In all communities, both virtual and in-person, balancing freedom/openness and inclusivity/safety is a fundamental tensionThis includes helping students set high expectations for themselves and their peers, allowing them to take a leading role in making the learning community welcoming and inclusive. It also includes managing potentially offensive comments and fraught situations.

Sketch diagram titled "Understand the Culture", showing a diagram of four arrows pointing outward from a shaded circle surrounded by a dotted outline of a larger circle, with the statement "grow outward from the core." Two questions are shown: what are the shared values and beliefs? What is the culture that exists today?

Make Expectations Clear

Obviously, it is preferable not to have to get to the point of deleting posts or removing students from the course. To prevent this from happening, at a minimum, the diversity statement in your syllabus should spell out basic rules for respectful behavior. Make sure to discuss these with your students rather than treating the diversity statement as simply required boilerplate.

To increase buy-in and student growth, it may be helpful to have students help draft and agree upon rules for discourse in your class in a shared Google Doc. A Full Value Contract is one model for setting both community expectations and shared goals that you and your students can customize to serve your needs.

Model the Kind of Discourse You Want in Your Class

You should model the kind of civil, courteous, and supportive discourse you want to have in your classes in your own communication with students. Strive for a warm and supportive tone.

Flower Darby’s helpful guide to online teaching in the Chronicle of Higher Education provides the following example, which applies to both in-person and virtual teaching.

Instead of:

“Some of you have skipped the past few quizzes. You won’t pass this class if you continue to do so.” 

Try this:

“Thank you for your work in this class. I know it’s a lot to manage. Just a reminder, make sure you’re taking all the quizzes to help you be successful here. Please contact me if I can help or answer any questions. Thanks!”

How to Deal with Offensive Comments

Above all, the most important thing to do if a student makes an offensive comment is to be clear that you are not ignoring it! In 2019, Champlain students created a template for faculty to respond to offensive comments called SNAP:

  • Stop
  • Name it
  • Address it
  • Promote change

This framework emphasizes that it’s important to stop, acknowledge, and redirect problematic behavior in the moment, rather than waiting until after class to deal with the offending student. SNAP does not mean you have to immediately stop and eject the student from the classroom (which can lead to a power struggle); it means treating the offense as a teachable moment, in which you can clearly articulate that the behavior is not acceptable and why. Learn more about SNAP in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Faculty Training (Champlain faculty Canvas login required).

In virtual environments, you have some quick and easy ways to stop offensive behavior immediately if SNAP seems insufficient or the behavior continues.

  • In Canvas discussion forums:
    • remove offensive posts, or remove the offensive content from a post and replace it with a moderator comment like “offensive statement about [xyz] removed.” Learn how to edit/delete students’ individual posts. 
    • To remove a student from a forum completely, you can remove them from the assignment by assigning the discussion to the student in question separately (here’s how to remove a student from a Canvas discussion). Give the student a due date in the past, and make the assignment available only until the due date. This will effectively lock the student out of the discussion forum.
  • In a synchronous virtual session (Zoom, Meet, or another platform):

Respond to offensive statements or any other violations of class discussion rules via video, rather than written comments. It’s less likely that tone in a video will be misinterpreted, and you still retain a record of your response.

Shared Values and Educational Technology

Using educational technology has both disadvantages and advantages for managing shared values and respectful communication. As we use more technologies in more ways, it is important to consider special concerns related to technology.

On the one hand, Canvas discussions and video class meetings can make “trolling” easier. Here’s why:

  • Students will not have to face immediate peer consequences for their actions in class, so trolling comes with less of a social cost 
  • In asynchronous discussions, the instructor isn’t always present to deal with offensive comments as they happen 
  • It is easier for text-only communication to be misinterpreted, and harder to resolve miscommunication before it escalates

On the other hand, virtual environments – especially asynchronous ones – can make it easier to prevent those “difficult moments” when a student says something really inappropriate. Here’s why:

  • Written communication in Canvas can be moderated in a way that in-person classroom discussions cannot
  • Students also have more time to consider posts they make to discussion forums than they do comments that they make in spoken discussions 
  • An instructor can mute a student who is saying inappropriate or hurtful things
  • In the case of truly egregious behavior or comments, it is easier for a student to be removed from a synchronous video discussion than from a physical classroom. It is also easier for students who are hurt by others’ comments to distance themselves from the discussion if needed

Learn more about inclusion in virtual discussions.

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