Bryant Jackson-Green, Department of Social Ecology

Criminal justice coursework inevitably involves discussions about difficult topics. Learning about violent crime, sexual assault, and similarly traumatic experiences is a central part of the curriculum and key to grasping the stakes criminal justice systems engage with daily. But if not handled sensitively, discussions on these issues can be difficult for instructors and students alike in ways that hinder rather than contribute to learning.

To be successful at this, instructors must be sensitive to the needs of a range of students in their classrooms – such as those who have experienced victimization. Here are a few suggestions for approaching difficult conversations in criminal justice coursework.

Reflect on the Motivations that Lead Students to Take a Course

There are many reasons students choose to study criminal justice. Some are interested in careers in law enforcement. Some want to pursue legal studies or social work. Others may just be curious about the subject matter thanks to popular crime media.

Personal experiences are also an important factor influencing what students decide to study. Negative experiences including trauma from victimization, incarceration, and other sources can motivate students to study criminal justice. Research on criminal justice majors shows those with primary and secondary victimization cite it as an influence in choosing their major. Instructors should be aware of this pathway to criminal justice studies and consider how their pedagogy addresses the needs and interests of these students.

Establish Norms of Respectful Dialogue

Controversy in discussions of crime and crime policy is nothing new. Instead of avoiding difficult discussions in criminal justice, an instructor should be aware of how to establish a norm of respectful dialogue in the classroom that encourages engagement and productive exchanges. At the very beginning of a course and as needed thereafter, instructors should establish expectations that students address each other with respect both in language and in behavior (e.g. not interrupting) and seek to model this behavior themselves.

Another strategy is to make reflexive and empathetic comments to highlight multiple perspectives of an issue during discussions. Selective self-exposure by an instructor can be an effective strategy to “[break] down the anonymity of… the material” (Payne & Gainey, 2003, pg. 56) and make students take note of complexity in the topics they deliberate about. The judicious use of personal experience or reflections based on their own research can provide context for class discussions and make students more willing to voice their own opinions.

Consider the Use of Content/Trigger Warnings Where Appropriate

Content and trigger warnings are intended to let students who have experienced trauma prepare themselves prior to a reading or activity for topics that may cause distress. While controversial, research shows warnings can be used in a way that students find valuable in the context of criminal justice learning. A survey of criminology students in a victimology course suggests most are supportive of trigger warnings, saying that it helped prepare them mentally to engage with difficult materials (Cares, A., Franklin, C., Fisher, B. & Bostaph, L., 2019). Students were equally likely to be supportive whether they identified as a crime victim or not. The same study suggests these warnings are best used to start courses and more selectively thereafter, rather than on a frequent basis.

The real-world impact of criminal justice systems is what attracts students to the field and we shouldn’t let difficult discussions hinder learning. Awareness and respect go a long way towards making students feel comfortable with challenging material. Instructors who want to facilitate learning should strive to be sensitive to the experiences brought to the classroom.


Cares, A. C., Franklin, C. A., Fisher, B. S., & Bostaph, L. G. (2019). “They Were There for People Who Needed Them”: Student Attitudes Toward the Use of Trigger Warnings in Victimology Classrooms. Journal of criminal justice education, 30(1), 22-45.

Eren, C. P., Leyro, S., & Disha, I. (2019). It’s Personal: The Impact of Victimization on Motivations and Career Interests Among Criminal Justice Majors at Diverse Urban Colleges. Journal of criminal justice education, 30(4), 510-535.

Payne, B. K., & Gainey, R. R. (2003). Understanding and developing controversial issues in college courses. College Teaching, 51(2), 52-60.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 6th, 2020.