Guidance for Instructors Concerning Class Discussions about the War in Iraq

Resource Title:
Guidance for Instructors Concerning Class Discussions about the War in Iraq

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) at the University of Michigan offers the following guidelines to help faculty and graduate student instructors deal with class discussions of the war in Iraq. The guidelines contain three sections:

Issues to consider before discussing the war

For each of these groups, there is a potential for backlash during class discussions. It is important that students not be doubly hurt as a result of discussion - first by effects of the war itself, and second by misguided generalizations.

  • Students will have very different interpretations of the war, its causes and its potential outcomes. It is important to allow students to express these differences without fear of ridicule or attack, while also encouraging disagreement, which is a cornerstone of critical thinking and part of the academy's long tradition of intellectual inquiry.
  • Some individuals have a special and complicated relationship to this war. For example, discussions about the war may be especially difficult for faculty and students from certain groups, including the following:
    • those personally connected to the U.S. armed forces, including those in the campus ROTC program and those with family and friends in the armed forces
    • those from the Middle East and those who have close connections to the Middle East
    • international faculty and students, who may be viewed or treated differently during this crisis
    • members of groups that some are blaming for the current crisis
  • Comparisons of current world leaders and events with historical figures or events must be made carefully and with an awareness of the complexity of history. Individual perspectives on these comparisons are shaped by differences in political point of view, personal history or age, past experience of violence or tragedy, group membership, or geographical or cultural origins or reference points. Expression of these differences can be a resource for enriching discussion.
  • Instructors should not feel compelled to lead a discussion, especially if your own emotions or reactions make you hesitant to do so, if you have strong views that would make it difficult to relate to all students, or if you do not consider this discussion an appropriate use of class time. You can make a simple statement to the class to this effect and then move on.

Suggestions for classes in which the topic of war comes up unexpectedly

  • Acknowledge the concern of the student who raised the issue and also point out that all those in the room have their own individual responses and concerns.
  • Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with this topic now.
  • Get a quick sense from the class if others would like to devote time to sharing views. If you do pursue a discussion, set a time frame and then look to the strategies outlined below for suggestions about format for the discussion.
  • If a discussion seems inappropriate, or other students resist having a discussion on the spot, point out the available forums on campus and encourage students to attend them, stay informed, and share their concerns. Alternatively, you could schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students could prepare for it.

Suggestions for instructors planning and leading discussions about the war

  1. Think through appropriate ways to introduce and close the session. For example, you might begin with the reasons you are having the discussion, acknowledging that there are widely divergent opinions and feelings about the war. In closing a discussion, you might reiterate the fact that substantial differences of opinion remain, and you can encourage students to continue the dialogue and look for ways to take advantage of campus programming on this topic.
  2. Ask the class to establish ground rules for the discussion before it begins. For example, you might suggest that the class:
    • Commit to use the discussion as an opportunity to learn more about complex and difficult issues, rather than re-enacting polarized debate.
    • Respect each other's views and avoid inflammatory language.
    • Allow expression of personal stories and feelings. (Be prepared for students to be emotional about this topic.)
    • Allow students to express anger and frustration within limits. (While it is important for students to express themselves, it is also vital to control the class and maintain an environment that encourages responsible discourse.)
    • Limit the length of any one student’s contributions to avoid “speeches” so that all students have an opportunity to participate.
    • Agree to discuss this topic in a way that does not shut out any members of the class.
  3. Create a framework for the discussion. Where you can, explore links to your discipline, letting topics emerge from the specific content of your course. Discussion topics applicable to all students include the following:
    • What questions and fears do you have about this war?
    • In what ways are you personally affected by these events?
    • How might these events affect your/our future?
    • How can you become better informed?
    • What positive actions can individuals take in response to this war (e.g., attend university events about the war, support students who are far from home)?
  4. Encourage participation, but don't force students to participate. Ways to accomplish this include:
    • Use of a "round," i.e., giving each student a chance to speak without interruption or discussion in response to a guiding question, and allowing students to pass if they desire. Following the round, open the discussion for general response.
    • Division of students into discussion partners or small groups of 3-5 students.
    • Offering students a chance to write down and organize their thoughts before speaking.
  5. Be prepared for the ways these discussions can go awry:
    • Prepare questions that will help break down silence and hesitation about speaking. Some examples include the following: What makes this hard to talk about? What is most confusing at this point?
    • Balance the emotional and intellectual aspects of the discussion by helping students differentiate between these ways of responding. For example, acknowledge the emotion in responses and help students to identify important questions and issues embedded in these responses.
    • Validate personal experience while also helping students to identify inappropriate generalizations.
    • Prepare a brief in-class writing assignment that can be used to refocus discussion if you feel as if you are losing control of the class or if the discussion is going in unproductive directions.
  6. Exchange ideas and strategies with other instructors, including debriefing the class discussion.

CRLT consultants are available by phone (764-0505), by e-mail (, or in person (1071 Palmer Commons) to discuss additional strategies or concerns you may have about these discussions.

Counseling support is also available on campus. Instructors may contact the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FASAP) at 763-9700. Students may contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 764-8312.

Further Resources:

The U-M Library has put together a large body of information on the Iraq war and Terrorism related information. The Iraqi War Debate attempts to provide balanced academic, documentary, and news coverage of the current crisis. You'll find search strategies for campus networked web indexes, draft United Nations resolutions, the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, and news sources from Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi to the Washington Post and weblogs.

Rethinking Schools Online - Teaching About the Wars

CRLT developed similar guidelines for discussions in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, and is writing guidelines for discussion of the University of Michigan affirmative action lawsuit currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.


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