Reluctance and Conflict in the Classroom

Students are often not comfortable talking about diversity-related issues. This partly comes from the experience of many non-minority students who enter the university with little awareness of how culturally different students or faculty view the world 1 . Students also know that there has been oppression of minority groups in the past. Recognition by students that injustice continues to the present day can occasion guilt and challenge established beliefs about how equal the opportunities are and how much fairness there is in the U.S.

One diversity and social justice educator writes: ". . .the issues of power and powerlessness, advantage and disadvantage, addressed in these classes are charged concepts. They encourage viewing the world as inhabited by winners and losers, locating oneself on this social map, and, consequently, taking sides 2 ."

A reluctance to explore the idea that social oppression really exists and a lack of willingness to examine strongly held beliefs are not necessarily obstacles to learning.
The prospect of changing one's beliefs on issues is threatening to many people. Anger and conflict can be seen as normal and expected reactions to concepts and material that challenge one's worldview and convictions.

One can make a distinction between students who actively oppose diversity-related concepts but are open to experiences/course material that might change their minds and those students who are unwilling to entertain any concepts that do not fit with previously held beliefs. The former students, whose views are often divergent not only from the instructor but also many other students, are often a boon to the class, as they openly participate in class discussion.

Teachers encounter students unwilling to change their minds across the ideological spectrum. Consider the situation of the student whose position on Milton Bennett's Intercultural Sensitivity Continuum 3: would be in the "Acceptance of Difference" category (see below) and who does not see any reason to consider altering any of her beliefs or ideas. Students across the conservative/liberal spectrum may demonstrate intellectual rigidity, in that they are comfortable with the position that they have adopted and see no reason to think more about their own beliefs and actions. Students may also be willing to consider some diversity-related issues but not others. For example, they may be willing to examine discrimination but not their own privilege.

"There is only one culture"
"All cultures are relative to each other"
Denial of Difference Defense against Difference Minimization of Difference Acceptance of Difference Adaptation to Difference Integration of Difference

Students' Responses to Ideas/Material That Threatens Their Beliefs
Students who are reluctant or unwilling to examine material or concepts that threaten their beliefs do so overtly, covertly, or by their absence.

Overt resistance can be shown by:

  • Attempts to invalidate the teacher. If the instructor is a member of a minority group, the instructor is not "objective." If the teacher is not a member of a minority group, then "How could this person understand without personal experience?"
  • Attempts to invalidate the class. All attempts to challenge the status quo are characterized as "political correctness;"
  • Anecdote is raised to the status of generalized fact. A story is repeated from the news media about a black man beating up a white man, a white person not getting a job because of affirmative action— these are used to discount the experience of members of minority groups, nullify concepts such as institutional discrimination and white skin privilege;
  • Domination of class discussion—arguing every point and perhaps verbally attacking other students who disagree;
  • Hostile silence—refusing to participate in small or large class discussions This is highlighted by their nonverbal behavior—cap pulled over eyes, arms crossed, reading non-class-related material 4 .

Covert resistance to the materials and ideas is manifested by outwardly agreeing with what is being taught, minimal participation in writing assignments and small group discussions, and silence in large class discussions. Students covertly resistance often maintain "poker faces" in classes, not showing any emotional reaction to what is being said or done.

Student absence may be another way to show unwillingness or reluctance to engage with ideas or concepts that threaten established worldviews. Students may come to class only often enough to minimally pass the course.

Responses to Reluctance and Unwillingness to Examine Ideas
Structuring both the requirements of the course and interactions within the course are both essential in engaging students who appear determined not to learn. It should be clear that "politically correctness" and agreeing with the instructor are not required. Short papers and journal entries that no one but the instructor reads may be used by students to voice opinions or reactions that would not otherwise be voiced (see Clarity on Course Approach, Student Learning, and Grading). Norms for class discussion need to be clear and always adhered to , so that students feel comfortable discussing topics and no one dominates a discussion. Exercises and simulations have been shown to be effective in helping people understand, for example, what it is like to be stigmatized.

There are other approaches for helping students understand why they need to acquire knowledge and develop skills for working and living in an increasingly multicultural country. If the course is one for majors in professional programs, the teacher can stress how knowledge and skills gained in the course are relevant and integral to their professional roles; examples are as future educators or future human resource professionals.

Instructors need to strongly intervene when the safety of class members is threatened. In other situations, student unwillingness to participate can be challenged, not confronted. Confrontation leads to defensive reactions. When instructors address the issue rather than the student as a person, they can challenge not the beliefs per se, but extend an invitation to examine ways of thinking and actions that seem to be self-defeating, harmful to others, or both—and to change 5 .

Depending on the situation, the challenging may occur in class, in comments on written work, or in a private conference outside of the class. The instructor might challenge:

  • The lack of congruence between a student's words "I don't have an opinion on this" and their non-verbal behavior which shows an emotional reaction to the subject:
  • What appears to be distortions of the words or meanings of an author or a character in a work of fiction;
  • Reliance on anecdotes and the student's personal experience and discounting of other information/data. The instructor could reply: "Your experience is real—to what degree is it the exception?"

Providing feedback to student written work is often an excellent opportunity to both challenge students' reluctance to examine their beliefs/apply course content and to affirm students who are struggling with new material and ways of thinking.

Dealing with Conflict in the Classrooms

The best-laid plans at times go astray. Angry outbursts, verbal attacks on instructors, and verbal fights between students can erupt.

Paying close attention to the process during class may alert teachers to warning signs. Instructors should continually monitor who is speaking and who is silent and the level of discomfort with the material or topic. Early monitoring, reminding students of class norms, and perhaps the rephrasing of student comments may avert full-blown conflict.

When conflict does emerge (usually taking the class and instructor by surprise), depending on the situation, the instructor:

  • May remind students of class norms, including not personalizing their remarks and making "I statements;"
  • Might rephrase comments to make sure that a student's intent came out in the words that were expressed—the conflict may be the result of a misunderstanding;
  • Should not take sides or go into the expert role; this may calm the conflictual situation but it also may dampen class discussion in the long run;
  • Might redirect the discussion to facts/class material rather than opinions;
  • May ask other students for suggestions;
  • Might call for a "time-out" if tensions are high, asking students to write in their journals or notebooks about the incident for five minutes, then talk in pairs before resuming a full class discussion.

  1. Harris, Shanette and Nettles, Michael (1996). Ensuring campus climates that embrace diversity. In Educating a New Majority; Transforming America's Educational System for Diversity , p. 361
  2. Timpson, William (2003). Walking our talk: The special challenges of teaching diversity. In Teaching Diversity: Challenges and Complexities, Identities and Integrity . Madison , WI : Atwood Press, p. 10.
  3. Stewart, Edward C. and Bennett, Milton J. (1991). American cultural patterns : a cross-cultural perspective. Yarmouth , Me. , USA : Intercultural Press.
  4. Griffin , Pat (1997) Facilitating social justice education courses. IN Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook , Adams, Maurianne, Bell , Lee Ann, and Griffin , Pat, eds. New York : Routledge, pp. 293-294.