A young unarmed Black man was shot by a White police officer in Madison a week and a half ago (not that common an event here) and there have been a lot of protests and a lot of discussion here about this.We got feedback from our TAs that they wanted more support for dealing with these kinds of emotion-laden issues in the classroom. Partly just acknowledgement that many of them, as well as many of the students, had personal ties to the young man who was killed, or personal reasons to feel close to the matter. And partly advice and teaching resources for being ready to deal with both the immediate issue and the broader sociological context in class. I discussed the event and the protests and the broader context it in my class because it was relevant to the class topic and because I already knew a lot of the relevant background knowledge, but I did not do anything to share the information I had with anyone else. There was some agreement in our departmental discussion about a need for a system of rapid deployment of information from those instructors with knowledge to those instructors who want knowledge (or who maybe need the knowledge whether they want it or not) about current events they may want to address in their classes. Or maybe the proactive accumulation of background information about issues that are likely to become “hot” that can be quickly accessed? Are there departments that have systems for this? We were tossing out ideas of using the discussion board features of desire2learn or a private blog.
Other important points from the discussion:
(1) Especially when it is close to home, but even if it isn’t but is getting a lot of media attention, some events are emotionally and/or politically gripping and will distract students. In this case, there are students & TAs who personally knew the victim or lived within a block of the killing, students & TAs, who had already been involved in the protest organizations that had been built locally in response to the Ferguson mobilizations, and students & TAs with personal ties to police officers and even to the extended community networks of this particular officer. In addition to the protests against the killing and around the broader issue of policing in the community, there were rapid counter-mobilizations, primarily in the form of anti-protester or anti-victim social media campaigns that many of our students were involved in, and some students were taking offense at the protests. Knowing what is going on among our students is important.
(2) If nothing else, it is helpful to acknowledge that something is going on that likely has some students upset or distracted. It is ok to say that you won’t be discussing the matter in class because you don’t feel competent to address it without study or because your own emotions are too engaged. But students appreciated an acknowledgement of the event and responded positively to these kinds of statements. Several instructors reported telling the class that they were going to wait several weeks before discussing the issues to allow time for their own emotions to settle and/or to build enough background for a more productive discussion.
(3) Teaching assistants are especially on the firing line in these issues and may find themselves dealing with them whether they plan to or not. They are the ones in the small discussion-based classes and they are often personally impacted themselves. TAs of color feel especially vulnerable when there is a race-based emotional and controversial issue exploding around them. In this case, many of our TAs had close network ties to the young man who was killed and the groups who were protesting. They appreciated the supervising professors who spoke to them about the issue and talked over how to deal with it in class, and they appreciated supervising professors who acknowledged that the issue was on their minds.
Again, I’m hoping for ideas from people at other institutions who have dealt with issues of rapid response teaching and especially if you have ideas about a good way to structure a pedagogical archive or sharing mechanism for providing quick background on an exploding current event that instructors might otherwise not know that much about.