franklin University Department of Public Administration 


While reading blogs posted by professors after the Trump presidential election, it became clear some professors are presenting the reality of the new administration and answering difficult questions from students. How can professors maintain a civil classroom environment while addressing tough questions and comments?

Many students without public work experience must learn to engage in discussions of controversial issues without expressing severe emotions. This is part of the public policy, political and social processes endemic to certain degree programs and careers. Students seeking careers in public service must learn to engage in debates on issues without offense or creating a hostile environment by aggressive language or attitudes. This is essential to development of mature professionals in public service.

Students are unpredictable. Professors face each course from two directions: one, maintain students in their collective “happy place;” or two, they can force students to confront political realities. This is less pleasant and riskier to the professor’s career, particularly adjunct instructors who students dismiss easily based on dissatisfaction.

Psychologists agree adults are hard wired in personality and worldview by their mid-twenties. The average adult student in U.S. colleges are over 30, some in their 40s, 50s and older. It is expected students have hardened siloed worldviews and significant tensions erupt as worldviews are challenged by revelations of new information. The results are tense discussions with open hostility and resentment toward the source of this new information, the professor and/or the textbook. Adults do not modify their views lightly and argue vehemently the position held for years even in the face of overwhelming evidence challenging strongly held beliefs.

Student beliefs affect how they receive instruction. This points to the contestation and resistance students exert on curricula as their perspectives meet differing value systems embedded in curricula.

What topics potentially lead to tension in class discussions? Issues include: abortion, capital punishment, profiling by law enforcement, poverty and welfare, health care rationing, gun control, prison systems and incarceration, low-income housing, homeland security policies and procedures including surveillance protocols; and every public policy under consideration. Whether liberal or conservative, emotions run high on issues of what government does or does not do toward correcting social problems.

Preparing Students for Controversial Discussion Topics

Professors should have a grasp on topics with the greatest emotional impact on students and preparation in class civility should begin with the syllabus. Further, in the course introduction, during the first session, tell students what to expect, drawing attention to the section in the syllabus where civility and critical thinking is discussed; and, engage in frank discussions to ensure students understand what to expect.

Preparation is unlikely to eliminate all hostility, but should minimize emotional intensity during discussions of controversial issues. If students are desensitized to offensive issues, then it is beneficial they also be sensitized on how to handle offensive issues since the classroom is not the first or the last they will hear of them. This is a fact of professional life in public and private sector careers.

Classroom civility means only one person speaks with the professor as moderator. Too often events spin out of control because many students voice their thoughts simultaneously; and, no one is listening because everyone is talking; and, small groups of students start talking and drift away from the direction of the discussion topic. Students may become angrier because they cannot get their views expressed, so they raise their voices, escalating emotions to a point where no one understands what anyone is saying. At this point, they have even stopped listening to the professor but often they are also now angry with the professor.

As a particular discussion winds down, professors should ask if everyone has had their voice heard. Sometimes this is when one quiet student expresses an opinion. It also demonstrates to the class the professor is interested in every opinion, which deflects hostility that the professor is advocating a particular position on an issue. However, professors should play devils’ advocate to stimulate debate rather than a passive role to avoid debate. And, in homogeneous classes, groupthink takes over due to the commonality of the students by gender, race, religion, etc.

Professors who ask open-ended questions on examinations may also be questioned by students on how opinions will be scored. Obviously, professors score essay answers with some qualitative subjectivity despite detailed rubrics. Professors should be honest in descriptions of the essay question scoring process. Understanding how to express informed opinions is critical for students in developing the discipline of arriving at conclusions with a defendable critical thinking process, by using one of the models of critical analysis presented in the course.

Adult students are accustomed to rendering opinions as verifiable fact. Key is the difference between “opinions” and “informed opinions” complete with citations from the literature regarding topics under discussion. Students preparing for public careers should understand when they are shooting from the hip on important issues, the media fact checkers will catch them and their public credibility will be jeopardized.

Author: Michael W. Popejoy, PhD. Received a Ph.D. in public administration from Florida Atlantic University. Currently, Book Series Editor for Public Administration and Public Health, Nova Science Publishers, Inc. New York and has been an adjunct professor in public health at Florida International University. Primary focus is the necessary interdisciplinary crosswalks between public administration and public health and health policy.

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