Whatever your feelings about the recent election, we can probably agree that conversations among people of differing perspectives have grown more difficult. Such conversations have never have been easy, but the recent election cycle seems to have inspired more yelling, less listening, and a lot of anxiety. While universities have been some of the increasingly few places where open and evidence-based dialogue is still valued and supported, such a polarized politicized atmosphere can tend to make students (and possibly even faculty) feel fearful about engaging in the open dialogue necessary to effective teaching or learning. This can render our jobs as faculty all the more challenging. My hope is that we can use this moment as inspiration for improving our game.
Universities serve two very important functions that are needed more than ever in what is commonly being referred to as a “post-truth” era. The role universities play in developing and curating knowledge based on evidence needs to be shared more broadly and clearly than ever. And creating spaces and practices for supporting productive dialogue across our differences just became exponentially more important to this country’s experiment in relative human freedom—a pluralist democracy.
Facts matter. Most people understand this in their day-to-day lives in a physical way, but the echo chambers of the media stew most of us live in tend to reinforce our own sensibilities at the expense of facts. More times than I would like to admit I have come within seconds of sending around a piece of “news” that supported my sense of the world or fueled my anger, but turned out to be false, or only partially true. Most of the time I search out evidence, but to my chagrin, over the years I have failed a handful of times and had friends call me out. I am grateful to have friends who keep me honest, as I do for them, but too many of us are not in the habit of checking our sources. If it supports our world view, too often we just assume it must be true.
Fostering Media Literacy
Given the rates of false news shared on Facebook alone, it would be difficult to claim and harder to prove that these have no impact on elections. There is plenty of evidence that stories from people close to us affect our feelings about the world and people’s feelings affect how they vote. If, as many now claim, what lost in this election is our desire for facts, then we have some serious work cut out for us. On this score, I encourage all faculty to help students in ways appropriate to your discipline to sort through the endless stream of “information” sent our way each day. Basic media literacy is one step in the right direction. There are even apps to help. Perhaps we could create projects for students to improve on these.
Active learning opportunities abound from editing Wikipedia as a class project (an assignment I have used in my classes) to research projects on specific forms of news. Scientists have been stepping up on this in a big way on Twitter in response to “post-truth” attacks on science. We can make investigation a more prominent part of the scaffolding that we do for research. We also need to work with students and media organizations to demand the kind of investigative news reporting necessary to supporting the evidence-based culture imperative to any real governing by and for the people.
Untangling Feelings, Beliefs, and Evidence
Just as important as having access to accurate information is our ability to discuss what that information means to us with each other. In public colleges and universities, especially those serving first-generation and underserved populations, our classrooms may well seat DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students next to ardent Trump supporters. If we can help them hear and better understand each other, and engage in more productive dialogue, then we create a greater possibility of real dialogue happening in the larger political context. We need to help students and our communities to acknowledge the facts of our own and other people’s feelings. We need to help them understand more clearly how this may well differ from facts based on evidence. How to distinguish feelings from beliefs and beliefs from evidence needs to be practiced more transparently and encouraged in every possible context.
Judging from faculty discussions since the election, rancor over the outcome has made the classroom a more challenging place than ever. Discussing issues of race, gender, sexuality, and/or class for example, has always brought up contentious feelings. But teaching these in a context in which violence is being encouraged could be seriously dangerous for faculty and students. And with faculty being publically targeted for being “un-American” because they teach materials, no matter how well-documented, that counter some people’s cherished beliefs—what’s a professor to do?
4 Tips for Facilitating Difficult Conversations
Here are some very basic practices that I and others have found useful in opening up conversation in tense environments.
Assess the context.
Who is in the room? Why are they each there? What is your purpose/role? What purposes/roles do others have? The clearer you can be about this, the more likely you will be able to effectively facilitate discussion. Easy ways to get at this include first day check ins—preferably anonymous. Polleverywhere can be quite useful in doing this. This way you can address what you are likely to be able to do and note where there are disconnections between desired purposes or roles. This way expectations are clearly laid out for everyone.
Make personal connections
Help students get to know each other and you from the very start. There are many creative ways to “break the ice,” but the more that we engage personally with each other, the more likely we tend to be to listen to each other
Develop agreements for engagement.
If we agree ahead of time to the ways we will engage with each other, then the facilitator’s role is one of reminding the group of its own agreements or helping them renegotiate them rather than as a top-down enforcer. Of course, as the instructor, you have your own part to play in developing these agreements. There are many standard lists or suggestions for these, though they are best developed by and with the group. My own favorite for most contexts in which I want people to speak as freely and respectfully as possible is the “ouch” rule. Anyone can call out “ouch” at any time on their own behalf or someone else’s and my job then becomes opening a conversation in which we imagine together why anyone might call “ouch.” This can be done in a way that is pedagogically quite engaging. The very few times that I have had someone make use of this rule the call-out helped us to dig into the materials we were discussing. Student understanding of the material was much deeper than it likely would have been otherwise due to the emotional resonance created. Revisit agreements any time you think it might be useful.
Become familiar with the basics steps of heating up and cooling down discussions.
Oftentimes, because classroom situations can seem overly tame, we work to heat up conversations by asking students to take sides or encouraging them to express their own viewpoints. These tools can be used strategically even in tense situations, especially if students are asked to take a position that they feel to be opposing their own. But tools for cooling down conversations are just as important. Another related agreement I like to establish from the start is to take nothing anyone else says personally before engaging in intellectually curious exploration of what the person actually meant. So, for example, if I sense that some people in the room might be offended or feel threatened by something said, but feel too uncomfortable to ask for clarification, I step in by asking something like, “can you help us better understand what you mean by X?” Doing so encourages the person speaking to better explain their thinking to themselves and others, but it also models the way for classmates to step back into their roles as intellectually curious interlocutors.
These are just a few basic facilitation practices that are extremely useful in the classroom and can be very high-impact pedagogically as well. We will be holding more workshops at CI in the spring for creatively engaging this moment in our classrooms. In the meantime, here are some additional resources. Please feel free to contact me if you have ideas for faculty workshops you’d like to see happen next spring or have syllabus development ideas you’d like to explore.