Facilitating Diversity Discussions

inclusive teaching banner_FINALby James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

For me, inclusive teaching often begins with the selection of a text that engages diversity as a significant theme (e.g., Alvarez, Bauer, & Eger, 2015). By text, I mean anything from research studies to YouTube videos to service-learning sites. How I select a text depends on the goals of the course and the specific context in which I want students to engage with diverse voices and experiences. For example, when I teach qualitative research methods I ask students to discuss qualitative studies conducted with vulnerable populations (e.g., people with disabilities), in critical settings (e.g., homeless shelters), that aim to impact some type of social change (i.e., political in nature). The overarching goal is for students to discuss the methods employed by the researcher – but in and through the complexities of diversity that are central to the study. Selecting the text, however, is the easy part! Engaging in discussion of diverse course content can be a challenging and uncomfortable experience for instructors and students alike. Below, I offer a few evidence-based strategies for facilitating diversity discussions in any course.

Be mindful and proactive (Allen, 2011; Dannels, 2015)
As I already noted, select a text that is meaningful for the goals of your course. In doing so, begin developing your “facilitation toolkit” of questions and content that will help you reinforce those goals throughout the discussion. For example, you may wish to draw students’ attention to theories, contributions, or critiques that are particularly important for your course. You may also find it productive to pose your own questions during the discussion as a way of modeling the type of critical thinking and participation you want from your students.

One way I try to be proactive when facilitating diversity discussions is to imagine possible moments when issues or tensions may arise and then reflect on how I will react as a facilitator. Deanna Dannels (2015) encourages instructors to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What will I do if a discussion about a controversial topic gets too heated?
  • What do I say if a student makes a racist, sexist, or any discriminatory remark?
  • How can I create a “safe” classroom where all views are respected?

Each instructor’s response to these questions will be different – and will depend on the specific text, context, and course goals for discussion. But generally speaking, do not ignore these moments. Find ways to “walk into dialogue” about diversity with your students (p. 166).

Create and use ground rules for interaction (Dannels, 2015)
Provide an example of a code of conduct, statement of ethics, or oath of inclusion at the start of the semester as a way to begin communicating with your students about participating in diversity discussions. Consider revisiting these commitments at the start of each discussion to re-create and re-enforce ground rules for interaction. I frequently use the Credo for Ethical Communication endorsed by the National Communication Association. The Oath of Inclusion in the SLU 2016-2017 Student Handbook is another excellent resource to help develop these rules with your students. Ask yourself, “How will I hold myself and others accountable to these commitments during our discussions?” Again, try to be mindful and proactive.

Have students engage in perspective-taking activities (Dannels, 2015)
Throughout the discussion, model and encourage students to “consistently look for and consider various perspectives on an issue” (Dannels, 2015, p. 157). Below are three questions to add to your “facilitation toolkit” to help prompt students to engage in perspective-taking:

  • If you were to argue the opposite of what you just said, what would it sound like?
  • Can you think of a counterargument to your point?
  • How might someone who disagrees with you respond to that statement?

Build in opportunities for reflection and action (Johnson, Johnson, & Tjosvold, 2006)
Finally, it is important to create a structured and safe space in which students can practice disagreement and intellectual conflict (Dannels, 2015). One way to help create this space is to check-in with students throughout the discussion about how they are experiencing the discussion. These check-ins provide opportunities for you to clarify the goals of the course, your intention for introducing diversity-related topics, and affirmations of the ground rules for interaction. They also provide a nice “break in the action” for everyone (including you!) to breathe, stretch, and regroup before continuing the discussion.

These are just a few strategies to help you develop and facilitate diversity discussions with your students. If you would like to learn more about this topic, I encourage you to explore some of the resources cited in this post and referenced below. You may also wish to attend the Reinert Center’s praxis workshop on Tuesday, November 1 from 1:30-3:00 pm in BSC 253 A&B. The topic for that workshop is “Facilitating Diversity Discussions for Any Discipline” and it will build upon several ideas introduced in this post.


Allen, B. J. (2011). Difference matters: Communicating social identity. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

Alvarez, W., Bauer, J. C., & Eger, E. K. (2015). (Making a) difference in the organizational communication undergraduate course. Management Communication Quarterly, 29, 302-308.

Dannels, D. P. (2015). Eight essential questions teachers ask: A guidebook for communicating with students. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Tjosvold, D. (2006). Constructive controversy: The value of intellectual opposition. In M. Deutsch, P. T. Coleman, & E. C. Marcus (Eds.), The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice (2nd ed., pp. 69-91). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at cttl@slu.edu.

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