Eastern New Mexico University
Sarah Buie is Director of the Higgins School of Humanities and Professor of graphic design at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is co-director of the Difficult Dialogues project there, which is jointly sponsored by the Higgins School of Humanities and the International Development, Community and Environment program at Clark.
1. What exactly is your program "Difficult Dialogues "all about?
We responded to an initiative from the Ford Foundation issued in April 2005, asking for proposals from all institutions of higher education across the country. Applicants were asked to address the increasingly polarization around difficult issues (especially those reflecting differences in race, religion, class, politics) in our culture and on our campuses, as well as threats to academic freedom Ford had learned of from a number of college presidents.
We saw the initiative as an opportunity to work on one of the most significant concerns of our time – what I would call our collective inability to address and communicate with each other honestly and constructively about the challenges we face, our common concerns as well as those about which we differ. Our proposal spoke to the silences we found around difficult issues on our largely "progressive" campus. We found that people, faculty and students like, often avoid dealing with issues that might be controversial, and as such, we were probably a microcosm of much of our culture. Disengagement, indifference, political correctness, fear – all figure somewhere. We want to see if we can shift the campus culture a bit, toward an increase of dialogue and responsible engagement around difficult issues.
I should mention that the other projects Ford funded in this initiative take up the issues in different ways – your readers may wish to look at the national project website www.difficultdialogues.org to get a sense of the range.
2) Who started it, and when did it start?
As I said, we – the Higgins School and IDCE together – answered a call from the Ford Foundation. A group of about ten faculty across a number of disciplines met to create the original proposal – a larger group of sixteen worked on the final proposal. We heard that we had received funding (we were selected as one of 27 projects out of a field of more than 700) in early December 2005. Our official project period is September 2006 through December 2007. We held a series of launch events as a kickoff in November 2006.
3) What is your "mission statement "if you will and how are you evaluating this program?
Our mission statement is: Difficult Dialogues is about creating a culture of dialogue on campus in which the practice of dialogue is recognized, appreciated and practiced both inside and outside the classroom. We hope to do this by 1) building skills of dialogue among a sizeable number of faculty, staff and students; 2) creating opportunities for the community to engage in dialogue around significant and controversial issues common to us all; and 3) integrating dialogue into a number of academic courses across the curriculum, thus ensuring its continued practice.
Our evaluation process involves an ongoing series of interviews with a set of people across the University, as well as a set of surveys in all Difficult Dialogues courses.
4) What kinds of topics are addressed in "difficult dialogues"?
Our initial emphasis in the first semester of our program was on dialogue itself, developing skills of dialogue among a number of our faculty in a faculty development process with outstanding facilitators, and opening up the concept of dialogue to the community as a whole in a series of launch events. In this next year of the program (2007), we are turning to four specific topics around which to encourage dialogue, in four month-long symposia. These are the state of our democracy, race and ethnicity, religion and religious difference, and finally, the broad topic of power.
5) Do you find your instructors have a difficult time addressing the difficult issues?
Our faculty is, of course, very diverse in their approaches – it is hard to generalize about their experiences. We know that a number of us have been hesitant or felt we lacked skills when it came to conversations in class around politics, race or religion, and had experienced challenges in the past. Certainly a number of us wanted to see a higher level of consciousness about the quality of our classroom conversations, and the ability for all voices to be heard, and feel safe.
6) What are some of these "difficult issues"?
We are creating opportunities for our community to take up a number of controversial topics. For example, at one of our launch events we considered the issue of abortion – with a forum of the six Boston women leaders representing both sides of the issue, along with the facilitators from the Public Conversations Project, to share with us the process of dialogue they experienced over six years of secret meetings. In our current symposium, we raise questions about the health of our democratic system, our voting system, the basis of our economy, the need for strengthening our skills in deliberative democracy. We will turn to questions of race, whiteness, ethnic difference, in our second symposium, and in faculty workshops. Dialogue circles after these events will give people a chance to have more conscious conversations about the issues that have been raised.
We are open to creating dialogues around issues that arise on campus as well.... so far, our main forum for that has been the project itself, which has it's own stream of ongoing dialogue, some of it difficult! For example, it is not easy or always safe for a research faculty to take the time to focus on these kinds of cultural issues – reward systems in the contemporary academy are not structured around this kind of concern. We have been fortunate in the number of faculty who have pursued this project with us, but it has not been without its stresses.
7) What is the student reaction to talking about what you term "difficult dialogues"?
We have a lot more to find out about student responses, as these conversations are just beginning. We have had a lot of interest on the part of the students in the project, and we have over two hundred students enrolled in courses with a "difficult dialogues" designation, so we will be finding out a great deal more about how they think about all of this.
8) How much "critical thinking " or " higher order thinking" is going on?
Do you mean in dialogue, or in our project as a whole? Perhaps you have the sense that dialogue may be in some way different than critical thinking. I would say that dialogue can well encompass critical thinking, but is in fact more comprehensive. Dialogue involves bringing your whole person to an exchange, not your critical faculties alone. It involves being open to hearing other views, and granting the other respect. It involves being honest and speaking with your heart as well as your mind. It includes making your points, but is not about winning or losing (as is debate). I find it a demanding practice, which involves all aspects of our awareness, including critical thinking. Our powers of critical thought may be enhanced through dialogue; creativity and other ways of knowing, including the emergence of collective wisdom, are also enhanced.
9) Do you have a web site where interested others can get more information?
Yes, I hope people will visit the site (www.clarku.edu/difficultdialogues if they'd like more specifics, as well as a feel for how we've built the project. We have tried to make our website a good resource for people who are interested in learning more about this whole topic, with links to people and projects working in related areas all over the country.
10) What are the fifteen specific courses that focus on difficult dialogs?
Our DD courses this semester range across disciplines, and have a "dialogue emphasis" for a variety of reasons. Faculty will be emphasizing dialogue as a process in the course, will consider content related to dialogue (i.e. deliberative democracy), or both. For example, for a Personal Values course in the Philosophy Department, the faculty member is dealing with dialogue in its content, and consciously creating dialogue in the classroom. Other disciplines in which courses are being taught include English, theatre, international development, screen studies, graphic design, political science, and management, among others. Another group of different courses will be given next fall, as we continue to grow the listing with this emphasis.
11) How are you going to assess the program? Pre and post test scores?
As I said earlier, we are doing an extensive series of interviews with a set of people representing the various constituencies on campus. We are also doing surveys with the students in DD courses, near the beginning and at the end of the course, to see how a semester with exposure to these practices and opportunities for dialogue has altered their experience and understanding of it.
12) How are you going to evaluate out of class "difficult dialogue" discussions around campus?
We don't have a plan for that – do you have any ideas?
13) What "difficult dialogue" question have I neglected to ask?
I heard someone say recently that our colleges and universities are our last best hope for sustaining the values of a pluralistic society, and for modeling them. I think this observation hinges on the notion that we as educators are interested in the larger meaning of what we do together, in the nurture of our students in their quests for purposeful lives, and the overall health of the culture and the democracy in which we live. Given the cultural norms of avoidance I mentioned earlier, as well as career pressures on academics and economic pressures on young people to conform, I sense that some of these higher purposes of the academy have been significantly undermined. The DD question one might ask is – if we seek to encourage a higher level of honest and respectful discourse among ourselves on our deepest concerns, can we better fulfill these higher purposes? What would that make possible that is not possible now?
My answer would be – is there some better thing to be doing?
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