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Graduate School Assistant Dean Writes Guidebook on Teaching Contentious Issues

December 8, 2020

Francisco Ramos
Francisco Ramos began laying the groundwork for his guidebook five years ago.

By John Zhu

In spring 2015, Francisco Ramos was a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching a course on advanced qualitative methods. During class one Tuesday that April, he noticed that discourse analysis and phenomenology seemed to be the last thing on his students’ minds.

What occupied their thoughts instead was Freddie Gray, a young Black man in Baltimore who had died two days earlier from injuries he suffered while in police custody.

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

“It’s one of those moments where, as an educator, you are thinking deeply about what to do in that kind of context and where do I turn to if I need assistance in navigating these kinds of conversations,” said Ramos, now an assistant dean at the Duke Graduate School.

“There was a smattering of ideas and practices in different areas. You could go to a website here or a website there that was oriented toward practitioners. There were formal books that were published through university presses, but they were very much written for people who were trying to get tenure. So you had this big disconnect between people who were doing research and people who were trying to apply theory to practice.”

Over the past five years, Ramos has worked on bridging that gap. Among his responsibilities at the Duke Graduate School, he has been teaching a course about addressing contentious issues in the college classroom. In early December, he published a guidebook on the topic—How to Teach Contentious Issues in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators.

The guidebook includes chapters that look at issues such as anti-racism and gender identity, but Ramos said its focus is more about how to teach any potentially controversial topic. Through that lens, the guidebook explores various aspects of college teaching, such as writing a syllabus, establishing a framework for classroom discussion, and devising an equitable grading system.

In short, it’s the kind of practice-meets-theory resource that Ramos was looking for back in 2015.

“This guidebook is very much born from that need of emphasizing practice and activities and bringing them into dialogue with what the research actually says,” Ramos said. “The emphasis is not necessarily to go from issue to issue, but to focus on the underlying methodology to facilitate these kinds of dialogues and conversations as an instructor.”

The work that culminated in the guidebook began in spring 2016. Soon after joining the Duke Graduate School staff in fall 2015, Ramos proposed the contentious-issues course as part of The Graduate School’s Certificate in College Teaching. He has been teaching it every spring since.

As he taught, he kept weekly notes about what worked in the classroom and what didn’t. Over five years, he accumulated about 70 pages of single-spaced notes—the starting point for the guidebook.

While writing the guidebook, Ramos received valuable feedback from two of his former students—Michael Betts II, a 2020 graduate of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program, and Lauren Carley, a 2020 Ph.D. graduate of the University Program in Ecology.

“They have been incredible in terms of their feedback, their candor, and their honesty about what works well and what might need a different angle,” said Ramos, who is also collaborating with Betts, now the courses director at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, on a nine-episode podcast series called Centering The Margins that delves deeper into the topics in the guidebook.

Ramos is distributing the guidebook 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 hardship.

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

“It’s not just about knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not just knowledge for preparing for a test,” he said. “It’s about whether we are able to not only teach and produce successful students, but also create substantive students and citizens who contribute to something that’s bigger than we are. Right now, I feel like that’s something we need more than ever.”