Finding Teachable Moments in Tough Times

October 2, 2017


This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Educators Academy Community MyPRSA Community.

It’s critical to exercise care when generating lessons from current events. 

As an African-American professor and practitioner, and the director of diversity outreach for the PRSA Educators Academy, I know that bringing news items like August’s incident in Charlottesville, Va., into the classroom can help create productive discussions.

However, it’s important that I don’t influence my students with my views as they’re searching to formulate their own.

Here are some recommendations for PR professors of any color or background in staying objective and turning today’s difficult events into teachable situations:

• Listen first and lecture second. I have found that, with all the images, words and opinions that now define our incessant news cycle, there’s not a lot of listening going on. The classroom — with some skilled moderating by the professor — can function as a safe space for students to express their views, laying a foundation for honest dialogue that can last throughout the semester.

The key is to show students how to listen to each other and resist the urge to argue or influence a view that might run counter to their own. The best practitioners are those who master the art of listening as an invaluable tool in managing an issue — no matter how complex or controversial.

• Protect the silence. Let’s face it: Not all students will feel comfortable expressing their views on these types of topics. Forcing everyone to participate can put unwanted pressure on some who aren’t ready to engage. Give them their space and honor their silence.

• Don’t assume another’s perspective. As a professor of color, I am often asked to “represent” a viewpoint that is bestowed on me simply because I am African-American. Faculty members sometimes put students of color on the spot (sometimes as a minority voice in a majority setting) assuming they can “speak from experience” when discussing matters of race. That puts an unfair burden on these students and often marginalizes their thoughts by relegating them to the “voice of color” in the dialogue. Let students find their own views. We need to resist imposing our own expectations of what their perspective “should” be.

• Find the facts. With the information overload of our daily media diet, it has become increasingly important to know the background of a story to counter what might be pure rhetoric. There are great fact-checking sites and resources such as and PolitiFact out there that can be used for times like these, where weeding out the fiction can help you stay informed.

• Consider “The Talk.” A few weeks before the events in Charlottesville, there was considerable discussion on social media and in various settings about Proctor & Gamble’s internet-released video titled, “The Talk.” It depicts African-American parents having a talk with their children through multiple generations about racial encounters they have had or will have. It’s a great conversation starter on the topic of race.

• Connect with other educators. In response to the racial unrest in Charlottesville, educators began posting articles and discussing prospective lessons under the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. It’s a great strategy for finding and sharing academic resources that will hopefully be adapted the next time a national tragedy occurs.

David W. Brown

David W. Brown is the assistant professor of instruction for the School of Media and Communication at Temple University in Philadelphia.


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