The assistant dean of the doctoral school writes a guide on teaching contentious issues

December 8, 2020

Francisco Ramos began to lay the foundations for his guide five years ago.

By John Zhu

In the spring of 2015, Francisco Ramos was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching a course on Advanced Qualitative Methods. During the first class on Tuesday in April, he noticed that discourse analysis and phenomenology seemed to be the last thing his students had on their minds.

Rather, what occupied their thoughts was Freddie Gray, a young black man from Baltimore who had died two days earlier from injuries sustained in custody.

Ramos knew he needed to discuss Gray’s case with his class. What he needed was advice on how.

“It’s one of those times when, as an educator, you think deeply about what to do in this kind of context and who to turn to if I need help navigating it. kind of conversations, ”said Ramos, now associate dean. at the Duke Graduate School.

“There were a handful of ideas and practices in different areas. You can check out a website here or a website there that caters to practitioners. There were official books that were published in university presses, but they were mostly written for people who were trying to get tenure. So there was a big disconnect between the people who were doing research and those who were trying to apply theory to practice.

Over the past five years, Ramos has worked to close this gap. Among his responsibilities at Duke Graduate School, he taught a course on resolving contentious issues in the college classroom. In early December, he published a guide on the subject—How to teach contentious issues in the classroom: a practical guide for educators.

The guide includes chapters that deal with issues such as anti-racism and gender identity, but Ramos said he focuses more on how to teach any potentially controversial topic. Through this lens, the guide explores various aspects of college education, such as writing a curriculum, establishing a framework for classroom discussion, and designing a fair grading system.

In short, this is the kind of practice-meet-theory resource that Ramos was looking for in 2015.

“Much of this guide grew out of this need to focus on practice and activities and get them to engage with what the research actually says,” Ramos said. “The emphasis is not necessarily going from problem to problem, but focusing on the underlying methodology to facilitate these kinds of dialogues and conversations as an instructor.”

The work that resulted in the guide began in the spring of 2016. Shortly after joining the staff at Duke Graduate School in the fall of 2015, Ramos offered the Contentious Issues course as part of the College Teaching Certificate of the Graduate School. Since then, he has taught it every spring.

While teaching, he kept weekly notes on what worked in the classroom and what did not. In five years, he has accumulated around 70 single-spaced pages of notes, the starting point of the guide.

While writing the guide, Ramos received valuable feedback from two of his former students: Michael Betts II, 2020 graduate of the Experimental and Documentary Arts Masters program, and Lauren Carley, 2020 PhD graduate. of the university program in ecology.

“They were amazing in terms of the feedback, frankness and honesty about what works well and what might need a different angle,” said Ramos, who also works with Betts, now director of courses at Duke’s Center for Documentary. Studies. , on a nine-episode podcast series called Margin centering which delves into the topics of the guide.

Ramos is distributing the guide as an eBook, and 30 percent of the proceeds will go to support the Durham Children’s Initiative. To make it as accessible as possible, Ramos said interested educators can contact him for a free copy if the $ 4.99 price is a constraint.

Ultimately, Ramos said, his hope is to help instructors do more than just train successful students.

“It’s not just about knowing to find out, not just knowing how to prepare for an exam,” he said. “It’s about whether we are able not only to teach and produce successful students, but also to create substantial students and citizens who contribute to something bigger than us. Right now, I feel like it’s something we need more than ever.