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​Lunch Discussions Focus on Improving Civil Discourse

August 31, 2018

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As part of efforts to reinforce the importance of civil discourse on campus, Math Professor Dr. Betseygail Rand is leading several discussions throughout the academic year. With around 30 faculty and staff members in attendance for the first meeting, there’s clear indication of an interest to discuss how we address difficult topics like politics, race, gender, and sexuality in productive ways.

Although Rand admitted she rarely deals with tough topics in math classes, that made her think about how her colleagues who do encounter them deal with the situations and find common ground. One recurring idea shared at the meeting was that we should recognize and acknowledge other people’s views to successfully maintain civility.

“Dr. Pam Johnston proposed that the standard for civil discussions might be that you understand the other person’s perspective, not agree with them, and yet be able to paraphrase it fairly back to the other person,” Rand said. “Another person added ‘And being able to articulate what you believe and why.’ I think that together, those make a nice set of skills for civility. As students wrestle with issues arising from these divisive times nationally, it’s important that we teach and model how to have productive, bridging conversations between people who disagree – as long as both parties are willing to enter into a good faith conversation.”

Another common thought centered around how having civil discourse on college campuses is actually quite challenging for a variety of reasons.

“Faculty and staff are often not comfortable with difficult conversations and/or conflict, so we tend to steer clear of it rather than engaging it and building our skills in this area,” Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Debbie Cottrell said. “As we heard at the discussion, all of us (students, faculty, staff) view ‘passionate engagement’ in differing ways. To some, this is a sign of strength and defense of values. To others, it can seem out of line and over-heated.”

Cottrell also pointed out that academic freedom and freedom of speech can be factors. While that wasn’t a topic at the first lunch meeting, it’s a prominent theme across college campuses.

“To some, these concepts suggest very few limits on what is or is not appropriate,” she said. “To others, it’s not that wide open. Campuses have to navigate those lines, and it can be tricky. At the Diversity Institute we read a chapter called ‘The New Censorship’ from a book called ‘Free Speech on Campus.’ The first line of the chapter is, ‘where should we draw the line between protecting free speech on college campuses and protecting an inclusive learning environment?’—which goes right to the heart of the challenge.”

As universities across the nation continue to address issues like civil discourse, effect vs. intent, empathy, and self-regulation, Cottrell agrees that the way to get started is to sit down and actually start talking about things.

“To me, the best way to navigate through all this is to talk about it, practice it, and engage with students on it in a variety of ways both in and outside the classroom,” she said. “Our lunch discussions are a step in that direction.”

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