Tackling Difficult Dialogues on campus

DifficultDialoguesRace, religion, gun control, gay marriage, war. These are just a few of the many topics that can be considered sensitive and people feel the need to tread lightly when discussing them in a campus setting. Some just avoid controversial topics altogether in order to completely avoid any tension the conversation may cause. However, how can a society grow if they cannot talk about the issues surrounding them every day? This is what the Difficult Dialogues Initiative is meant to address.

The Difficult Dialogues Initiative (DDI) was started in 2005 by the Ford Foundation, a private foundation created by motor mogul Henry Ford in 1936. After 9/11, the foundation found that our culture was becoming increasingly intolerant of other cultures, and in order to address that as well as other topics of issue they proposed the DDI. The goal of the initiative was to promote religious, cultural, political pluralism and academic freedom on campuses. They wanted to give professors and students the ability to talk about sensitive topics in an educational setting without the fear of being lashed out at or punished for specific thoughts and opinions, as long as they followed some guidelines.

The response was positive, with over 700 universities vying for funding, but the foundation only had enough for 26. Among them UAA/APU was selected. Libby Roderick, the Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence (CAFÉ) associate director undertook the mission to create an ideal environment on campus for difficult dialogues to take place.

“A purpose of the university is to ensure that we have leaders and citizens who can intelligently support and engage in a Democracy,” said Roderick. “We try very hard at the university level to help students develop critical thinking skills, to learn how to respectfully entertain different viewpoints, perspectives, opinions.”

Roderick went on to describe how the program was meant to allow professors who wanted to discuss sensitive topics in their class a gateway to presenting the information and then facilitating discussions among students. The topics were allowed to be sensitive as long as they were relevant to the subject matter of the class.  To be able to get this started, they needed to set up a new program.

Taking the funds from the Ford Foundation, UAA began to implement its own mission to improve difficult dialogues on campus. The funds were divided into several components; establishing the books of the year program, having week-long faculty development seminars, having professors utilize their training within their classes, and finally creating a field manual that the professors helped create by providing feedback from their classes.

The books of the year program is meant to select a difficult topic theme, pick books with that theme, and promote the reading of books in classes and establishing a conversation about the content. The theme for the 2013-15 years is “Information, Ideas, Ideology: Shaping your reality.” The books that follow that theme are “The Influencing Machine” by Brooke Gladstone and “Escape from Camp 14” by Blaine Harden.

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“I first read one of the books of the year in class, Mountains Beyond Mountains,” said psychology junior Mark Chester. “At first I didn’t know what to think but after getting into a discussion and really interpreting the message of the book I could understand it and view it objectively.”
A facilitated discussion in the classroom is a start to getting students comfortable with talking about sensitive topics and seeing them as possibilities rather than hindrances.

“I read the books every year now,” said Chester.

Professors from dozens of different disciplines volunteered to attend the week-long development seminar. They then took what they learned and worked to push constructive dialogue within their classes. Some like Deborah Periman, associate professor in the justice center, garnered promising results.

“The goal in implementing difficult dialogues strategies in the classroom is to create a forum in which discussion of controversial topics is encouraged, and is facilitated in such a way that both students and instructor reach a deeper understanding of differing perspectives on a given issue,” said Periman.

In honor of Alaska Civil Rights Day she addressed the aspect of civil rights in her courses. She also participated in an Engaging Controversy project. She found that ‘in addition to generating highly successful dialogue, this exercise had a positive effect on student engagement with civil rights issues throughout the semester.’

Other professors, like Joy Mapaye a professor in the Journalism and Public Communications department, found that some students were so adverse to topics that they responded by calling it “Nothing more than Left-Wing Horseshit” and saying that the professor had a left-wing bias by making them read certain materials for discussion. She explained her disconcerting feelings after that email confrontation in the Start Talking handbook. She also examined the steps she took to calm the issue so that future professors in a similar situation can look to it for guidelines.

Professors learn to take these opinions in stride and do what they can to dissolve the flame before the issue escalates. Not everyone will agree on a topic, but the goal is to help students learn to disagree but disagree with respect for others opinions.

“Talking about every day issues like the war in Iraq or the debate on gay marriage should be openly talked about,” said Jackie Liu, a geology sophomore. “That way those that aren’t informed can know more, and those with opinions can have them heard without being flattened by a steamroller of opposing views.”

Roderick encourages students that want to discuss difficult topics in their classes to consult with their professor to be able to establish a good repertoire in an educational environment. Roderick believes that whether it be starting an online forum discussion on Blackboard or sitting in a circle in class, taking a chance will be what helps make the change and allow our society to be more accepting of discussing difficult dialogues.

“People really are eager to learn how do we do this in a way that allows us to retain our dignity and yet hear each other out, learn from each other, and move forward together,” Roderick said.