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Navigating Heated, Offensive, and Tense (HOT) Moments in the Classroom

Regardless of course topic or content, challenging conversations, moments of rupture or disruption, and heated encounters may occur in the classroom. These moments can arise in response to specific course materials (e.g., readings, guest speakers), or they could be in response to sociopolitical factors outside the classroom environment. Thus, the amount of control an instructor feels they have over a particular moment may vary. Anyone can be the target and/or the cause of these moments: students, instructors, TAs, guest speakers. Given that everyone enters the classroom with an array of social identities, previous experiences, and perspectives, these moments may be unavoidable. Though they are complicated and can be difficult to respond to, there are steps instructors can take to potentially anticipate and navigate Heated, Offensive, or Tense (HOT) moments before, during, and after they occur. This resource provides strategies that can be implemented in any course context.

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2022). Navigating Heated, Offensive, and Tense (HOT) Moments in the Classroom. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/navigating-hot-moments/

What are HOT Moments?

Throughout this resource, we use the acronym HOT to refer to moments that are Heated, Offensive, and/or Tense. While “hot moments” is often used as a blanket term to refer to challenging moments, HOT as the acronym importantly makes space for the distinctions across these situations and the different approaches instructors might take when navigating them as they arise. It’s important to note that these categories are not mutually exclusive, and that it is possible for moments to be heated, offensive, and tense all at once.

  • Heated moments can be characterized by yelling, accusations, or name-calling. In these moments, it is immediately clear that something has gone wrong and there is a rupture in the course. 
  • Offensive moments are when something offensive has been said. Perhaps someone has used a racial slur, or has made an offensive comment about a group or individual; it may also be that someone has made an inappropriate joke at the expense of a particular social group. These moments could become heated, depending on reactions, but if the offensive moment is unaddressed or unacknowledged, it’s possible members of the classroom community may sit silently or withdraw.
  • Tense moments may be difficult to address or identify. These could be moments when the room goes silent after a comment  or remark has been made, or students are uncomfortable with the course material or discussion. There’s no single moment of explosion or reaction, but it’s clear that something has shifted. At the same time, tensions within the classroom may be influenced by tense climates outside of or beyond the classroom environment.


Developing Your Response to HOT Moments

When HOT moments occur, students will look to the instructor to address them. There are several factors that may impact an instructors’ response to a particular moment, as well as impact the level of control an instructor feels they have over the situation. The following section offers considerations for instructors to think about as they select which strategies to employ. 

HOT Moments related to course content

Some HOT moments might be anticipated given the nature of particular course content. In fact, sometimes these disruptions may be seized as an opportunity for growth and learning, encouraging students to think outside of their comfort zones. When preparing for potentially challenging course materials, it can be helpful for instructors to reflect on past experiences with similar situations: 

  • How have you navigated HOT moments in the past? 
  • What sparked the HOT moments in your course (e.g., your own biases or assumptions, a particular course element)?
  • How did you respond (or not respond) in the moment? 
  • What impact did your response have on course climate and student learning? 
  • What might you do differently going forward? 
HOT Moments related to events beyond the classroom

Alternatively, there are times when instructors cannot anticipate particularly challenging moments in the classroom. These dialogues may arise in response to an offensive comment or remark outside the scope of course material, or perhaps be influenced by a tense sociopolitical climate or events outside of the classroom context. Regardless of the initial cause of these challenging dialogues, their unanticipated nature and need for in-time response can make them particularly hard for instructors and students alike. It can be helpful for instructors to reflect on what they would do in these situations:

  • How might you prepare to facilitate difficult conversations in your classroom? 
  • What is your approach for creating space for difficult dialogues and inviting diverse perspectives? 
  • How might you create space for dialogue while keeping the focus on the class learning goals?

With these reflections, your course context, and your students in mind, explore the strategies for before, during, and after class that will help you prepare for navigating future HOT moments.

The CTL is here to help!

You don’t have to navigate Heated, Offensive, or Tense (HOT) moments alone or in isolation; the CTL is available to support you in your navigation! Email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu to schedule a 1-1 consultation. 

Strategies for Navigating HOT Moments​

The following sections offer questions for reflection and strategies for navigating and responding to HOT moments before, during, and after class. In some instances, if a particular strategy is suited for a moment that is notably Heated, Offensive, or Tense, that is called out explicitly; when not called out, the strategy is one that might be applied and adapted across situations and contexts. Instructors may find that the strategies called out specifically for Tense moments are also ones that work best during those unanticipated challenging dialogues.

Before Class 

Before entering the classroom, whenever possible, instructors should anticipate HOT moments. Although these preparatory actions may not prevent a HOT moment from arising, they can help create an environment in which it is easier to move forward. Some possible strategies for addressing HOT moments before a course or class meeting include: 

Establish class norms, discussion guidelines, and/or content warnings: Is it clear to your students what the expectations are for classroom etiquette, engagement, and interaction? 

While class norms and guidelines won’t ensure HOT moments never happen, they can be valuable tools for navigating these moments when they arise, as they give the class a shared grounding to turn to in the moment. Establishing class norms and guidelines is also a great opportunity to partner with learners in co-construction of these agreements. This collaboration can also help students feel a greater sense of agency and ownership of the expectations. For more support with getting started, see the Barnard Center for Engaged Pedagogy’s resource on Crafting Community Agreements

While class norms and guidelines are a useful practice in any context, they can be particularly valuable for Tense moments, as they provide instructors and their students a shared vocabulary, understanding, and structure for engaging in productive, and sometimes difficult, dialogues. This can be especially helpful when unanticipated challenges or tensions arise.

Reflect on the course material and/or previous iterations of the course: What materials (e.g., readings, topics, assignments) might spark HOT moments? Or what materials sparked HOT moments in previous iterations of the course? 

Does the course include particularly challenging readings or topics? Did HOT moments occur previously? Identifying these areas in the course can help instructors better prepare for potential HOT moments. Instructors might also consider providing additional framing or context that might have preempted the HOT moment previously.

Provide supplementary course materials and accompanying discussion prompts: Are there supplementary course materials  that might help preempt a HOT moment, or provide additional context? What are the areas of the text or material that you would like students to focus on? 

Supplementary materials, such as readings that offer additional perspectives on a topic, are one way to prepare students for challenging discussions. By introducing these perspectives ahead of the discussion, instructors can help students critically interrogate ideas and opinions before class. During discussion, then, students can attribute ideas or concepts to a cited author and not a classmate. As with any strategy, providing these materials does not ensure that a student won’t raise a particular viewpoint or perspective that results in a HOT moment; rather, providing the materials is one way to anchor the topic in a particular conversation or context. 

Additionally, discussion prompts or questions that accompany or prepare students for the discussion can provide a shared foundation to turn back to if or when a HOT moment occurs. You might also collaborate with students, asking students to develop questions to start a discussion. Again, like with any strategy, having these questions won’t ensure that no HOT moments arise, but rather, they can help students ground their responses in shared material.

Consider the current social climate and context: Are there recent events (internationally, nationally, or locally) that might contribute to a HOT moment? 

Classrooms can serve as microcosms of the broader context, and can be greatly impacted by external events that feel removed from the classroom context. Paying attention to the current social climate and context can help an instructor prepare for possible connections with the course material, and the potential for a HOT moment. This might mean making space for discussion at the start of the class, preemptively helping students see the connection between a particular course topic and current events. Having space for this conversation early on allows for students to both process and articulate their ideas, perhaps avoiding an eruption of these ideas later in the discussion.

Acknowledging the current social climate and context is especially helpful for instructors anticipating a potentially Tense class meeting. While it can be difficult to control all the factors in the classroom, and anticipate every challenging dialogue that might arise, this consideration can help instructors prepare themselves and their students for participating in a productive discussion that invites diverse perspectives and creates opportunities for active listening and learning.

During Class

Responding to HOT moments as they arise, though it may feel uncomfortable and daunting, is important to maintain trust and rapport in the classroom. Some possible strategies for responding to HOT moments during class include:

Initiate a reflective pause: What do students think is happening at that moment? What might have caused this particular discussion (e.g., a particular moment in the text, connection to events “external” to the classroom)? 

Sometimes the best thing to do is hit pause. A reflective pause is not meant to shut down a conversation, but rather it offers an opportunity for the class to reflect on what has happened and perhaps identify productive pathways forward. During the pause, the instructor might ask students to reflect on the class discussion and identify what might have caused the HOT moment (with emphasis placed on ideas, not individuals). This is also an opportunity for students to engage more deeply with the text or material being discussed, as instructors might ask students to individually return to the text before continuing the whole group discussion. No matter the prompt used, the reflective pause gives students a chance to process their own thoughts, while also giving the instructor a chance to brainstorm how the discussion might move forward. 

This strategy is particularly helpful for Heated moments where tensions are high, and perhaps any chance for dialogue and discussion seems impossible. Reflective pauses are also valuable in those Tense moments when instructors and students alike may need a moment to process what is going on beyond the classroom that is making it hard to focus on the course content and the learning.

Return to the course material at hand: How might you direct students’ attention back to the text or material at hand? 

HOT moments can arise when a discussion strays from the text, material, or topic at hand. While there can certainly be fruitful discussions that come from this straying, it can also be harder to move beyond a HOT moment when what is being discussed is beyond the shared scope of the course. In these moments, it can be helpful to ask students to support their comments with evidence from the text (e.g., “Could you point to a specific moment in the text that raised this [conclusion, idea, etc.]?”).

This strategy is especially helpful during Offensive moments, when a student may present an offensive opinion or present a harmful stereotype as fact. Asking students to use the text at hand can help recenter the discussion and ground the discussion within the shared course material.

Revisit community guidelines or class norms: Is the class still following the agreed upon and shared community guidelines? Are these agreements still serving the class? 

When possible, return to and remind students of the community guidelines or shared class norms. It’s a great opportunity to remind students of what has been agreed upon in terms of expectations around discussion etiquette and engagement in the class. It might also be an opportunity to revisit and, if needed, revise, the agreed upon guidelines or norms.

This strategy can be a great way to call for a pause during a Heated moment. It can also be a helpful touchpoint when the discussion gets Tense, reminding students of what they have all agreed upon as the norms of discussion.

Use questions to help students explore their response: How might you encourage students to think critically about their responses and contributions? 

It’s important not to single out an individual when HOT moments arise. Doing so can result in the singled-out individual getting defensive, shutting down, or further escalating the HOT moment. At the same time, it can be a valuable learning opportunity to encourage students to think more critically about potential comments or responses. Some probing questions might include: “Many people share this [feeling, opinion, sentiment, etc.]. Why do you think they feel this way? What are some other perspectives?” This can help students think about both why people feel a certain way about a topic, while also considering alternative perspectives or opinions.

This strategy can be particularly helpful during Offensive or Tense moments, as they can help illuminate a particularly offensive opinion or comment, without singling out an individual. These questions create an opportunity for students to reflect upon challenging or harmful perspectives.

After Class

It’s best to respond to HOT moments as they occur, so as to not further impede student learning and create discomfort or rupture in the classroom environment. However, a response in the moment is not always possible. It could be that the HOT moment occurred as class was wrapping up, or it might be that something was brought to your attention after the fact. In these instances, it’s always better to respond after class than to not respond at all, which could harm any trust and rapport instructors have built with their students. Some possible strategies for responding to HOT moments after class include: 

Engage students in asynchronous discussion spaces: How might you leverage asynchronous discussion spaces after class? What are productive uses of this space? 

It is also possible to continue a discussion, and address a HOT moment, in asynchronous discussion spaces. Leveraging this space can allow students time to process their thoughts and craft responses. At the same time, these discussion spaces can also create space for you as the instructor to provide a prompt to help focus the discussion. You might consider bringing some of the responses into the next class session as a way to move the class forward. 

This strategy can be helpful in navigating Heated moments, as they allow time and space for processing one’s thoughts and response.

Start the next class with a reflective pause: What could have been different about the previous discussion? How will the class proceed in this and future discussion? 

Starting the next class period with a reflection can be a great way to address a previous HOT moment, while also helping to develop ideas for moving forward. Consider asking students to not only reflect on what happened, but to also reflect on ways that the class might move forward and better navigate, or when possible, avoid similar situations in future discussions.

This strategy can be an effective way to address a Heated moment, offering students’ time and space for processing their responses. At the same time, these pauses can be helpful in responding to an Offensive or Tense moment, as students will have had time to think about the discussion, and how they might want to move forward.

Set up 1-1 meetings: Is there an opportunity to meet 1-1 with students to learn more about the situation and address concerns?

In certain circumstances, it might be more effective to meet with students individually. For example, if a student has emailed you with concerns about a particular comment or moment in the course, that could be a time where a 1-1 meeting makes the most sense. Keep in mind, however, that students can often feel nervous about 1-1 meetings, so when asking for a meeting, it’s important to be as clear and transparent about the purpose and goals of the request as possible. 

Share reflections with students: How might you model reflection for your students? 

You might choose to share your own reflections on a HOT moment with your students. This might be admitting you were not expecting particular responses or contributions to a text. There might also be an opportunity to share why you assigned the text or material that sparked a HOT moment, helping students to understand its purpose in the class. In explaining the purpose, however, it’s important to consider and share what you might have changed about presenting the material so as to preempt a HOT moment.  

This is an especially useful strategy for Tense situations that go beyond the classroom. Instructors might share their own honest reflections and potential struggles with students, admitting that they don’t have an answer or that they too are grappling with what is happening beyond the classroom.

Accept responsibility for participating in and being the cause of a HOT moment: Did something you say or do in the class result in a HOT moment? How might you accept responsibility and move forward with your students?

It can be challenging for instructors to admit when they participated in the creation of a HOT moment, and it can be difficult to hear that something they said or did caused harm or offense. However, it’s important to remember that intentions do not equal impact: despite doing something with good intentions, you are responsible for the impact these actions have, even when the impact is unintentional. Listening to your students, accepting responsibility, and identifying action steps to move forward is essential for learning to continue and for the class to move forward.   

The CTL is here to help! 

Not sure where to begin? Looking to talk with someone about a challenging classroom experience or  facilitating difficult dialogues? The CTL is available to support you in this process. Email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu to schedule a 1-1 consultation.

Columbia Resources

The Blue Folder provides tips for responding to students in distress and referring them to campus resources. University Life. 

Support Resources for Faculty and Staff from University Life includes common faculty questions about addressing disruptive student behavior. 

Campus Resources in Times of Crisis. Columbia University.

Teaching in Times of Stress and Challenge. Center for Teaching and Learning.

Learning Through Discussion. Center for Teaching and Learning.

Crafting Community Agreements. Barnard Center for Engaged Pedagogy.

References & Resources 

Chew, S., Houston, A., Cooper, A. (2020). The Anti-Racist Discussion Pedagogy. Packback. 

Gannon, K. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. West Virginia U.P. 

Sue, D.W. (2015). Helping people talk about race: Facilitation skills for educators and trainers. In Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Wiley.  

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University. (n.d.) Navigating Difficult Moments | Derek Bok Center, Harvard University

Thurber, A., Harbin, M.B., & Bandy, J. (2019). Teaching Race: Pedagogy and Practice. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. 

University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. (n.d.). Responding to Difficult Moments | CRLT.  

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