Student diversity enhances learning and can present both challenges and opportunities for discussion leadership. Some of these challenges/opportunities relate to identities that may be visible (e.g., gender, race) or invisible (e.g., sexual orientation, socio-economic status, political and religious affiliation, physical or mental disability, veteran status).

This section addresses some potential missteps around student identities and offers advice on discussing sensitive topics that allow students to engage with their own values and those of others.

Potential Missteps Concerning Student Identity

Below are some missteps that are common in the classroom and suggestions on how to address them.

Generalizing about students based on their group membership

For example, using differential call patterns or making comments that suggest that students with military experience are tough or that engineering students like to do numbers.

Suggestion: Drawing on student experiences can greatly enrich the class discussion, as long as instructors avoid making generalizations about students based on those experiences.

Asking a student to speak for an entire demographic group

For example, calling on a French student for the French or European perspective on an issue.

Suggestions: Include in the conversation students from both within and outside of the demographic group under discussion, with an explicit understanding that none of these students’ perspectives are necessarily representative of their entire demographic group. If faced with multiple instances in which specific demographic groups are being discussed, use varied approaches to calling patterns (e.g., don’t always begin by calling on a member of the demographic group in question). In discussions of sensitive topics, you may wish to call more than once on students showing passion. It may be, for example, that during discussions of race, you may wish to call more than once on students of color who have their hands up multiple times.

Unintentionally marginalizing students with invisible social identities

For example, using language that implicitly holds as a norm heterosexuality, Democratic Party affiliation, high socioeconomic status, or heavy drinking during social events.

Suggestions: Use neutral references (e.g., “partner,” “spouse”), avoid in-group/out-group comments (e.g., “those people” or “people like us”). Avoid partisan political comments.

Challenging students differentially based on their demographic group

For example, disproportionately calling on male students to perform quantitative analyses or female students to discuss work-life balance or shopping.

Suggestions: Probe student comments, engage students in tough role plays, pose difficult questions to all students, irrespective of gender, race, or ESL status, to provide them with equal opportunity for development.

Using US-centric (or sports) references.

For example, referencing baseball to illustrate a point.

Suggestions: Use analogies that are broadly accessible to make all students feel included in the discussion. Include references to non-US contexts.

Assuming that students are comfortable revealing their invisible identities in the classroom

For example, students may reveal their sexual orientation, a history of mental or physical illness, veteran status, political or religious affiliation to an instructor or a few sectionmates but not to the entire class.

Suggestions: Be mindful of unintentionally disclosing private information about students. If a student raises his/her hand during a class discussion relevant to such private information—and you call on that student—do not specify the reason for doing so.

Assuming that a student belongs to a particular demographic group based on the student’s appearance

For example, inferring that a student grew up in Asia because the student looks Asian or assuming that an Asian student is from China.

Suggestions: Ask whether anyone with the experience in a particular area would like to share it with the class. Use the information on classcards to learn about student backgrounds.

Mispronouncing student names

For example, mispronouncing or avoiding the use of students’ names when calling on them to participate or when referring to their comments.

Suggestions: Carefully review pronunciations provided on student classcards. Ask your Section Chair for guidance on identifying or pronouncing challenging names. Announce on the first day of class that you want to make sure to pronounce everyone’s name correctly, and encourage students to let you know if you are mispronouncing their name. Reach out directly to students whose names you find difficult to pronounce and ask for guidance.

Reserving discussions of issues related to diversity primarily to female and/or minority protagonists

For example, only using a case with a female protagonist to discuss gender discrimination at work or work/life challenges, which may signal that these issues are relevant only to women or minorities and/or reduce the protagonist to a single social identity.

Suggestion: Discuss issues related to social identities across cases, regardless of the protagonist’s demographic group (e.g., “Would the protagonist’s actions be perceived differently if he were a woman or a racial or sexual-orientation minority? Note: Ask such questions only if you are able to allocate sufficient time to discuss them.)

The ability to discuss sensitive topics is critical to building students' leadership capabilities. To provide a foundation for these topics in class, instructors can set discussion expectations at the beginning of the course and take advantage of opportunities along the way to help students build their capabilities in framing arguments, listening attentively, articulating responses, and exercising judgment. In a course introduction, for example, instructors may invite students to raise sensitive issues and concerns, encouraging the class to approach these topics with curiosity, candor, and respect.

Discussing Sensitive Topics

Approaches for managing the discussion of sensitive topics include purposeful actions at the beginning of class, at the time a challenging moment occurs in class, and at the end of a challenging discussion.

At the beginning of class

If a class session involves a potentially sensitive or controversial topic, industry, organization, or protagonist—or if the case includes problematic language or characterizations—the instructor may find it helpful to:

  1. Raise the issue preemptively and encourage an open and respectful exchange.
    • “I want to acknowledge upfront that today’s class involves a [topic/industry/company/ protagonist] that some of us may find [difficult/disturbing/offensive].”
  2. If the issue relates to a central teaching objective of the class:
    • “I would encourage us all to engage candidly and respectfully in a conversation about a topic that increasingly affects the environment in which [managers/leaders] operate.”
  3. If the issue is not the focus of the class discussion:
    • “Although the primary purpose of today’s class is [X], I want to make [Y] a discussable issue if anyone feels strongly about addressing it at some point in the conversation. I am also happy to continue discussion of these issues after class.”
  4. Emphasize the importance of keeping the focus on ideas, content, arguments, and implications — not the person delivering them. Suggest the students be particularly patient as they and their classmates work to describe their views and arguments.
  5. Consider referring back to the norms set at the beginning of the course and drawing on examples of previous successful discussions.
During class discussion

When a challenging moment arises in a class discussion, the instructor can choose to respond minimally, with a brief acknowledgment/commentary/redirect, or engage in dialogue with the student raising the point and potentially open the discussion to reactions from other students.

In deciding how to respond, the instructor should make every attempt to “read the room,” paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal reactions (e.g., facial expressions, body language). In addition, the response will clearly depend on the nature of the comment – for example, how extreme it is and whether offense seems to be intended.

In general, the most effective responses are those involving inquiry—as opposed to debating or reprimanding a student—and protecting minority views to prevent a herd mentality from developing. Potential responses by the instructor include:

  1. In the case of inappropriate or offensive language, rephrase the comment or invite the student to do so. Non-native speakers may be particularly susceptible to using problematic words or expressions without recognizing the impact. Note that other students may respond to such language with uncomfortable body language or awkward laughter.
    • In response to a student commenting on the price sensitivity of “low class” customers-“So are you suggesting that low-income customers are price sensitive?”
    • In response to a student referring to a female case protagonist as “a bitch” - “You seem to be getting a [strong] reaction from your classmates on that description. Would you like to rephrase that? [or Why don’t you take another shot at that?”] [or “Whoa— let’s push the reset button and have you start over.”]
  2. Use inquiry to give students making controversial statements an opportunity to explain or clarify their positions and possibly course-correct.
    • “Could you say a bit more about that?”
    • “How did you come to that conclusion?”
    • “Can you help us understand why you’re assuming x/y/z/?”
  3. Open up a discussion about a student’s sensitive or controversial statement by soliciting reactions from other students. The instructor may return to the original student to respond after other views have been expressed.
    • “Let’s get some reactions to that.”
    • “Let’s get some other perspectives.”
    • “Does anyone see it very differently?”
  4. If a student shares a sensitive personal story or perspective, thank the student and acknowledge the comment before transitioning back to the case discussion.
    • “[Student] has just shared a significant personal challenge he/she experienced related to this company’s products. My guess is that he/she is not alone in this regard.”
    • “How might the company think about these concerns?”
    • “What insights does that give you in the situation faced by the protagonist?”

At the end of discussion

Have a plan for bringing challenging discussions/debates to a close, which may include providing a synthesis, thanking students for sharing their views on sensitive topics, encouraging continued out-of-class discussions, or informing students about opportunities for after-class discussion and/or speakers. Instructors also may want to reach out to individual students via email or in-person to follow-up on a challenging moment in the discussion.

  • “This is an important topic. Although we have not been able to discuss all of the issues in-depth, we should recognize [core underlying tensions/key arguments]. I’d encourage you to continue discussing and reflecting upon these issues outside of class.”
  • “This is an important topic. We won’t be able to talk about it more today, but I will carve out time at the beginning of tomorrow’s class so we can discuss it further.”