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Controversy in the Classroom: How to Keep Discussions Civil

Think your topic is tough? Dr. Brendan Lantz leads discussions on hate and bias crimes. Here are his tips on keeping it civil—and meaningful.

Educator

Brendan Lantz, PhD

Assistant Professor of Criminology, Florida State University in Tallahassee

PhD in Criminology; MA in Crime, Law, and Justice; BA in Criminal Justice

Spring of 2018 was the fourth time that Brendan Lantz, PhD, taught Hate and Bias Crime at Florida State University. It is a class that he created and designed and a topic that he feels is incredibly important—though it never gets easier to discuss.

“Right now, it’s an especially important topic,” Lantz says. “Statistics show that hate crimes have been increasing at a high rate since 2016, driven largely by legitimization of prejudice and bias, political influence, and the rise of social media platforms where people feel OK about sharing bigoted viewpoints.”

Lantz says that there are both more outlets for hate messages and more coverage of hate crimes, which combine to make it a hot topic. His job with his students is to take some of the heat out of the discussion so that the classroom can remain productive.

He describes what he does as helping students “keep a rider on the elephant”—that is, to use their reason (the rider) to keep their emotions (the elephant) reined in so that they can maintain their perspective (see the sidebar for more on this). Below, Lantz shares five strategies that help him keep his classroom full of students—between 50 and 120 in a given semester—riding tall and taking the high road.

Context

“It’s easy for students to listen to your lecture and read the textbook without understanding that hate crimes impact real people. You read words and see numbers and you can forget. Even as a researcher, I see numbers and words and have to remind myself that these represent human beings.”

— Brendan Lantz, PhD

Class: CCJ 4938.0019 Hate and Bias Crime

Class description: In the past several decades, and the last several years in particular, hate crimes have received increasing attention from the public, media, and law enforcement. In this course, we will examine the causes and consequences of prejudice, hate groups, and hate crimes, as well as the social contexts within which these crimes occur. Students in this course will not only learn about hate crimes, but will also gain a greater insight into a variety of broader social processes, including the nature of prejudice, political and legal institutions, social change, and social control.

See materials shared by Brendan Lantz, PhD

See materials

5 ways to encourage rational discussion

“Students have a hard time talking about sensitive topics like race and homophobia,” Lantz says. “People get uncomfortable. And yet these are important conversations to have if you’re studying criminal justice. So much of hate crimes relates to ‘fear of the other.’” Below are the steps he takes to encourage thoughtful, meaningful discussion of difficult topics:

1. Share the big-picture implications of hate crimes.

For Lantz’s class on hate crimes, this means helping students see the difference between hate and hate crimes. “One of the problems with the term hate crime is that it’s not always about hate,” he says.

Hate, Lantz explains, is an emotion you can feel toward a person, but a hate crime impacts more than one person; it impacts a community. For example, if a person is profiled and victimized because they are African American, that action impacts the entire African-American community. In fact, they can feel terrorized by it.

Othering—the process of not seeing someone else as like you in any way—dehumanizes entire groups of people and reduces empathy,” he adds.

2. Raise awareness about the three types of interactions.
The Origin of “Keep a Rider on the Elephant”

This concept is described in The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt of the NYU-Stern School of Business. In “Chapter 1: The Divided Self,” Haidt examines the division of each person’s mind into rationality and emotion (or conscious, reasoned thought, and knee-jerk responses). The rider (reason) must control the elephant (emotion), but this cannot be done by force. Instead, we must train ourselves to overcome our implicit biases—which begins with recognizing their existence and identifying what they are.

Lantz recommends devoting an entire class period or two at the start of the semester to this exercise. He recommends beginning by saying to students, “You all have viewpoints, as do I, so let’s contextualize those. For example, we all come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives, so let’s focus on empathizing.” When it comes to tackling difficult topics in classroom discussion, Lantz introduces the idea of “keeping the rider on the elephant” (see sidebar) and also explains to students that there are three basic ways to interact with each other:

  • Correctional: You judge, condemn, or lash out at another.
  • Advocating: You promote your own viewpoints without necessarily listening to another.
  • Naturalistic (what Lantz encourages): You try to understand each other.
3. Provide multiple avenues for discussion.

Lantz engages students in multiple ways to keep discussions going—and to provide different outlets for different students.

  • Start every class with a group discussion. For Lantz, these 10–12-minute opening talks focus on hate crimes currently in the news, which helps relate the course content to reality. Lantz says one of the most effective discussions he ever led happened the day after the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, where a number of members of a Jewish temple were killed. The immediacy and emotion of that event connected the students to the topic in a deep way. Lantz also looks for cases of recent hate crimes in Florida, since his students relate more if the crime is local.
  • Create an online discussion board. This is a great tool, especially for the quiet or shy members of class who may not feel comfortable raising a hand and speaking in front of peers.
  • Make assignments relevant. View homework as a continuation of these class and online discussions, suggests Lantz. Ask students to pick a real event, write about it, and explain how it connects to the course content.
4. Drive discussion with survey results.

Lantz administers a survey in which he asks students what they think “the general public” (not students themselves) say about various marginalized groups, such as those in the LGBTQ community; immigrants; and people of various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. He then takes the answers and creates word clouds for each group—the most common responses appear in a larger point size than the less frequent ones.

Later, when the topic in class focuses on a particular marginalized group, Lantz brings out the word cloud created from the student surveys so that students can more easily keep cultural biases in mind during the discussion.

Lantz says that every time he has administered this survey, the word “terrorist” is always called out when students describe how “people in general” think of Muslims. He shows each new class the word clouds from previous classes and how the selection of words (by and large) has not changed. The same stereotypes still exist from one year to the next—and that is a powerful (though disheartening) teaching tool.

5. Bring outside speakers into class.

Lantz says that outside speakers can bring different perspectives to the class—more than one teacher is able to supply alone. The key is to make sure that the speaker is prepared not only to speak but also to help lead a discussion with the students.

Having a guest speaker like this in your class will give students a 360-degree view of all the people involved in a hate crimes case, emphasize how many people are impacted by such cases, and demonstrate how their reactions vary. The most memorable speakers, he says, are those impacted by a hate crime who discuss calling on their “higher angels” to find peace and forgiveness for their tormentors.

One of his favorite recurring guest speakers is an FBI investigator who worked on the James Byrd, Jr., case, which involved the death of an African-American man—he was dragged behind a car—in 1998. She not only talked to the class about hate crime investigative procedures but also shared a moving story about the victim’s family and how they reacted to the father of one of the offenders.

She has told his class, “The Byrd family walks up to the perpetrator. Spectators were expecting a confrontation. The perpetrator’s father said, ‘I’m sorry.’ James Byrd’s mother replied, ‘I forgive you.’”

Lantz says she describes it to students as “one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in my career.”

Student feedback

Lantz’s evaluations for this course tend to be extremely positive and many students have told him that they check their own biases more than before they took his class. One of his favorite stories: “A student from a conservative background told me he never thought of hate crimes as important, but after my course, he’s rethinking that.”

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