Dialogues Across Difference: Solutions to Disruptive Speech in the Learning Environment

March 5, 2024–Dialogues Across Difference Faculty Workshop

UC Davis faculty are invited to an afternoon workshop on “Dialogues Across Difference,” which seeks to facilitate communication across diverse viewpoints in the classroom. 

The event will feature innovative performances by UC Davis students to demonstrate scenarios featuring challenging and disruptive speech. Faculty from the law school will discuss Academic Freedom and the First Amendment in our classrooms, and small group discussions will focus on maintaining the exchange of diverse ideas. 

Please consider joining us:

March 5
11:00am - 2:30pm
Student Community Center, Multipurpose Room

Lunch will be provided

Register Now (limited seating)

Welcome & Project Overview

Raquel Aldana, Principal Investigator, School of Law
Mark Simon, Principal Consultant, Storywalkers Consulting 


Participant Survey

Amber Boydstun, Political Science 
Brian Trainor, Psychology 
Diane Beckles, Plant Sciences 
Sophia Mattingly, School of Education


“Disruptive Speech/Collected Stories”

Theatre for Social Change

Margaret Laurena Kemp, Theater and Dance 

  • EJ Agata 
  • Madeline Weissenberg 
  • Megan Abbanat 
  • Valerie Harris 
  • Vinh Ton


Toward a Better Understanding of Free Speech and Discussion

Brian Soucek, School of Law


Break, Grab Lunch, Find Group



Input from those in attendance via breakout groups

Denneal Jamison-McClung, Biotechnology Program
Glaucia Helena Carvalho do Prado, Chemical Engineering 
Lorena Márquez, Chicana/o/x Studies 
Sophia Mattingly, School of Education 
Stephen Garcia, Graduate School of Management


Campus Resources & Website

Amber Boydstun, Political Science 
Thomas O’Donnell, Office of Academic Diversity


Closing Thoughts and Reflections

Raquel Aldana, Principal Investigator, School of Law
Mark Simon, Principal Consultant, Storywalkers Consulting


Background of Dialogues Across Difference:

With funding from the University of California, Office of the President, a team of 12 faculty has been meeting regularly throughout this academic year as a facilitated community of practice. We have been exploring a tension that many of us face in our classrooms and lecture halls: Namely that the exchange of diverse ideas is both essential to a healthy academic environment and, potentially, a source of disruption of learning or teaching in the classroom.

We view the university classroom as a robust space to counter the polarization and isolation experienced by many in our society today. Thus, we are working to identify a path in the classroom that fosters the open sharing of ideas across differences. At the same time, we recognize that the expression of certain ideas can be distressing to those involved and, in some contexts, pedagogically detrimental, preventing the class from meeting its learning objectives. 

We have come to see that when faculty know their rights and responsibilities under academic freedom and set clear expectations for their classroom, challenging speech can be pedagogically useful, allowing students to exchange ideas and to reinforce the learning objectives by considering different perspectives. 
We will utilize a variety of modalities to explore this territory, including:

  • Providing context and definition of how we understand the terms, challenging and disruptive speech
  • Performances by UC Davis students to demonstrate scenarios
  • A presentation on Academic Freedom and the First Amendment in our classrooms
  • Small group discussions on specific topics related to maintaining the exchange of diverse ideas
  • Resources available for faculty and other instructors

I hope you will consider joining us.

Warm Regards,
Raquel Aldana, Principal Investigator and Professor Law

Participating Faculty:

Amber Boydstun, Political Science
Amy Motlagh, Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern/South Asian Studies
Brian Trainor, Psychology
Brian Soucek, School of Law
Denneal Jamison-McClung, Biotechnology Program
Diane Beckles, Plant Sciences
Glaucia Helena Carvalho do Prado, Chemical Engineering
Lorena Márquez, Chicana/o/x Studies
Margaret Laurena Kemp, Theater and Dance
Raquel Aldana, School of Law
Sophia Mattingly, School of Education
Stephen Garcia, Graduate School of Management

Statement of Purpose:

The exchange of diverse ideas is both essential to a healthy academic environment and, potentially, a source of disruption of learning or teaching in the classroom.

Some instances of speech (ranging from verbal statements to symbolic attire) can be challenging for instructors and students to navigate. These include instances of speech perceived as provocative, insensitive, and/or invoking a stereotype of an individual or group. Challenging speech can be distressing to those involved and, in some contexts, pedagogically detrimental, preventing the class from meeting its learning objectives. And even seemingly benign speech can turn into disruptive speech when it derails a class from its learning objectives.

But when faculty know their rights and responsibilities to academic freedom, have set clear expectations for their classroom with regard to challenging speech, and are familiar with best practices for addressing challenging speech in a classroom setting, challenging speech can be pedagogically useful, allowing students to exchange ideas and to reinforce the learning objectives of a given class by considering different perspectives.


Dialogues Across Difference seeks to more fully understand the dimensions and consequences of disruptive speech for faculty and other instructional staff at U.C. Davis. Some members of the faculty deal more often with disruptive speech and with greater repercussions to their career progress and well-being than others. An informed awareness of this issue can facilitate dialogues to discuss effective strategies or responses to the disruption, consistent with our values of freedom of expression, academic freedom, and human dignity and our commitment to sustain a culture and climate based on mutual respect and care. To better understand the range and extent of these experiences, we developed a questionnaire to collect data from faculty on their experiences. With this new body of data, we intend to bring faculty together as a community of practice to talk through their experiences and identify best practices for how to forge future productive interactions. Finally, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will host a campuswide symposium to engage the campus community in findings, stories and areas of inquiry.

If you have any experiences with disruptive speech that you've witnessed or been subject to, please consider completing our questionnaire. Our Graduate Student Researcher, Chris Coleman (Psychology) and the Principal Investigators of the project recorded a brief video describing the purpose of the questionnaire to help answer any questions. 

Complete the Questionnaire

Questionnaire FAQs

  • What is the problem this project seeks to solve?
  • At its most fundamental level, Dialogues across Difference is a project about workplace climate and faculty retention. It is also a project about supporting faculty in creating effective learning and teaching spaces where robust intellectual conversations can occur with meaningful respect for different lived experiences and backgrounds.

    One of the contributors to a negative workplace climate is disruptive speech in a learning environment, such as the classroom, the lab, or the hallway. 

    Disruptive speech can also reveal itself  in student evaluations when these become instruments to communicate student discomfort with challenging conversations in the classroom. 

    Unfortunately, too many faculty are not supported with strategies to respond, in real time, to instances of disruptive speech.
  • How are we defining “disruptive speech” and how did we arrive at this definition?
  • We are defining disruptive speech as politically provocative, harassing or hate speech, including display of symbols or objects that adversely affect teaching and learning. Such speech can originate from any scholar — students or faculty — can be inadvertent or intentional, and can arise by commission, collusion, or silence. 

    This definition came through many months of discussion among faculty as part of FRIENDS,  another UCOP grant that engaged with faculty in crafting solutions to issues affecting faculty workplace climate at UC Davis.  We wanted to be very careful to limit the type of speech we are concerned with, which is speech in “learning environments” that is disrupting our core mission of teaching and learning. 

    Of course, as educators we are also invested in the related concepts of academic freedom and free speech. Our teaching,  research, and service depends upon them. As such, this project is less about the regulation of protected versus unprotected speech. We leave that to legal counsel and other administrators at the university.

    The conversation we want to have is how can we be prepared and and address the disruption of learning that flows from speech in a way that is faithful to our commitment to academic freedom? How can we equip one another and secondarily, how can the institution support these efforts?”
  • What is the purpose of this questionnaire?
  • With this questionnaire, we seek to document the extent and nature of disruptive speech in the learning environment.

    Therefore, our first challenge is to gather and document a wide range of stories so that we have a clear, deep, and broad view of the nature of disruptive speech and problems that arise from it in the learning environment.

    We want that data to reflect the experiences that are specific to UC Davis. Certainly there are going to be many instances that are felt across higher education but we believe it’s important to ground this study in the lived experiences of our teaching faculty at UC Davis.
  • Who should be interested in this questionnaire?
  • We want to hear from anyone that is charged with maintaining a productive learning environment. We aim to be inclusive in whom we are calling the teaching faculty to reflect the reality of who is actually teaching our students. Thus, we want to hear from teaching assistants, lab leaders, and lecturers as much as from full-time faculty. 

    We also don’t want to make this only about certain faculty. We believe this is an issue that can adversely affect any classroom, regardless of discipline. We are interested in broad participation.
  • How do you plan to use the information collected from this questionnaire?
  • We want to start by first emphasizing our concern for preserving the confidentiality of the responses we receive. Our small team in DEI will have access to the raw data and unless we are given express permission to share, identifying information will be stripped out of the answers. 

    Our goal is to collect scenarios that allow us to facilitate Communities of Faculty to share experiences and possible solutions; we believe that grounding these discussions in the actual experiences gathered from the questionnaire, that are specific to UC Davis faculty will make those conversations more meaningful.

    We will collect the stories we give and create composites to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of the respondents but still retain the very real difficulties and trauma that disruptive speech causes in a classroom environment. 
  • What is the end goal of this project and questionnaire?
  • This project, which is funded by a two-year grant from UCOP will provide our team with the material and evidence we need for the second year of our project which is to facilitate conversations among instructors about the issues faculty face in classrooms.

    One of the real challenges some faculty face is that their work of teaching occurs is relatively isolated spaces; in other words, the entire faculty, who represent a broad range of identities and experiences and skills, are not present in their colleagues classrooms so there is a level of awareness about the extent and nature of disruptive speech that needs to happen

    The second major concrete outcome of this project will be in the development of strategies and tools that instructors can be provided with to help them navigate disruptive speech in the classroom.

    We know from the research we did in proposing this grant, that more often than not, instructors are inclined to suffer in silence, refrain from seeking help–which, it must be said due to the high regard we all hold for the freedom of speech and its legal protections, is very hard to combat or receive meaningful support from a university’s administration. This can have very negative consequences for an instructor’s mental health and productivity; it becomes a very vicious cycle that ultimately undermines our goal to retain faculty.

    It may also be true that many instances of disruptive speech are not based on bad intentions and so if we can help an instructor turn these instances into an opportunity to learn and teach then it becomes much more than a problem avoided but an opportunity explored.

    Finally, to provide long-term support we will create performances adapted from the experiences of UCD faculty, which we believe will offer a powerful alternative to simply words on paper or data in a table to emphasize the visceral, emotional, and individualized impact of these experiences.

    We plan to record performances and provide facilitation toolkits that can be used either in synchronous or asynchronous options.


Negative workplace climate and racial trauma both contribute to loss of productivity among faculty and to faculty turnover. Dialogues Across Difference advances faculty retention by addressing the negative impact of disruptive speech in learning environments. We define disruptive speech as politically provocative, harassing, or hate speech, including the display of symbols or objects, that adversely affect teaching and learning. This project has three phrases. The first will document the extent of this problem in these politically polarizing times. The second will build communities of faculty from across campus to generate a collective awareness and structure composite stories. In the third, we will write and produce performance pieces based on these stories that reflect experiences of and responses to disruptive speech. Once produced, these pieces will be offered in synchronous and asynchronous environments as part of broader programming to empower faculty, graduate students, and other instructional staff and to inform policy.


As our civic spaces have become increasingly polarized, as false news stories are retweeted more than factual news, and as we become more isolated in our systems of belief, UC Davis faculty are interested in looking critically at how existing notions of freedom of expression have served and not served our mission as a public university–and what it all means for our at-promise scholars and faculty from historically marginalized backgrounds.

Our support for freedom of expression as foundational to a free society lives side by side with our belief that speech has a weighted set of consequences in spaces such as classrooms where faculty bear the responsibility to teach and protect the learning of all students. The free exchange of ideas and views is essential to critical thinking and character development. However, these very spaces can be disrupted when faculty or other students use or experience speech as attacks on identities or lived experiences.

At U.C. Davis, our Principles of Community recognizes that the exercise of freedom of expression within a diverse environment calls for a nuanced balance between affirming the right to freedom of expression and striving to build and maintain a climate based on mutual respect and caring that rejects all forms of discrimination. To fulfill our teaching mission, we have a responsibility to create efficacious learning environments. To fulfill our research mission, we must support our faculty as they disseminate information. Both goals require us to consider proactive and courageous responses to disruptive speech that equip faculty to create and maintain learning environments that safeguard the dignity, rights, and well-being of students and faculty alike.


We propose to offer a series of actions and interventions that build on best practices learned from other projects at UC Davis, in the UC System, and among our aspirational peers:

Action #1: Document the Experience

The mechanisms in place to document disruptive speech in the classroom have been inadequate, discouraging, or intimidating so faculty have been reluctant to file official reports documenting their experience. Therefore, our first challenge is to gather and document a wide range of stories so that we have a clear, deep, and broad view of the nature of disruptive speech and problems that arise from it in the learning environment. We propose a survey to instructional staff that will collect case studies and assess respondent interest in further participation. From there, we will continue to collect qualitative data via interviews and oral histories. We will utilize creative focus group methodologies to draw out detail and specificity.

Action #2: Share the Experience with UC Faculty

Once we have built a database of these experiences, we will build and convene communities of faculty, within and across academic units to create collective awareness of instances of disruptive speech in the learning environment in order to share experiences and solutions. These symposia will build on UC Davis’s success with Communities of Practice—networks of faculty gathering together with a common objective. We will invite faculty from UC Davis, extending invitations to other interested UC faculty members who might also be invested (and willing to invest) in joining us.

By working with faculty groups, we hope to determine how we might authentically communicate experiences across identities, and what types of responses might be cued to interrupt the patterns that result in disrupted or hostile learning environments. Data gathered from these sessions will enable us to take the next step: sketching out scenes, dialogue, and facilitation scripts that illustrate both the issues and solutions.

Action #3: Deliver and Sustain

In the final action, we will establish long-term support and guidelines around disruptive speech in our classrooms and community. We will have a communications plan to describe the project and publicize our efforts in this complex space. As we have done with FRIENDS and PLACE, we will create a companion website and utilize social media strategically to enhance our efforts and raise visibility among our key stakeholders.

To share our findings with the campus, we will host a symposium in winter 2024 quarter. This will be an in-person event and will enable members of the Community of Faculty to engage the campus community in findings, stories and areas of inquiry.

Working with academic departments, we will continue to support the campus’s effort to develop guidelines around outside speakers and institutionally-sponsored social media spaces. We envision providing guidelines for individual faculty to utilize in their own classrooms, such as model language for syllabi or methods of assessment that attach professional expectations to respectful dialogue, debate, cultural sensitivity, and multicultural competency as a measurable classroom and professional skill.

While our core audience for this project is ladder rank faculty, we believe that graduate students and other instructional staff will benefit as they spend considerable time in the classroom or lab working directly with undergraduates, and are the ladder rank faculty of the future, thus their inclusion is essential to ensuring long-term transformation.