How to Deal with Divisive Discussions in Your Digital Classroom

I’m only in my first semester but I’m already quickly learning that the biggest part of my online classes at the University of Alberta is going to be our weekly discussion groups, as others have noted this before here at HLS. Getting a good discussion group can make or break you in an online class because each member of the group is relying on all the other members to make their posts and write their responses so that they have something to respond to. I’ve gotten really like this first semester and been put into a couple of really stellar discussion groups with some really interesting colleagues who I am enjoying talking with and learning from.

But obviously, as with any group of people, you’re going to come upon times and topics where you don’t always agree with one another. So, how do you deal with that? If a divisive topic, like the checkered past of a revered historical LIS figure, for example, comes up in your online discussion group, how do you handle debating the topic in a respectful fashion with the group of people you have to work with for the rest of the semester (and maybe on other classes again in the future)?

This has happened in both of my classes this semester, it always will because no group of people meeting week after week to talk is going to be able to keep controversy out of the discussion 100% of the time. What’s interesting to me, and why I decided this would be my topic this month, is that it played out differently in both of my classes. So, let’s review what strategies we can use when this type of situation arises and we know we have to keep working with the same group of people.

Let’s go back to my earlier example of Melvil Dewey because he’s bound to come up in many an MLIS student’s academic career. Let’s say we’re having a discussion about him just focusing on the good works he did, and then someone brings up the question of the controversies surrounding him. It’s our social responsibility as librarians to talk about the bad with the good and the good with the bad. Best case scenario is that everyone agrees and you have that discussion. But what if this is a debate that becomes heated because one or more members of the group disagree and think we can just ignore Dewey’s bad behaviour because of all the good he did? How do you engage in discourse without damaging your relationship with your discussion colleagues?

Try to keep calm and carry on

Try not to get angry. There are going to be some topics that you can’t avoid this with. We all have things that set us off and put us on the defensive and we can’t expect our distance colleagues to know what they are. You have to remember that this is not a group of people that you can walk away from once the argument is over. You have to have more discussions with them on other topics and you may encounter them in a future class.  So you have to find a way to express your opinion on the topic calmly and firmly. How?

Try sticking to the facts; but if that doesn’t work, try and make a personal connection

Using facts and quoting sources to back up your argument is a definite perk of an online discussion. You have time to find that information out and incorporate it into your argument in a thoughtful and constructive way. This isn’t always going to work because there are people who will argue with facts and they may counter that their experience is different from the facts you’re presenting. If you feel comfortable and safe doing it, and ONLY if you feel safe, try and make your own personal connection to the issue at hand. This is another tactic that’s not always going to work and that’s why I recommend you only do it if you feel comfortable and safe, but sometimes making a personal connection can help bring someone around on an issue. If you’re going to have to keep working with this group of people you want to be on a footing where you understand one another somewhat so you can try and avoid sensitive issues again in future discussions. And remember, that works both ways, you want to try and understand their perspective on the topic as well.

Step back, take a break, go do something else

This is the beauty of an online discussion over a face-to-face class discussion. You don’t have to respond right away. You can take some time and make a decision about whether or not getting into an argument with a discussion partner is going to be worth the emotional stress and whether or not it’s the hill you want to die on, so to speak. If you’re finding yourself unable to or unwilling to continue the discussion just disengage with it. You can stop replying to a discussion that is causing you distress at any point. A few participation marks are not worth your mental well-being in the long term.

Get your instructor involved

This should be the last step, just like if you were at work and you found yourself disagreeing with a colleague you would want to try and handle the situation yourself before you brought it to your boss because that is what your boss would expect. And your professor is the same – they’ll want to know if you tried to work things out with your classmate on your own first. But that being said if you just can’t find common ground with this classmate (or classmates), and you’re concerned that it’s going to become a bigger problem with longer-lasting ramifications, then definitely ask your instructor for some intervention. Not every discussion group is going to gel well, so if it becomes too much of an ongoing problem, you can ask to be moved to a different discussion group.

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