I used to be a huge advocate for instituting hard and fast ground rules for class discussions. I used to spend the last third of my first class of the semester going over the rules with my students. I used to… then I read this:

If a goal of conversations about equity and social justice is to challenge current structures and assumptions, we must look closely at all guidelines we use in our classes and workshops, asking ourselves who they support and who, if anybody, they privilege. As such, many educators and facilitators have begun to rethink the idea of ground rules and ways they currently are implemented.

– Paul C. Gorski

It smacked me like a cold fish across the face. I was using the guidelines to keep me comfortable; they were there to fortify my authority. Being a member of the dominant culture in just about every possible way, when something keeps me comfortable it often points like a weathervane toward social power. Ground rules have a way of being a form of symbolic violence; a subtle hegemonic force used to press the dominant culture’s norms and values upon every student. It’s a quiet way of reminding every student in the room, “who’s in charge around here”.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think that some form of classroom decorum is needed for optimal student learning. I am not suggesting that a norm-less class is ideal or even possible. But if you give your students the ground rules for discussion like a royal decry, don’t be surprised if the your students think you come off like a dictator.

Setting Expectations Instead of Ground Rules

When you come to my class I want you to know that this is a safe learning environment where it’s okay to be wrong (i.e. factually inaccurate), it’s okay to disagree with someone, and it’s okay to be totally baffled or overwhelmed by sociology. Instead of having firm rules in place, I want you to know what you should and shouldn’t expect when we are having class discussions. Instead of having rules for discussion, I ask my students to help me create a list of things they should expect in classroom discussions and a corresponding list of things they should not expect.[1] Below is a list my class recently collected.

List of What to Expect Slide 1
List of What to Expect Slide 1

– Download a word document version of expectations here –

Lots of sources have suggested that instead of instilling ground rules by fiat, you should instead have your students design them. I like this idea and have had a great deal of success with this approach myself. During the first week of class have your students brainstorm ideas in small groups and then as a class work together to synthesize the list. This is a great opportunity for students to meet one another, form connections, and practice working together. Plus your students are far more likely to “buy in” to the class expectations if they played a role in creating them. Furthermore, you can role model good discussion behavior as you work with your students to identify themes and reword them. You can also have a profound impact on the final product by asking students to elaborate on their suggestions.

Is this the right approach? Dunno. Does it solve all of the problems I’ve identified with ground rules? I think not. But this is a step in the right direction. If you finish this piece unconvinced, I hope you’ll still join me (and the many other scholars doing work in this area) in thinking more about how the social structures of our classes reflect and recreate the inequality created by the social structures we teach within.

As a discipline we implore our students to look critically at the world they live in and ask “who benefits from this?” It seems reasonable that our students should expect as much from us.

  1. I give all credit for the idea of expectation setting to my friend and renowned educator, Dr. Breyan Haizlip. This is just one of the many ways she has made me a better teacher.  ↩