Critical Conversations in the Academy: Engaging Students in Dialog with the [Present] Past

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2019

University of Miami
Miami, Florida

The classroom is normally “ground zero” for critical conversations in the academy. Conversations about politics, class, race, immigration and religion often crop up in the classroom. This is especially true in the freshman history class where instructors must discuss critical and even controversial issues that occurred in the past but which have contemporary implications. Some instructors often have difficulty introducing critical conversations properly and introducing them into a classroom discussion. One of the nonthreatening ways instructors can introduce and discuss critical and sensitive questions required by the curriculum is through the use of technology.  What are these critical issues? This presentation examines some controversial subjects and how electronic media has helped engage students and foster serious discussions about critical contemporary issues while learning about the past.

Some of these critical and sensitive conversations include issues of sexuality and gender, race, religion, immigration and migration, imperialism and colonialism, to identify a few.  For example, ancient concepts of gender and sexuality may seem strange to our students. Gender roles and sexual preferences, which may once have been considered “normal” or “conventional”, are now defined as “fluid,” sometimes even “old-fashioned.” Immigration, politics, race, class, religion and culture are all tied into discussions of the rise and fall of Empires, nation-states, and imperialism, including slavery.  All of these issues lead to vital discussions in the introductory history class and tie directly into the curriculum, but they are also current topics of fierce political debate. They need to be introduced in such a way that avoids unintentional insult, offense, or fear.

Therefore, even though the topics we discuss in a history class are distant, the issues they raise are clearly linked to our students’ varied life experiences. Historicizing the issue, placing it clearly in the past, makes it easier to begin a discussion: nobody is being singled out other than the historical subjects under discussion.  Who were they? What were they doing that it is important to our discussion? Where did the events we are discussing take place (Sometimes these are very distant.) When did the events we are discussing take place? Why must we discuss this topic, and why is it significant to our historical discussion in class? Setting the context before the discussion begins assures that a student or a group of students does not feel isolated or uncomfortable.

Once the context of the discussion is clear, the subject can be related to contemporary issues and conversations in a nonthreatening way.  Technology can be used to break the ice. Short videos on YouTube featuring lectures, debates, drama, or conversations, maps and websites from Google, movie clips, music clips, articles from Google Scholar, have proven successful in moving the conversation forward and illuminating the connection of past events with current affairs.  If the discussion then sidetracks to another critical topic, the agile instructor can quickly find some electronic medium to help take the conversation further, provided the technology is handy. The best approach is to show a short discussion or even a debate about the person(s), issue(s), or event(s) under discussion and ask students to critique the video.  To get the students familiar with a topic and to start talking, mediums such as Ted Talks and YouTube have proven most effective.

Since our student populations have changed over the last several years and become much more diverse, what may have once been considered “normal” or “conventional” in the past has shifted as well. Similarly, what was considered controversial twenty or even ten years ago has changed. The instructor must be sensitive in preparing critical conversations for the history classroom. “Faculty must recognize that the material they teach lands differently depending on a student’s background, life experiences and ways of being in the world” notes Professor Nancy Bristow (Bristow in Flaherty, 2019).  Sometimes, a “trigger warning” that a sensitive issue is about to be introduced may help ease students into a discussion. Recent literature has suggested that this is not always the case, however.  Palus has observed that some studies suggest that “trigger warnings could actually help generate anxiety, thus making them counterproductive.” In some cases this is because faculty may not realize what topics trigger a negative response (Palus, 2019).  Bristow suggests that “trigger warnings and conversations about possible alternative assignments offer students reassurance that instructors care about their well-being. . .”  (Bristow, in Flaherty, 2019).  Here is where technology can help: A short video, clip of a debate or discussion, or podcast may help ease students into the discussion where a reading or lecture, or even a trigger warning might not be as effective. All would seem prudent.

Migration and immigration are current critical conversations. Populations have always been fluid. In history, populations have been crossing borders and traveling across boundaries for centuries. Immigration history is something most historians discuss in their courses. In many cases, immigrants were never enthusiastically welcomed at their destinations. Why? A discussion about Irish and Italian immigration to the United States in the 19th Century can be instructive. Both groups of immigrants met hostility and even violence from the local population, who resented their religion, and in some cases even their race and the fear that these new arrivals might take their jobs or cause lower wages.

In the introductory history class we are required to discuss Christopher Columbus and the “discovery” of North America in 1492. Where once a discussion of Columbus might evoke little controversy, today, with what we know about the events after the European arrival in 1492, this discussion is fraught with tension. Discussion in recent years has focused on eliminating the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with an “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” and even removing the statue of the explorer that sits atop a column high above Manhattan’s Columbus Circle at 59th Street. Columbus’ legacy, even the statue at Columbus Circle, has aroused all sorts of controversy and protests over the years, most recently in 2018 (Fortin 2017 and Caron 2018).  Bigelow has written that, in most curriculums, discussion of Columbus usually stops after his first voyage. At least until recently, little attention is paid to the period after 1492, when Spanish conquerors enslaved, forcibly deported, and even killed the native population. Stopping at the first voyage, and claiming that Columbus “discovered” North America according to Bigelow, perpetuates the “propaganda of the winners” (Bigelow, 1991).

But Columbus and Columbus Day celebrations represent proud traditions vigorously defended by our Italian-American and Catholic students. Few Italian-American students know, for example, that President Benjamin Harrison declared the holiday after a brutal lynching of Italian-Americans in New Orleans in 1892, murders for which the Mayor of New Orleans only recently offered an official apology (McConnaughey, 2019). By discussing their own immigration history, students can more readily imagine the experience of the Native Americans. Staples has shown how darker skinned Italians from southern Italy endured “the penalties of blackness” and were viewed as “racially inferior people” in the early years of the immigration to the United States (Staples, 2019).

This type of discussion can lead to an even larger debate over current immigration issues, while covering the required material for the class. Many of our students at Farmingdale State College (SUNY) are first generation students. Some are even immigrant students, so this discussion is relevant to their varied life experiences. Lander has written that if the instructor let students relate their own immigrations experiences (where possible) “their stories will jump off the page” (Lander, 2017).  Generating this discussion can lead all students in the class to an understanding of new perspectives in the history of migration and immigration.

Another example of a critical conversation in any introductory Western Civilization course are the medieval Crusades (1097 – 1270) a topic required by the curriculum. How do we discuss the topic of the Crusades without offending our increasing Muslim student population?  For example, “Jihad” and “Holy War,” words with several different connotations to different student groups, come into play since they come up in discussions in contemporary politics as well. Here, religion, politics, terrorism, even immigration shadow the discussion. Moore has written that many Americans have only heard the word “jihad” mentioned in the context of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Many of our students or their families were touched personally by the events of September 11, 2001, so the subject is sensitive. Moore notes that “jihad” has many meanings, with some scholars insisting it indicates a “moral struggle to achieve self-improvement, social justice, and equality”, and other scholars insisting that “jihad” is an exercise of conquest which continues “until the entire world converts to Islam or submits to Muslim rule.” Moore insists that faculty should employ the ever increasing multimedia resources on the topic to foster a rational in-class discussion of all the different meanings of the term. (Moore, 2010).  Short video clips of events and debates, movie clips, even news reports and features of current events can “break the ice” and start a serious discussion of this critical conversation, all within the context of the Crusades and medieval Europe.

Whenham has written that “when the right technology comes together in the right learning environment, the results can be transformative.” Above all, Whenham writes, technology “in our lecture halls, seminar room and innovation labs can get students talking, and listening, to each other.” Once students have been introduced to the topic and are finally “comfortable” with it, and after discussing the topic sufficiently in class, students can then be directed to their readings or other sources to research the issue more deeply. Group discussions comparing the assigned readings with the videos used in class can also often engender lively discussions among students, while solidifying the material and meeting the student learning outcomes for the lesson. Using different forms of technology to get students actively discussing critical conversations in the classroom has proven successful. Sarles has written that “technology can sometimes serve as an impediment to live discourse”, but overall, she argues, “technology and our ability as educators to use it could actually serve us well in constructing a stimulating classroom experience for all present” (Sarles, 2017).

Sometimes, the technological mediums the instructor uses can demonstrate to students that they are not the first to have to wrestle with these types of questions; hopefully, this makes students feel less isolated. The goal is to draw students out of their comfort zone to start a discussion. Furthermore, students can then make the connection between distant historical personalities and events and their contemporary world. Above all, it should help them understand and interpret the assigned readings for the unit, which should be the basis of more serious academic discussion. Technology is a proven tool instructors can use to get the students engaged in the discussion.

Finally, once over their initial reticence, students generally engage with the topic and each other in a serious discussion to make for a better history class—making what seems very distant relevant to today’s students and their varied life experiences. It may not be a catch-all solution, but in the “YouTube era,” technology can be used to help instructors introduce difficult topics and help students make the connections from history to contemporary critical conversations. Using history and technology to make those connections and master those discussions is vital to meeting the learning objectives instructors should be setting for students.


Bigelow, Bill; Barbara Miner; Bob Peterson, eds. (1991). Rethinking Columbus: Teaching About the 500th Anniversary of Columbus’ Arrival in America. Rethinking Schools, Special Edition 1991. See Bill Bigelow, “Discovering Columbus: Re-reading the Past,” pp. 6 & 7.

Caron, Christina. (2018) “Why Some Italian-Americans Still Fiercely Defend Columbus Day” published in The New York Times, 5 October 2018. Retrieved from:

Flaherty, Colleen. (2019). Death Knell for Trigger Warnings? Retrieved from:

Fortin, Jacey. (2017). “Columbus Day Has Drawn Protests Almost from Day 1” in The New York Times, 9 October 2017. Retrieved from:

Lander, Jessica. (2017). Tasting History: How to Teach Immigration to a Class of Immigrants. Facing History Blog. Retrieved from :

Moore, James R. (2012) “A Challenge for Social Studies Educators: teaching about Islam, Jihad, and Shari’ah Law.” The Social Studies, 103, 179-187.

Palus, Shannon. (2019). The Latest Study on Trigger Warnings Finally Convinced Me They’re Not Worth It. Slate. 12 July 2019. Retrieved from:

Sarles, Liz. (2017). Technology as a Vehicle for Discussion in the Classroom. Education World. Retrieved from:

Staples, Brent (2019). “How Italians Became ‘White’” in The New York Times, 12 October 2019. Retrieved from:

Whenham, Tricia. (2019). Time to Talk: 3 Ways Technology can get Students Communicating. Retrieved from: Nureva.com

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2020: Critical Conversations and the Academy