Sensitive Topics in the Classroom

One of Berkeley's hallmarks is the diversity of our student body, which is something to be envied, and the diversity of views of our faculty. Both of these contribute immensely to the rich educational experience of Berkeley. Of course the university is a transformative place for discussions on sensitive topics to occur. But for them to be productive, the instructor must come prepared. Conflict is an inherent, and good, part of a university environment, but not when it impedes learning and inquiry. Of course, instructors cannot hope to foresee all possible areas of conflict, but they can come prepared with strategies for generating good discussions. In an effort to minimize the conflicts and thereby enhance our students' learning, we have gathered a number of articles and teaching materials together on one page.

In addition to the resources below, many units on campus are equipped to help faculty deal with such issues: Division of Equity & InclusionAmerican Cultures CenterGSI Teaching and Resource Center, and the Center for Teaching and Learning.


1. Create a classroom environment that, from the first day, sets ground rules for discussion and makes it clear that all students are included in the work of the class.

2. Recognize the diversity of opinions and backgrounds of your students

3. Be prepared

  • Even if you do not think that you will be dealing with sensitive topics, you should have in the back of your mind techniques for Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom (links to a Harvard University Bok Center developed resource).

4. Know both your rights and your responsibilities as a classroom instructor, by reading the Faculty Code of Conduct, from The University of California Academic Personnel Manual, and the Code of Student Conduct

5. If your course involves "sensitive" topics, you might want to add a statement to your syllabus discussing this matter. 

  • This could include your expectations for students in completing required work that may range from uncomfortable to grim to offensive to disturbing (or all of the above), and addressing these topics in class in productive ways – and some specifics about what constitutes a “productive” engagement with class on these topics.

6. Develop class discussions and assignments that promote learning course content and skills through engagement with sensitive topics

  • At times, events take place that create opportunities to re-situate learning in a course focused on addressing the event/s from the perspective of the given discipline – providing an avenue through which to pursue a sensitive topic in the classroom that furthers student learning of the course content. For example, this website (as seen on//learning.blogs.nytimes.comlearning.blogs.nytimes.comwas developed by faculty across the nation around the events in Ferguson, MO, and elsewhere, in Fall 2014. The site contains a running Twitter feed on the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus offering a variety of ideas to engage students in the events around disciplinary topics.