Tag Archives: higher education

Summer Reading Series: How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the eighth entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here

Title:  How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus: From Polarization to Moral Conversation (published 2008; $45; available for purchase HERE). 

Authors: Robert J. Nash, DeMethra LaSha Bradley, and Arthur W. Chickering

Context of Creation: The three authors, who represent a classroom professor, a student affairs administrator, and a senior administrator, are responding both to the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues: Promoting Pluralism and Academic Freedom on Campus call for proposals and the Wingspread Declaration on Religion and Public Life: Engaging Higher Education. They are also writing during the first decade after September 11, 2001 and reference the particular urgency around religious literacy, in particular, relevant to that moment. Overall, while they suggest that moral conversation is a useful framework for all manner of difficult dialogues, they focus on religion, social class, and politics as “underrepresented” topics in campus and classroom conversation (20). The authors reference intergroup (i.e. intercultural) and interfaith dialogue projects as related but different pursuits to moral conversation, whose basic purpose is “aimed at the tireless support of the other person’s flourishing” (9) through a dialogue based around mutual sharing of personal stories, affirmative forms of critique and challenge, and a willingness to doubt the self and suspend judgment for the other. Nash has been a professor in the University of Vermont’s College of Education and Social Services for nearly 50 years. Bradley is currently Acting Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Macalester College; at the time of writing, she was an assistant director for student integrity at UVM and pursuing her doctorate in education at UVM. The late Arthur W. Chickering was Special Assistant to the President of Goddard College at the time of writing.

Context of Reception: I started reading How to Talk About Hot Topics while drinking a Bloody Mary on a deck overlooking the Medina River at a beautiful house at which friends invited us to come stay a night with them, one week before my family was scheduled to move across the country. I believe these combined factors contributed to my sense of bemusement, which in another mood might have been impatience, as I read the initial two chapters, which are devoted to the theory of moral conversation and its potential to foster pluralism. I read sentences like “Moral conversation begins with an assumption that there is nothing inherently erroneous or immoral about any initial presumption of truth” (8) and “Success is measured by how well each of us is able to make the other person look good” (21) with an incredulous smile. I deeply wanted some illustrative pedagogical anecdotes or further qualification to dam up the instant waterfall of “but what about”s that flowed over me, but it was up to me to imagine, with generosity and patience, how these statements could mean something something other than “Indulge, patronize, and flatter participants at any cost.” It seems, though, that the imaginative labor of suspended judgment is part of the point of moral conversation, and as such I gave it my best effort. I found the book to be full of pat aphorisms like “Engage, don’t enrage,” “Be curious, not furious,” and “Turn down the volume and turn up the sensitivity” (52-53) but lacking (save an appendix at the very end) a clear set of guidelines regarding what, precisely, a moral conversation (or what “engaging, not enraging,” etc) might look like and how one might teach or facilitate it. As I moved into the Part II chapters on practice, I found more substance to sink my teeth into. Ultimately, however, despite the book’s “how-to” title, I find it a more effective defense of the necessity of moral conversations, particularly around religion and social class, than a manual.

Overview of Structure and Content: How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus is divided into three parts. Part I, which presents a single authorial voice attributed to all three authors, is comprised of two chapters that explicate the meaning and value of moral conversation, the meaning and value of pluralism, and the relationship between the two. The three chapters of Part III are each written by one of the three authors and focus on one of three major topics that the authors argue are underrepresented in dialogue on college campuses (in comparison to race, gender, and sexuality). They also each focus on a different dialogic arena on campus. Thus Nash’s chapter focuses on moral conversation around religious difference in the classroom, Bradley’s chapter focuses on moral conversation around social class identity in co-curricular spaces under the purview of student affairs, and Chickering’s chapters focuses on moral conversation around political beliefs on the level of upper administration. Part III presents “final words” in the form of opportunities, risks, and caveats for moral conversation and is followed by a series of appendices, including, most usefully, “A Step-by-Step Guide for Facilitators and Participants When Doing Moral Conversation.” 

Three Thought-Starters for Teachers, with Resources: 


“Educators must remain committed to the paradoxical principle that the very best way to help all parties on college campuses deal intelligently with dissent and compromise is to expose conversationalists to as much intense, divergent belief as possible. This includes those intolerant belief systems that, on principle, forbid compromise and dissent” (45).

“Every [steadfast, unwavering conviction] actually conceals a profound truth for the believer. A commitment to intellectual pluralism demands that we make an all-out effort to identify this potential profound truth before we launch into a critique of its downsides, no matter how valid and necessary this critique might be” (48). 

  • What is your gut reaction to these ideas? Do you subscribe to “know thine enemy” principles? If so, for what ultimate purpose (i.e. “knowing” in order to refute, to understand, to discover common humanity, to cultivate love, etc…)? If not, what might be the value of exposing students to viewpoints you personally believe to be abhorrent? What is the danger? 
  • What are instances or belief (system)s that come to mind that challenge your willingness to accept these statements as true? 
  • What are instances or belief (system)s that come to mind that might support your willingness to accept these statements as true (if only under specific conditions/regarding certain topics)? 

I have updated the “Models of Dialogue” graphic that I initially created upon reading Creating Space for Democracy to include a snapshot overview of the defining elements, goals, and origins of moral conversation as a framework for dialogic pedagogy, including the facilitator’s role and sample materials that illustrate the approach. It is now titled “8 Models of Dialogue” — access a PDF version HERE or a digital version HERE

I have also reproduced Appendix A, “A Step-by-Step How-To Guide for Facilitators and Participants When Doing Moral Conversation,” from How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus, HERE. (It is also linked as the sample material within the “8 Models of Dialogue” graphic, above.) 

Religious Difference 

“No longer [can] we, as professors and campus leaders, afford merely to intellectualize religious and spiritual differences in a bemused, dismissive, or detached manner; or to adopt a folkloric approach with students wherein we do some superficial ceremonial ‘sharing’; or to mention this content in passing, if we bother to do so at all. . . . We no longer have the luxury of thinking about religion as merely a private affair. . . . We must learn to deal with the phenomenon of religious pluralism with openness, respect, and critical understanding, or all our unexamined religious stereotypes could very well kill us. . . . Religious illiteracy in today’s global community is simply unacceptable” (Nash, 72). 

  • What is your response to Nash’s argument for including discussion of religious and spiritual beliefs in the college classroom? 
  • Imagine a variety of disciplines assumed to be widely different from one another (e.g. biology; architecture; nursing; literature; computer science; finance). In what ways is open classroom conversation regarding students’ various spiritual and philosophical belief systems relevant to each of these different disciplines? 
  • Do you have a sense of what belief systems are represented by students in your classroom? Of what proportion of your students are religious believers versus nonreligious? Have you ever invited conversation regarding how your students’ belief systems influence their approach to your subject or course topic? Has it come up without invitation? — if so, what happened, and how did you respond? 

On the basis of two decades of teaching a dialogue-driven course on religious pluralism to students of education, Nash explicates a typology of the “8 Kinds of Believers Likely to Appear in the College Classroom” — which I have summarized in this graphic (access a PDF HERE, or a digital version HERE). 

Nash writes, “I hold that we are more likely to get college students from a variety of religious backgrounds to open up publicly about their guiding beliefs when we are able to de-emphasize the revelational, doctrinal, and corporate-institutional elements of religion in favor of the aesthetic and the poetic, the philosophical and the literary. I make the case to my students that the best way to approach conversations about religious beliefs is to understand them as compelling and useful narratives that people have constructed for thousands of years in order to explain life’s tragic anomalies as well as its gratuitous gifts of grace” (82). 

In accordance with the narrativistic, story-driven ethos of moral conversation, an instructor might share the “8 Kinds of Believers” typology with students and ask them first to reflect and write some initial thoughts regarding where among these categories they might locate themselves as believers. Then, the instructor might invite students to share stories of how they came to be this kind of believer (or a hybrid kind, or another kind unrepresented in Nash’s typology). Some useful questions for this exercise, both during the reflection and writing portion as well as the dialogue portion, might be as follows, drawn from an earlier chapter by all three authors (p. 60): 

  • Do you think of your truth as an ‘it’? Or as a ‘process’? Or as a ‘personal preference’? Or as a ‘negotiated compromise’? Or as an ‘absolute’? Or as a ‘myth’?
  • How do you arrive at your truths in the first place? What makes a truth true for you? 
  • Is it ever possible to extricate your truths from the way you were raised, trained, and socialized, or is this impossible? 

Social Class Identity

“When, I ask, was the last time you openly confronted an issue that touched on social class? When was the last time you heard a classist comment? How did you react, if you reacted at all? If you have never heard these discriminatory comments or have never openly addressed an issue around social class with students, why do you think you have somehow escaped the omnipresent curse of classism? I ask these questions because for all of us to benefit from moral conversations about social class identity, prejudice, and privilege, we have to start with an awareness of where each of us stands on the issue of social class. There are days in my work where I wonder if we really know anything at all about this subject matter. Or worse, whether we really care” (Bradley, 105).

“Social class identities do not get addressed as deeply, or as openly, as other identities. Why is this? Have the negative connotations surround social class in the United States–where nobody is supposed to be any better than anyone else, regardless of their money, position, or education–contributed to its notoriety as a taboo topic? It is my opinion that as we look to make identity development a priority with our students, social class must become one of the primary identities that need further, deliberate exploration. This is going to be difficult” (Bradley, 111).

  • What are your responses to Bradley’s questions? 
  • How open are you with students not only about your social class background and current socioeconomic status, but also your feelings about your social class identity? For what reasons are you forthcoming or private, as the case may be? If you have chosen openness, what has been the result? If you have chosen not to share, what do you think the consequences of being more open with students might be? What are your fears about opening more personal dialogue about social class with students? 
  • How does class identity affect the ways students are able to access and engage with your content (either evidently, as you have observed, or hypothetically, as you might imagine)? Think about the material (e.g. access to a home computer) or logistical (e.g. ability to participate in unpaid internships), but consider also the affective dimension here: How might anxieties and fears around class impact your students inside your classroom and while engaging with you and your content? 

Bradley, following Nash, produces her own typology related to social class identity — and similar to the way in which Nash does not list out belief systems but rather characterizes different orientations to belief systems, Bradley does not list out class categories but rather enumerates “5 Common Attitudes towards Social Class Identity” that she has observed among college students. I have summarized these attitudes in a graphic (access a PDF HERE or a digital version HERE). 

Again, rather than attempting to categorize your students according to this typology, I suggest sharing this graphic with students and inviting reflection, writing, and storytelling around where they locate themselves among these attitudes. I believe that expanding the conversation from “What is your social class identity?” to “How do you navigate your social class identity? How do you feel about the way you navigate it? What are your anxieties related to class here at college and back home?” and similar questions is vastly more meaningful. This is not least because class categories such as “working-class,” “middle class,” “wealthy class” (much less “working poor,” “upper/lower middle class,” “blue-collar,” etc) and so on are nebulous, vague distinctions, and it can be very difficult, especially for students new to the conversation or new to a more heterogeneous class environment, to know where to locate oneself, or how to make meaning from such a label. 

Next Week . . . We will be reading Introduction to Intergroup Dialogues, edited by Stephanie Hicks (2021). Note that this is a change from the originally scheduled reading, which was to be Facilitating Intergroup Dialogues: Bridging Differences, Catalyzing Change (Maxwell, Nagda, and Thompson, 2011). While it comes out of the same Intergroup Relations initiative, this new text is a textbook for student facilitators and participants in intergroup dialogue rather than a faculty facilitators’ manual.

Summer Reading Series: Being the Change

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the seventh entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here

Title: Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension (published 2018; $25; available to purchase HERE)

Author: Sara K. Ahmed 

Context of Creation: The author is a K-12 educator who has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent (private), and international schools in the U.S. and abroad. She is currently a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand and has served on the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves. She wrote this book in order to help educators “create learning conditions where kids can ask the questions they want to ask, muddle through how to say the things they are thinking, and have tough conversations” about identity, ethics, unconscious bias, injustice, and violence (xxii). She defines “social comprehension” as the ability both to comprehend social issues “and participate in relevant, transparent conversations” about them in order to “make meaning from and mediate our relationship with the world” (xxv). 

Context of Reception: As a teacher who has worked in K-12 public school settings, adult education, and in the college classroom, I firmly and passionately believe that many of the pedagogies we think of as “for children” are equally appropriate and beneficial for older learners — high school, college, and beyond. As an ESL teacher in the U.S. and abroad, I have taught groups of children as young as four years old, groups of adults into their seventies, and virtually every age group in between. In my experience, adult learners respond just as well to playfulness, affirmation, collaboration with classmates, and scaffolded, differentiated learning structures as elementary-aged children do (and need them just as much). I wanted to include at least one text in this summer reading series that was geared at K-12 educators rather than higher-ed faculty, and I chose this one on a whim after having stumbled on it by chance in the course of some other internet search. I read the first couple chapters as the small plane I was in was preparing to lift off from West Yellowstone, Montana — felt immediately buoyed and excited by it — and then had to put it down to watch as stunningly beautiful views opened up outside my little window. The fact that I was literally soaring above a spectacular landscape for much of the time I was reading this book (as well as heading home well-rested and on a high from days of more intimate interaction with that same landscape) no doubt contributed to the figurative sense of soaring I experienced while reading it — but only partly. I found every single activity Ahmed described applicable to a college classroom, and the pitfalls and tensions she addresses are the same ones I’ve experienced in the course of dialogue facilitation with undergraduates and faculty. I will be referring back to this book again and again. 

Overview of Structure and Content: Ahmed has structured the book in five chapters, each dedicated to a core foundational concept for social comprehension: Exploring Our Identities, Listening with Love, Being Candid, Becoming Better Informed, and Finding Humanity in Ourselves and Others. Each chapter contains two to three scaffolded lesson plans related to the concept. In every lesson, in addition to a step-by-step plan, Ahmed also includes the lesson’s rationale and any relevant definitions; ideal moments at which to implement such a lesson; a range of suggested texts; sample student work; and an “Addressing Tensions” section at the end with suggestions for anticipating and responding to common points of friction. 

Every chapter is framed by an introductory section in which Ahmed shares her experiences, both personally and in the classroom, with the topic, referring often to her own identity as a child of Muslim Indian immigrants in the U.S. Every chapter ends with a short section entitled “Synthesis: Making Thinking Visible” with final thoughts to tie the lessons together. 

Resources for Teachers: 3 In-Depth Activities  

For the second week in a row, I am going to depart from the 3-2-1 structure. Instead, I’d like to offer a linked, scaffolded series of three activities, two of which are adapted for a higher-ed classroom from Ahmed’s activities and one of which is fully my own. These activities can each be done separately from the others, but are powerful as a sequential series and applicable across disciplines and topics. 

  • Lesson 1: Where We’re From (Identity Webs + “Where I’m From” poem) 

Ahmed defines identity webs as “personalized graphic tools that help us consider the many factors that shape who we are” (5). In her example, an identity web is a basic cloud diagram, where each person clusters different aspects of their identities around their name in the center of the page. Importantly, Ahmed does not differentiate between personal identities (e.g. “hard worker” or “creative” or “soccer player”) and social identities (e.g. ethnicity; class; disability; religion) for the purpose of this activity, which is to explore and affirm selfhood as well as build community in a group of learners. 

While we may often have students name and reflect on their identities in a college classroom, in my experience, we commonly focus exclusively on a prescribed list of major social identities, and exclusively through a privilege/oppression lens (for example, having students name their social identities and then reflect on the degree to which each major identity they possess confers privilege or disadvantage in social institutions and situations, as in this basic activity). This is absolutely a valuable exercise and conversation in which to engage students (preferably many times over and with increasing complexity and nuance). The “Fish Is Fish” activity, below, is in fact a version of such an exercise. 

However, I suggest that we run a few risks in focusing immediately and only on identity through the privilege/oppression lens. One is that we might inadvertently communicate to students that their various identities only matter or have meaning through this lens. Another is that we might unintentionally center Whiteness, maleness, able-bodiedness, and other privileged identities through this exercise, since a common assumption is that members of oppressed groups already know they are disadvantaged due to these identities, but it’s people who possess a lot of privilege who really “need” the exercise (and it’s their epiphany moments we are often striving for when we facilitate the activity). 

An identity web, combined with a “Where I’m From” write-alike poem that explores objects and details related to the writer’s identity, focuses first on the student’s own sense of who they are, both personally and socially. Ahmed presents identity webs and “Where I’m From” poems as two distinct lesson plans, but I think they can be combined into one for a college classroom, particularly since the poem can be done as homework. 

Where We’re From Lesson (50-60 minutes, or 20-30 minutes of in-class time + homework)

  • Introduce the concept of an identity web and model its creation by sharing your own identity web (you can have this prepared or do it in real-time; either way, perform a think-aloud so students can access your process of reflection). Make sure that your web is not just a simplistic list of your social identities but also includes personal identities related to your qualities, passions, and values. Not everything you include needs to be something you feel unequivocally “positive” about — and in fact, Ahmed stresses that it is helpful for students if you address aspects that you feel some sense of tension, friction, ambivalence, or conflict with. Ahmed notes that you can also model the right to assert privacy by, for example, including an aspect of your identity but declining to comment on it (“I’m not prepared to share about this one yet”). I’d add that you can also censor out an identity on your web with a black bar and let students know you included it for your own purposes but don’t want it to be public. You can see a version of Ahmed’s own identity web here. (5 minutes)
  • Have students make their own identity webs (5 minutes). Let them know that they can modify the format if they like (for example, a more visual web that includes sketches). 
  • Have students share their webs. Turn to a partner and present, or do a gallery walk in which webs are posted on the wall or to a digital whiteboard (like Padlet) and students can roam around, physically or virtually, checking out each other’s webs. Make it clear that students should not be critiquing or commenting on the contents of one another’s webs — just taking them in, and thanking each other for sharing. (5-10 min)
  • Discuss as a whole group the experience of making and sharing the webs: what students chose to include or not include, connections they discovered with others in the room, how it felt to share them, etc. You can also ask students when they last did something like this and why they think they are being asked to do this in a college classroom (5-10 min).
  • “Where I’m From” activity. This asks students to first take in 2-3 examples of others’ Where I’m From poems (5 minutes) and then write their own (10-15 minutes, or as homework). As the instructor, you should write your own version, too! After they’ve written their poems, come back again to debrief the activity. Share your poem, or portions of it, and invite students to share as well. Something I like to do when I am facilitating writing workshops is to invite everyone to share out their favorite line or section from what they’ve written, without disclaimers or explanations about the context. This can be done orally, in a go-around, or folks can copy-paste into the Zoom chat. It can also be done anonymously via Mentimeter, which will generate a real-time visual map that can be saved as a PDF.
  • Circle of Objects” is an activity that is a close cousin to a Where I’m From poem that could either supplement or replace the poem, depending on the time you have, the topic of your course, and your own style. 
  • Lesson 2: Perspectives (Fish Is Fish narrative reflection). 

This activity moves from exploring identity and background to considering the limitations of the perspectives afforded by our identities, experiences, and environments, using the children’s book Fish Is Fish (Leo Lionni, 1970) as a framework for reflection and dialogue. I find endless reason to draw from children’s literature in my courses, whatever the topic is and whatever the age group and demographics of my students. In my experience, people never outgrow the pleasure of being read to, and it brings me so much joy to open a picture book and see my students first smile indulgently, and then visibly relax into peaceful, rapt listening and genuine engagement. Beyond this atmospheric, community-building aspect, children’s stories are frequently richly philosophical and allegorical, and a wonderful springboard for dialogue for this reason. 

In this story, a frog returns to the pond where he lived as a tadpole to visit his old friend the minnow, now a full-grown fish. He regales the fish with fantastic tales of life on land, but the fish, in trying to picture creatures like birds and cows and humans, can only imagine a fish with wings, a fish with udders and horns, a fish on two legs, dressed in a suit and carrying an umbrella….

This activity asks students to reflect, write, and discuss moments of “mis-imagination” they have experienced. There are multiple read-alouds of the story on YouTube (here or here, for example), but it’s nice to read it aloud yourself to your students, if you can. Ahmed stresses the importance of modeling and “making thinking visible” throughout Being the Change; like bell hooks, she believes that we should not ask students to be vulnerable in ways we are not prepared to be. Therefore, please do share the limitations of your own perspective with students. 

The activity as created is pretty basic, but there is plenty of potential for layering in nuance — by linking the dialogue more explicitly to privilege and oppression, asking students to create an action plan for further interrogating and addressing their biases and gaps in knowledge and experience, and so on. Other extensions include the following: 

  • Ahmed has her students center their identity webs on a larger piece of paper, so that there is a border framing it. Inside this border, she has students write how they are perceived by others based on their identities (e.g. “terrorist” as a Muslim; “tomboy/not girly enough” as an athletic woman). She then has students craft “I Am” statements to reject these misperceptions and assert pride in their identities. 
  • This video resource from the Blanton Museum uses Tavares Strachan’s 2012 installation I Belong Here to have students reflect on their journey from their “home pond” to the “UT pond” and articulate why they belong here.


  • Lesson 3: My News. 

This final resource is lifted whole-sale from Ahmed, and is designed to “push forward from student-centered to socially minded classrooms” (77) by providing students with a framework for understanding how their reactions to the topics that consume their concern are related to their identities, as well as taking action to address gaps in understanding. 

Ahmed starts by having students list their “news,” which is not narrowly defined to news media but includes “any topic, event, feelings, or pieces of information that they have on their mind[s] and will most likely carry with them all day” (79) — from an upcoming party or recent fight with a friend to a police shooting or natural disaster, or anything in between. Using the first two columns of this chart, students record their reaction to their news: thoughts, feelings, opinions, and questions. 

Sharing her own news of the day, Ahmed models thinking through how the topics on her mind and her strong reactions to them are linked to her identities and experiences. She also models how her strong reactions might affect her ability to be more thoughtful or empathetic at times and thinks aloud through the process of slowing down and considering what she does not know about this piece of news. 

Finally, students are asked to craft a plan for action that might include further inquiry and research and/or mobilization to contribute towards healing for themselves and others, mitigation of the problem, etc. It might simply be to think and process a while longer through journaling or to take care of themselves/seek care through their sorrow. Ahmed gives students time in-class to initiate their action plan and then calls them to report back, reflect on how/if their initial thinking has evolved, and re-assess to determine new/ongoing action (e.g. are they ready to move into inquiry or mobilization now? Have new questions come up that they now need to research? etc). 

While this is a lesson that can be done as part of this series on exploring identity and perspective, Ahmed notes that it can be brought in or revisited whenever “the world hands us a curriculum the night before” in the form of large-scale events shared widely on social media, as well as “when there is any measure of crisis at school, as a way to address the issue without artificially smoothing it over” (80). If you have wondered how to meaningfully address such events and crises beyond a helpless and awkward acknowledgment, perhaps this will help.

Another option is to borrow Dr. Gloria González-López’s collective freewriting technique

Next week . . .

We will be reading How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus: From Polarization to Moral Conversation (Nash, LaSha Bradley, and Chickering, 2008). 


Summer Reading Series: So You Want to Talk About Race

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the sixth entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here

Title: So You Want to Talk About Race (published in 2018; $11; available to purchase HERE)

Author: Ijeoma Oluo

Context of Creation:

This bestselling, mass market book was written, Oluo writes in her preface to the paperback edition, to offer “the basic, often unsexy fundamentals” needed “to understand race better, and how to talk about race more effectively, and with more kindness” (xii-iii). The author is a writer and speaker whose work on race has been published in a range of prominent and widely-read venues. 

Context of Reception:

I read So You Want to Talk About Race over the course of a day of traveling — on the airplane, in the airport, and at our destination. In the sense that it is written in extremely clear, plain language and scaffolded logically, it was a very easy book to read in pieces in this fashion. 

Overview of Structure and Content:

The book contains seventeen short chapters averaging about 7-12 pages each, all (save the introduction, which repeats the title) titled in the form of questions, most of which suggest a White intended audience (e.g. “Why can’t I touch your hair?” or “I just got called racist, now what do I do?”), although Oluo does directly address people of color as well throughout the book. Oluo’s first five chapters lay a foundation for engaging in conversations about race both by defining basic terms (e.g. “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?”) and addressing fears (e.g. “What if I talk about race wrong?”). The twelve chapters that follow are all topics-based, designed to give readers both a basic primer on an issue and guidelines for how to discuss it (e.g. affirmative action; microaggressions; cultural appropriation). Oluo starts every chapter with personal narrative and refers to her own background and experiences as an interracial, Black, queer woman throughout each chapter (recalling hooks’s approach in Teaching to Transgress).

Resources for Teachers:

The way Oluo has both structured and written the book — including many lists of tips and guidelines; and written in short chapters and digestible, undergraduate-friendly language — means that much of the book is ready-to-use in the college classroom. The topics-based chapters all lend themselves very well to being scanned individually to be assigned as (part of) pre-dialogue reading. Oluo also includes a discussion guide in the back of the paperback edition that addresses both broad guidelines for embarking on a discussion of the book and a set of questions, some overarching, some targeted specific chapters. 

Therefore, instead of the usual 3-2-1 format of thought-starters, practices, and an activity, I have spent my time in gathering together some of Oluo’s guidelines from across all chapters and formatting them into a single infographic called “Ijeoma Oluo’s Rules of Engagement for Conversations about Race.” 

The infographic contains Oluo’s guidelines for the following: 

determining whether a given issue is “really” about race; 

definition of racism; 

engaging someone (or a group) in a dialogue on race; 

learning how to fail; 

handling microaggressions; 

checking your privilege; 

and turning talk into action. 

The text comes directly from Oluo, with occasional minor paraphrasing to fit the space better.

Some ideas for using this resource

This infographic should not be presented as a “summary” or encapsulation of the book (it is just a snapshot of a few of its concepts, all of which are much more fully developed within the chapters from which they come). Here are some of the ways I envision it being useful: 

This is something that might be distributed to students ahead of a dialogue about race or that includes race-related topics, then reinforced through a few minutes of review and checks for understanding before starting the conversation. 

You might give this to students in class and have them role-play some scenarios (for example, microaggressions). I have found it really useful and beneficial to have students role-play and reflect on difficult or uncomfortable moments that might occur during dialogue before the dialogue proper ever begins. The “Improv Prototyping” fishbowl structure from Liberating Structures would be useful here.

You might model and invite storytelling around moments when people have failed previously in a conversation about race — perhaps encouraging follow-up reenactment and role-play in these scenarios, as well, so that students can practice what they wish they had done or said differently. 

You could ask students to brainstorm examples to illustrate each of the three criteria for determining whether something is “really” about race. (Oluo provides her own in the chapter “Is it really about race?” if you, or your students, get stuck.) 

You could have students generate place-based or community-specific additional actions for racial justice. You might also ask students to put one or more of these principles into action and reflect and/or report back to share experiences and compile group resources to support additional action in the future (e.g. how easy was it to find a Black-owned local business in Austin? How did people go about finding out whether a business exploits its workers of color? Where did students see racist behaviors or comments and what scripts did they use to address them? What new works of art, film, TV, music, and literature created by people of color did students explore, which did they particularly love, and how can they not just consume this content (if free of charge) but also support its creators?). 

Here is a digital version of the infographic, and here is a plain-text document in case that is more accessible for you and/or your students.

Next Week . . . 

We will be reading Be the Change: Lessons and Strategies for Teaching Social Comprehension (Ahmed, 2018).

Summer Reading Series: Teaching to Transgress

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This is the fifth entry in our dialogic pedagogy summer reading series. For more on the series and a full list of texts, see here.

Title: Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (published in 1994; $45; available for purchase HERE).

Author: bell hooks

Context of Creation: The author, a Black feminist teacher and scholar, wrote this book of essays during a period of sabbatical, her first in 20 years of teaching in a college classroom. hooks is currently Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, which also hosts the bell hooks Institute. At the time of writing, she was Distinguished Professor of English at City College in New York.

Context of Reception: I read Teaching to Transgress over the course of two days at my home in Austin. It is one of those texts I’ve known about for a long time and was embarrassed to admit I hadn’t yet read, as someone supposedly invested in liberatory and radical pedagogies. In the process of reading hooks, I had to confront myself repeatedly — to pause, close the book, and think honestly and critically about myself as a White woman, feminist, and scholar. At the same time, I also found myself over and over again as a teacher, and felt a really profound joy at having so many of my own pedagogical values and experiences reflected back to me in such strong and affirming language. That discomfort and that joy did not dilute each other or cancel each other out; if anything, they reinforced one another, allowing me to access deeper levels of both discomfort and joy.

Overview of Structure and Content: Teaching to Transgress contains an introduction and 14 essays. hooks includes a great deal of personal narrative about her own practice as a teacher in classrooms that have become increasingly more diverse over the course of her career as well as her experiences and observations as a Black female student and scholar from a rural, working class, Southern background, who experienced the racial integration of schools. Some of the topics she addresses (always through a lens of race and gender) include engaged pedagogy; multicultural education and diversity; the authority of experience in the classroom; feminist solidarity, thinking, and scholarship; affect in the classroom (specifically joy, pain, and eros); and issues of class and language. hooks writes that she had initially imagined the book as being primarily for teachers, but that — after a humbling experience with a course she felt she was unable to make work as a learning community — she came to understand that the book was also for students, who also bear a responsibility in co-creating the learning environment (9).

Three Thought-Starters for Teachers

  1. Pleasure

Teaching to Transgress is anchored by joy, with both the introduction and the final essay, “Ecstasy: Teaching and Learning without Limits,” structured around this idea. In fact, to value and encourage pleasure in learning and teaching is the first form of “transgression” that hooks describes, and the first one she embraced in her own teaching: “To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to share the desire to encourage excitement, was to transgress” (7). Her interlocutor in the essay “Building a Teaching Community,” Ron Scapp, explains the transgression of joy simply: “Pleasure in the classroom is feared. If there is laughter, a reciprocal exchange may be taking place,” directly challenging a top-down, hierarchical educational paradigm in which the professor exists only to impart knowledge, never to learn with and from students (145). And regarding the pleasure of mutual love, hooks writes, “Well-learned distinctions between public and private make us believe that love has no place in the classroom. . . . Teachers who love students and are loved by them are still ‘suspect’ in the academy” (198).

  • How often do you experience pleasure, joy, or love in the classroom?
  • How often do you believe your students experience pleasure, joy, or love when they are in your classroom?
  • What enables and/or impedes pleasure, joy, and love in your teaching practice?

2.  Pain

However, the road hooks takes to circle back to pleasure in Teaching to Transgress is full of pain. Even as hooks insists that the classroom can and should be a space in which students experience healing from harm, she acknowledges that excitement and joy in the classroom are not always immediately accessible: “I learned to respect that shifting paradigms or sharing knowledge in new ways challenges; it takes time for students to experience that change as positive” (“Embracing Change,” 42). The inevitability of discomfort and struggle in the learning and teaching process, to and through the point of real pain, is emphasized again and again: hooks talks about the “anguish” of having to confront Paulo Freire’s sexism in the midst of her deep excitement over his ideas (“Paulo Freire,” 49), the “will to struggle” that is necessary for real change (“Building a Teaching Community,” 143), and the value of theorizing from a location of pain (“Theory as Liberatory Practice,” 74).

Ron Scapp offers, “Sometimes it’s necessary to remind students and colleagues that pain and painful situations don’t necessarily translate into harm. . . . Not all pain is harm, and not all pleasure is good” (“Building a Teaching Community,” 154). And hooks reminds us dissatisfaction or thirstiness is in itself a value: Sometimes, she writes of herself and her students, “we are just there collectively grasping, feeling the limitations of knowledge, longing together, yearning for a way to reach that highest point. Even this yearning is a way to know” (“Essentialism and Experience,” 92).

  • How can we help students distinguish between pain-as-harm and pain-as-discomfort, or as a necessary condition of growth?
  • How do you personally distinguish between the two?
  • What is the value of yearning? How do you work to create (or allow) yearning in your students? Yourself?

3. Praxis 

hooks introduces early on the critical question educators must ask themselves over and over: “What values and habits of being reflect my/our commitment to freedom?” (“A Revolution of Values,” 27). This focus on integrated praxis and full engagement, including attention to mind, body, and spirit as inseparable, reverberates through all the essays in Teaching to Transgress. hooks identifies the following as the central problem in achieving real transformation: “I know so many professors who are progressive in their politics, who have been willing to change their curriculum, but who in fact have resolutely refused to change the nature of their pedagogical practice. . . . Professors may attempt to deconstruct traditional biases while sharing that information through body posture, tone, word choice, and so on that perpetuate those very hierarchies and biases they are critiquing” (“Building a Teaching Community,” 140-41).

To connect this idea to the previous two, we might consider a salient example of this failure, which might simultaneously be interpreted as an investment in a superficial, sanitized form of “pleasure” in the classroom. This would be what hooks describes as “the comforting ‘melting pot’ idea of cultural diversity, the rainbow coalition where we would all be grouped together in our difference, but everyone wearing the same have-a-nice-day smile. This was the stuff of colonizing fantasy” (“A Revolution of Values,” 30-31). To invest in “feel-good” fantasies of this nature — including the fantasy of a classroom of content and satisfied learners, whatever their identities, reflecting back exactly the progressive ideas we have endeavored to impress upon them — is to reinforce in practice the structures of domination we work to deconstruct in theory and vote against in policy. And at the same time, and thinking back to Chris Adamo’s chapter in Teaching Through Challenges to EDI from last week’s reading, proclamations on the part of the instructor that the classroom is inclusive and welcoming might indeed be backed up by a carefully curated syllabus of diverse texts, only to be undone by the way they actually interact with students.

  • Visualize yourself in the classroom. Where are you usually standing or sitting? How often do you change that location? What do you think your location and movement within the classroom might communicate to students?
  • Imagine your own professors in college. In whose class did you feel engaged and welcome and affirmed, and in whose class did you feel unseen, unwelcome, or disengaged? How did each of those professors move, speak, and act in the classroom?

Two Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation: 

The Authority of Experience, without Essentialism

In “Essentialism and Experience,” hooks critiques the feminist scholar Diana Fuss’s problematization of essentialism in the classroom, in which (according to Fuss) individual students use the “authority of experience” to promote essentializing characterizations of the groups they represent and silence students of other groups. hooks acknowledges this as a problem, but reminds us that “systems of domination already at work in the academy and the classroom silence the voices of individuals from marginalized groups and give space only when on the basis of experience it is demanded” (81). That is, often the only valuable form of knowledge that minority or marginalized students are believed to be able to offer is experiential, and Fuss, according to hooks, fails to acknowledge this reality.

“If I do not wish to see these students use the ‘authority of experience’ as a means of asserting voice, I can circumvent this possible misuse of power by bringing to the classroom pedagogical strategies that affirm their presence, their right to speak, in multiple ways on diverse topics. This pedagogical strategy is rooted in the assumption that we all bring to the classroom experiential knowledge. . . . If experience is already invoked in the classroom as a way of knowing that coexists in a nonhierarchical way with other ways of knowing, then it lessens the possibility that it can be used to silence” (84).

hooks describes one such strategy as follows: she assigns all students to write an autobiographical paragraph regarding a personal experience with the topic at hand (for example, she asks them to write about an early experience with race when teaching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye). Students then go one-by-one to read that paragraph aloud to the class.

Another strategy is to attend to language, and to invite and affirm the use of “nonstandard” or marginalized forms of English and other languages in the classroom. If you are yourself a native speaker of a marginalized variety of English and/or another language, you can also choose to model its use (and be honest about whatever discomfort that might bring to you, if you like). And if and when students use non-English languages and non-dominant language varieties with which you are not familiar, you can also model embracing the discomfort of not understanding. “I suggest,” hooks write, “that we do not necessarily need to ‘master’ or conquer the narrative as a whole, that we may know in fragments. I suggest that we may learn from spaces of silence as well as spaces of speech, that in the patient act of listening to another tongue we may subvert that culture of capitalist frenzy and consumption that demands all desire must be satisfied immediately, or we may disrupt that cultural imperialism that suggests one is worthy of being heard only if one speaks in standard English” (“Language,” 174).

Model Dialogue across Difference with Other Faculty

The tenth essay in Teaching to Transgress presents a dialogue between hooks and Ron Scapp, a White, male professor of philosophy. In her introduction to their conversation, hooks explains, “It is fashionable these days, when ‘difference’ is a hot topic in progressive circles, to talk about ‘hybridity’ and ‘border crossing,’ but we often have no concrete examples of individuals who actually occupy different locations within structures, sharing ideas with one another, mapping out terrains of commonality, connection, and shared concern with teaching practices” (129-30). hooks emphasizes dialogue as a simple (if not always easy) way to cross those boundaries.

This is precisely what our Difficult Dialogues faculty learning community endeavors to do, but I am inspired by the way in which hooks makes her dialogue with Scapp publicly available “to provide a model of possibility” (131). I wonder about inviting a willing colleague into my classroom, someone who teaches something very different from what I teach, who comes from a very different intersection of identities than I do, and/or who teaches very differently from how I do, and allowing students to observe and respond to our conversation. Or recording such a conversation on video, as hooks does in writing, and bringing it to the classroom.

One In-Depth Activity:

A Dialogue with the Self

hooks emphasizes the need for self-actualization in Teaching to Transgress, and one of the most intriguing essays, to me, was “Paulo Freire,” in which hooks interrogates herself regarding her relationship to Freire’s pedagogy, scholarship, and voice. She addresses herself, in a simple Q&A interview format, exactly as a “real” interviewer would, pushing herself to discuss her first reactions to Freire, links between her work and Freire’s ideas in specific contexts, the impact of her identities on her ability to relate to his work, and more. I love the notion of asking students to engage in critical, reflective dialogue with themselves, early on in the semester, as a way to put them in touch with their own voices and values, teach dialogue skills like inquiry and deep listening, and foster compassion and appreciation for the contradictions everyone has by critically self-reflecting. Thus, the activity linked above asks students to craft a dialogue with the self, in which they interview themselves regarding core qualities, passions, values, or identities, focusing on apparent tensions or contradictions. I think this activity would be most useful if students were able to see at least an excerpt of hooks’s essay and/or the instructor’s own version of the assignment.

Next Week . . .

We will be reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (2019).