Shannon Burton, Michigan State University
Higher education professionals have come to recognize that our students are an amalgamation of their family structures, race and ethnicity, gender, religions, and educational experiences. As students converge upon our campuses, they are challenged to confront their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in new ways through coursework, the people they meet, and the extra-curricular opportunities in which they engage. Advisors hope to create environments where students feel safe sharing their views on coursework and their activities, but we realize that the comments students make can be positive, negative, or sometimes even inappropriate.
How should advisors engage students in deeper discussions when we hear comments about an experience that borders on incivility? What can we do to help students begin to develop healthy means to discuss experiences? Academic advisors can help students put their views and experiences into perspective when we teach students to maintain discussions that support, rather than undermine, societal good in the academic environment. While it may be difficult even for advisors to reflect upon controversial topics, there are strategies we can use to manage civil discourse. To facilitate appropriately, advisors must examine our perspectives on societal issues first.
Once advisors set the above parameters, we can use the following strategies to help engage students.
Civil Discourse Strategies (Landis, 2008):
1. The Five Minute Rule (Landis, p. 109):
Ask students to consider opposing viewpoints for a few moments. Have them reflect on the following questions:
Students should only think positively about the opposing viewpoint at this time. This strategy allows students to try on a less popular view and entertain it respectfully for a short time.
2. Reframe the Discussion (Landis, p. 154):
This strategy provides a means to uncover the hidden historical, social, and political aspects of a position. Advisors should help students identify the experiences informing their perspective and help them reflect upon the following questions:
3. Shared Writing (Landis, p. 199):
Personal journals are effective and safe spaces for students to consider and develop their ideas about controversial topics before engaging in dialogue with others. Encourage students who have difficulty expressing themselves to write in their journals every day. Ask students if they are willing to share their journals so we can help them think through issues in constructive ways.
These are three ways to engage students in deeper discussions about their thoughts. These strategies offer examples of how advisors can help students reframe discussions in healthy ways and engage in dialogues on controversial topics both inside and outside the classroom. Other strategies exist for classrooms and group environments.
Whichever strategies are used, advisors should make certain that we have prepared carefully. We should know what we think and why we think that way. We should be prepared for our instinctive reactions and know how to control for them. As advisors we must have the courage to make mistakes. We must be humble enough to stand corrected and apologize when necessary. Engaging students in deeper conversations is not easy, but our efforts can move students forward to lifelong learning.
Shannon Lynn Burton
School of Criminal Justice
Michigan State University
Landis, K. (Ed.) (2008). Start talking: A handbook for engaging difficult dialogues in higher education. Anchorage, AK: University Press.
Teaching Tolerance. Founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance is dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation's children. www.tolerance.org
National Issues Forum. This non-partisan network of educational and community organizations promotes the debate of current issues. www.nifi.org
Choices for the 21st Century. Choices is a project of the Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University that has created 15 units on contemporary and historical U.S. foreign policy issues.www.choices.edu
Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center. This center is dedicated to promoting civic engagement, academic freedom and pluralism in higher education. www.difficultdialogues.org
For Further Reading
Andrews, R. (1994). Democracy and the teaching of argument. The English Journal, 83,(6), 62-69.
Barber, B.R. (1989). Public talk and civic action: Education for participation in a strong democracy. Social Education, 53(6). 355-370.
Evans, R. W. and Saxe, D.W. (Eds.). (1996). On teaching social issues. National Council for the Social Studies Bulletin 93. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies.
Parker, W. C. (Ed.). (2002). Education for democracy, contexts, curricula, assessments. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.