Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education“Civil Discourse Under Fire” You probably won’t see the above words as a headline in your morning newspaper any time soon, but it’s happening nonetheless. Civil discourse seems to be in trouble. The art of respectful argument and the effort to find mutual solutions seem to be losing ground. Our public debates on critical issues are filled with sound bites instead of substance, and our popular culture seems motivated more by the desire to dominate and win than by the commitment to learn, understand, seek common ground, or persuade. There’s trouble in the Academy too. Faculty members are challenged for bringing gender, religion, science, or politics into their classrooms. Students find themselves marginalized or even attacked for their world views or religious beliefs. Outbursts that aren’t managed effectively can leave students feeling threatened and faculty feeling out of control, turning class discussions into emotionally or spiritually destructive experiences instead of the learning experiences they are meant to be. Civil discourse is the cornerstone of the university experience, and our classrooms and laboratories are ideal venues for teaching it. As standard practice, we challenge our assumptions, question what we know, and seek new understanding rather than rigidly defending what we have developed in the past. In this process of inquiry, we rely on critical thinking, inclusiveness, tolerance, and respect to create new knowledge and reframe old tenets to the emerging world. Universities show students how to transcend the boundaries of their own perceptions, and engage respectfully with new ideas. Now, as ever, this may be higher education’s most important role. Now is the time, and our campuses are the place, to rebuild a culture of civil discourse.
Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher EducationIt was the end of spring semester here in Anchorage, Alaska. The snow was gone in all but the shadiest of places, but the trees were not yet in leaf, and a brown dust blew lightly over the still winter-flattened earth. It was a season of endings and beginnings. Finals were over, grades turned in, robes donned, commencement hats flung. Summer was on its way. Just before the faculty went off contract and scattered to the mid-May winds, we held the last meeting of our Ford Foundation-sponsored Difficult Dialogues project. We’d been working together for the past two years on strategies for engaging controversial topics in the classroom, including those especially difficult ones involving race, culture, and ethnicity. Everyone was exhausted: the sixteen faculty members around the table, the organizers and facilitators, the Ford Foundation representatives who had flown through the night to get here. Even the coffee pot was only half awake. We had this one last thing to do, and then we could all go home. We went around the room, each faculty member making a final report on what he or she had tried in the classroom and how it had gone. Some of the stories were exciting; others less so. But still the voices continued. Around two in the afternoon, we took a break, and the Ford Foundation evaluators asked to see our leadership team alone for a few final comments and questions. They told us they had seen enough. It was clear we had done what we said we’d done, had the effects on faculty that we had claimed. They were satisfied. Our project was one of the successful ones. We passed. It would have made a nice ending. But then, as everyone was just starting to relax, the Ford Foundation’s assessment expert leaned forward and said, “OK, off the record, what do you think you really accomplished here?” There was a moment of silence. The Vice Provost looked at the Psychology professor, the faculty development leader exchanged glances with both of them. Who would say what they all were thinking? It was Libby who broke the silence. Taking a deep breath, she said “I think, for the first time ever, we’re ready to begin.”