Book by Robert J. Nash, DeMethra LaSha Bradley, & Arthur W. Chickering
Review by Jill Wagner
Academic Advisor, College of Arts and Letters
Eastern Washington University

Traditionally, the university culture does not foster conversation so much as it encourages debate. Nash, Bradley, and Chickering suggest that inviting students, faculty, and staff to formulate their position on controversial topics leads most often to contestation, that is, a kind of discussion that pits one person against another. While creating venues to address volatile topics is incumbent upon institutions of higher education, the authors maintain that the more thoughtful and humane method to hold these discussions is by practicing moral conversation. In How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus: From Polarization to Moral Conversation, the technique is defined as similar to dialogue, which is “an open and frank talking together in order to seek mutual understanding and harmony” (p. 5). 

The opening chapters of this book delve thoroughly into the meaning of moral conversation, acknowledging that most readers are not likely to have ever practiced it or attempted to lead a group using the techniques. The most compelling section is written by Nash, a faculty member who uses examples of moral conversations held in his classroom, particularly around religious diversity, one of the hottest topics on U.S. campuses. Nash offers step-by-step tips for holding this kind of discussion and notes that moral conversation is about willingness to listen wholeheartedly and practice empathy. If speakers in a moral conversation want to challenge someone’s point of view, it ought to be done “in a humble and nonviolent manner” (p. 31). Alongside topics surrounding religion, moral conversation is ideally suited to address issues surrounding race, class, sexual orientation, and politics. 

Bradley writes from an administrator’s perspective, specifically from within the division of student affairs. Suggestions for how to start moral conversation among colleagues (rather than students) are practical and realistic. Start with small issues, practice frequently, and solicit feedback, she suggests. Both Bradley and Nash could come across as idealistic and overly enamored with moral conversation except for the fact that they allow it is difficult and may not always go smoothly. “For one, talking and interacting with one another does not ensure that action to correct injustices will occur” (p. 32). 

The latter half of the book falls a bit flat, perhaps because it is difficult to understand Chickering’s implementation of moral conversation from the position of a senior administrator. For academic advisors, in their workaday lives, the opportunity or need to hold moral conversations may not be immediately apparent. However, some of the details in the book about listening and creating a safe place for students to talk are eminently usable in one-to-one sessions. 

How to Talk about Hot Topics on Campus: From Polarization to Moral Conversation. (2008). Book by Robert J. Nash, DeMethra LaSha Bradley, & Arthur W. Chickering. Review by Jill Wagner. San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals (Jossey-Bass), 288 pp. $38.00, (hardback). ISBN # 978-0-7879-9436-5
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