Teaching in the Face of Tragedy and Conflict

Message from CTLE Interim Director

Margaret L. Usdansky

Dear Faculty and Instructional Colleagues,

Students across campus are struggling to comprehend the violence escalating in the Middle East and the horrific loss of life among Israelis and Palestinians both. Many of our students have family or friends in the region or other connections to rapidly changing events there.

In recent days, a growing number of students and parents have contacted the Provost’s Office to express concern about in-class discussions of these events that left them feeling unsupported, attacked, and, in some instances, physically unsafe. Having spent 20 years on this campus, I know how deeply Syracuse faculty care about students. I also know how difficult it is to orchestrate thoughtful, respectful classroom discussion of contested subject matter, let alone about fast-changing violence and humanitarian crisis in an era of enormous misinformation and disinformation. I also recognize that many of you are struggling with the enormity of this crisis and have personal connections to the region.

I write today to offer a few observations and to let you know of additional resources available to you through the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTLE).

Students I have spoken with express appreciation for acknowledgement during class of events on campus, in Syracuse, the U.S. or the world that affect them. They also recount experiences of how quickly and dramatically classroom discussion of violence in the Middle East can spin out of control. They emphasize how high students’ emotions are running, the challenges students encounter in distinguishing accurate and inaccurate accounts of events in the region, and the difficulty of holding students to any ground rules set for discussion.

If discussion of the Middle East will take place in your classroom, you may wish to consider in advance how you will structure the conversation and how you will respond to any unexpected outcomes. For example, this might involve evaluating beforehand:

  • How much time you will need to open, hold and close the discussion to avoid running out of time midstream;
  • How you will respond to inaccurate statements about past or current events or to generalizations, stereotypes or biased comments about groups; and,
  • How you will re-engage a student who walks out in the middle of discussion or stops  participating in discussion after a heated exchange. 

My colleagues and I in CTLE are eager to support you. To that end, we have assembled an initial set of resources, described below, and will add to them in coming weeks. Please email us at CTLE@syr.edu with your questions, comments and suggestions.

Resources for Responding to Student Concerns about Escalating Conflict and Violence in the Middle East

Research on Faculty Actions Students Find Helpful in the Face of Tragedy and Conflict

The Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence supports faculty in navigating these challenging times in their courses and interactions with students.  We recognize the centrality of faculty in the daily lives of students and seek to equip them with tools for addressing tragedy and conflict in their teaching roles.

We encourage faculty to acknowledge the seriousness and complexity of recent events and to recognize that their students – like faculty – are affected in many different ways.

In a post-9/11 survey of university students, Huston and DiPietro (2007) analyzed student perceptions of faculty actions after a tragedy. They report that students found a wide array of actions to be helpful, ranging from simple, brief actions to more involved responses. These included, for example,  

  • Reassured students who were distressed that they would have opportunities to review new material again later
  • Mentioned available support on campus
  • Offered to talk privately with anyone who might want to
  • Integrated the topic into a lesson or the course
  • Offered extensions on assignment due dates
  • Led a minute of silence or reflection
  • Read an inspirational text
  • Mentioned ways that people can get involved in helping (e.g., volunteer in the community)

Students reported that it was not helpful when faculty (a) didn’t mention the collective tragedy and conflict, or (b) when they acknowledged it, but kept going with the course without offering any help to students who might be feeling stress or trauma. 

Faculty have different kinds of scholarly expertise, course contexts, and approaches to teaching. No single approach fits all contexts. Students appreciate faculty who respond in unique and humane ways (Huston & DiPietro, 2007, p. 219). 

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). 13: In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy. To improve the academy, 25(1), 207-224. 

We plan to add additional resources. We encourage you to let us know of any resources that you have found helpful. Please share via email (ctle@syr.edu).