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How Do We Facilitate the Free Exchange of Ideas in our Classrooms Without Oppressing Some Members of the Class?

A university in a democratic and multicultural society is obligated to create a learning environment where students and teachers have the right to freely explore ideas and to express opinions and the right to feel like welcome members of the learning community. At Queen's, the student body is becoming increasingly diverse, and we are inviting students to learn about complex issues of personal and social relevance. TAs therefore need to be able to create a learning environment of trust, responsibility, and openness, and students must learn to participate in classroom discussion in responsible ways.

Given that we want to encourage all students to speak up in the classroom, there will be times when students say things that are offensive to others. As a TA, you must (1) learn how to foster a classroom climate which is less likely to lead students to make offensive comments that harm others, and (2) be prepared so that you can successfully address offensive comments when students make them, realizing that classroom conflicts may lead to positive opportunities for teaching and learning.

The Instructional Development Centre encourages TAs to develop some of the following skills and approaches for fostering an optimal climate for the exchange of ideas. We also provide training in many of these skills and approaches through our ongoing workshops and seminars.

Tips and Strategies

We encourage you as a TA to:

  1. Have students formulate with you ground rules for discussion.

  2. Learn all your students' names, if possible, and make individual contact with each of them in office hours. Establish rapport by showing students that you are interested in their learning experience.

  3. Use active learning approaches, small group activities and collaborative learning in your classroom to foster student engagement in their learning process.

  4. Anticipate controversial or charged topics and discuss the nature of the controversy openly with students.

  5. Develop and implement ways to solicit and respond to feedback from your students about their classroom experience. This includes both the use of skills such as active listening (see below) and message testing to check what's going on in class, and direct feedback from your students mid-semester.

  6. Practice reflective listening skills. Instead of responding intellectually or even defensively to student comments, try saying back to them what they have just said, or ask questions to elicit more information about what they have just said. Such skills would include:

  7. Acknowledge and validate emotion. People are emotionally hurt and harmed by offensive speech. "You're obviously very angry." "That statement must have been very hurtful to you." Develop appropriate responses to possible situations that would be challenging for you. Role plays and case studies can help you explore and learn ways to respond to the complexities of these situations.

  8. Separate the people from the issue or the problem. Unless a student's words clearly are intended to injure a particular individual (in which case you may need to take disciplinary measures), separate out the offensive from the offended. Learn approaches to use conflict constructively in the classroom, e.g. creative controversy, devil's advocate. etc.

  9. When constructing lesson plans, include class process as well as content. Consider using a journal as a reflective tool, and a forum for addressing the process issues in your classroom. Use journals also to help you identify and articulate potential problem situations before they become crises; when you identify potential problem areas, discuss it with appropriate resource people to help avert crises.

If Problems Arise

If an incident, or an accusation, of offensive speech occurs in your class, first point out that offensive speech is inappropriate, then delay formal response to the situation until you have had an opportunity to reflect on it and obtain outside help as appropriate. All cases of offensive speech or harassment in the classroom need to be discussed with the Head or Director of your department or program. If you are not sure if the incident constitutes offensive speech, go to your Head anyway and let him/her decide. Probably in most cases you would discuss the situation with the faculty member teaching the course in which you are a TA, and then both of you could approach the Head together to discuss appropriate response.

You will probably want to discuss the situation with friends and other TAs, but in all cases make sure that you also discuss the situation with your supervising faculty member and the Head of your department.

Other resources available to help you reflect on the situation include Instructional Development Centre staff at 545-6428 or, and Human Rights Office staff at 545-6886.

Gender-Inclusive Language

Many of us are aware of the power of language to shape our thoughts and constructs. There is also compelling data that supports the idea that the bias in our language perpetuates the sexism and inequality of our culture. Because of this, many individuals feel it is an important part of the educational experience of their students that they practice and use gender-inclusive language in written assignments. If you as a TA wish to encourage this, we offer the following guidelines to consider.
  1. Reflect on your commitment to gender-inclusive language, and consider the basis for your commitment.

  2. Discuss with your supervising faculty member the composition of the course as it relates to gender constructs, and determine whether gender-inclusive language is a legitimate part of the content for your discipline.

  3. We advocate the use of gender-inclusive language in assignments and strongly encourage discussion of the issues surrounding its use. We discourage you from requiring your students to use gender-inclusive language, unless that is the policy in your department.

  • Adapted by the Queen's University Instructional Development Centre from materials provided in the Teaching Assistant Training Program Sourcebook, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, University of Michigan.

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    Last updated June 24, 1997

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