Teaching Tough Material

Such material presents teaching challenges but may also offer valuable learning opportunities for students.

It is sometimes necessary to teach difficult and disturbing—even offensive—material. Depending on your field, your syllabus might include texts that contain racist, sexist, or homophobic language, or artwork that offers representations of violence, self-harm, or suicide. Your course might engage histories of oppression or include examination of studies premised on biased assumptions. Such material presents teaching challenges, but may also offer valuable learning opportunities for students.

Here are some considerations as you teach tough material:

  • Start with your learning goals. Be clear about why you are teaching this material. Reflect on your course’s objectives and think about how teaching this material will help your students to meet those objectives. Are there alternatives to teaching this material or is it essential? 
  • Be explicit about your goals with your students. Take the time to explain your rationale for teaching material that is offensive or disturbing. Let them know that you have a careful plan for how you will approach the material. (This might involve, for instance, the creation of a Community Agreement.) Be prepared for pushback. Will you provide alternatives for students who refuse to engage in such course content? 
  • Acknowledge that your students will respond to difficult material in varied ways. For example, some of your students may have direct experience with violence. An ethnic slur within a text may affect students from that ethnic group differently than it does other students.
  • Consider offering Content Notes or Warnings. Also sometimes called trigger warnings, these are spoken or written alerts about content that may cause an emotional reaction in a reader, listener, or viewer. These warnings have been the subject of much debate, and there is evidence that they do not help. On the other hand, providing notes on content may allow students to better prepare to engage the course material. You might include a general statement about the course’s content on your syllabus, or you might flag specific topics as they arise. For examples of Content Notes used in Princeton courses, see Sample Syllabus Policies for Faculty.
  • Don’t just dive in. Prepare your students to encounter difficult material by first studying the social, historical, and political context in which it was created. If possible, scaffold their encounter with the material.
  • Set some ground rules for class discussion. You can do this more generally (see our guidance on Creating Community Agreements), but you might offer additional guidelines for engaging the difficult material specifically. For example, you and your students might decide not to speak slurs out loud in class, even when quoting text. See PEN America’s “Free Speech Guide” for a Princeton-specific example of the complexities of uttering a racial slur in class. Our resource on “Teaching in the Context of Complex Political Events” might also be of use as you navigate difficult discussions.
  • Take special care with images. Ask yourself if students’ viewing distressing images is essential to your learning goals. If so, you might allow students to view them outside of–rather than during–class. If you need to show disturbing images during class time, explain why. You might also consider using an alternative delivery mode–such as Zoom–for particularly difficult class sessions.
  • Encourage critique. Be sure that you emphasize that students are free to (and even encouraged to) critique the difficult materials you are teaching.
  • Consider balancing difficult or offensive materials with other examples. For instance, if your only engagement with race is a study of Black oppression, you might consider adding examples of Black empowerment and liberation as well.
  • Check in often. Allow opportunities for students to let you know how they are doing, either with a brief check in at the start of class, via an anonymous poll, or through a Canvas survey.
  • Encourage reflection and connection. Allow time for students to write about their experience of the material and its connection to both the coursework and the world around them. Give them the option of sharing their thoughts with you or keeping them private.


Additional resource:

PEN America, “If a Student has Asked You to Use Trigger Warnings,” Campus Free Speech Guide