Craig Campbell: Anthropocene Greetings

On Thursday, September 2, Craig Campbell shared his project, “Anthropocene Greetings,” with the Faculty Fellows. Campbell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and directs the Intermedia Workshop at UT Austin. He is also part of the collaborative Bureau for Experimental Ethnography.

“Birthday (humorous);” “Anniversary (special);” “Graduation (money holder); “Any Occasion (blank).” Most of us have perused the rows of greeting cards at a drugstore or Target, looking for an appropriate sentiment to send to a nephew who is getting married, or a far-away friend celebrating a birthday.  But what is a greeting card, really, and what does it do? What sorts of social relations does it make and sustain? Campbell’s project, “Anthropocene Greetings,” seeks to explore the possibilities offered by creating and sharing greetings that address climate catastrophe.

Campbell presented from inside the Design Lab in the campus Fine Arts Building. He introduced the Fellows to the Rob Roy Kelly American Wood Type Collection, which include the 19th Century typefaces he has used to make a variety of anthropocene greeting cards.

Campbell describes  Anthropocene Greetings as a project of research-creation, a methodology that considers the place of making in the practice of research. Citing the work of Erin Manning and Brian Massumi in Thought in the Act and Natalie Loveless in How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research-Creation, he explained that research-creation permits movement between disciplinary territories and asks the question, “what counts as research?”

Campbell walked the Fellows through the process of creating a letterpress print, showing them the Vandercook press used to print the cards. He emphasized the embodied and sensory nature of the printmaking process: the ways in which the printmaker becomes related to the machine as it forces certain postures or bodily behaviors, the squelch of the ink as it is expressed. The process forces the maker to slow down. The type must be set, the paper cannot be rushed through the press, the ink must dry between each color application. For Campbell, the slowness of the process allows for different kinds of thinking.

Greeting cards serve as a form of “human infrastructure,” helping us to send words of condolence or celebration while alleviating the burden of coming up with them on our own. They are “gestures of concern” (Ingraham 2020) that promote shared awareness and seek to create connection. Sending a card permits us to discharge an obligation with minimal effort and, perhaps, minimal risk. Fellows discussed what sorts of accountability and care greeting cards in general, and Campbell’s Anthropocene greetings in particular, offer.

The climate crisis prompts us to question the effectiveness of individual acts when confronting complicated and multi-pronged problems. Loveless suggests that research-creation “can persuade us to care and to care differently” (2019: 107). Making and sharing Anthropocene greetings provides a means to communicate concerns about climate change, a small way to shore up the world, a minor gesture that reminds “us” that we’re all in this together, though we may not experience it in the same way. Perhaps expressing care through the template of a card creates more mental and emotional space for other, more large-scale, efforts and affects.

The climate crisis prompts us to question the effectiveness of individual acts when confronting its complicated and multi-pronged  problems. Loveless suggests that research-creation “can persuade us to care and to care differently” (2019: 107). Making and sharing   anthropocene greetings provides a means to communicate concerns about climate change, a small way to shore up the world, a minor gesture that reminds “us” that we’re all in this together. Perhaps expressing care through the template of a card creates more mental and emotional space for other, more large-scale, efforts.

Fellows questioned whether the form of the greeting card works across different social and cultural contexts, citing communities in which cards are not part of a shared affective vocabulary. They also explored “touch” as both a physical form of, and a metaphor for, care: keeping in touch, a touching message, feeling moved by a message. What about moments when touch and closeness are undesirable?  Liberal ideals of community and commons stress conviviality, but Covid puts pressure on those ideals.  If the cards are about creating social relations, what sorts of relations are created when they are sent to those who deny climate change? Perhaps the cards communicate dissent, or serve as provocations.

The question of access also surfaced. Printmaking requires access to materials and equipment.  Additionally, there are many kinds of print cultures. What are the possibilities for meeting communities on their own terms? How does literacy work into the the question of affect? Can communities that don’t operate in that mode participate in the project? What would broadening the typefaces used in the cards imply?

Campbell acknowledges the limitations of the form, while positing it as a site of possibility. Non-literate people live among literate people; cards are often read aloud or become prompts for narratives, like photos in albums. Once the card is made and sent, it is in the hands of someone who can alter it. The cards provide a low-stakes invitation to play even if the maker or recipient is not personally familiar with the custom. Future plans include workshops to be hosted in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada with Cree participants, and at Marfa Community Print in West Texas. Working with Cree syllabics might require making a new typeface, while the Marfa site could allow for access to Spanish language typefaces.

Creating anthropocene greetings provides an opportunity for conviviality that pushes against and extends beyond congeniality and what  Teju Cole, writing in The Atlantic,  calls the “sentimental need to ‘make a difference'” (2012) that undergirds many white Western responses to social injustices. A greeting card cannot halt climate disaster, but its creation and dissemination can be part of efforts to sustain community.  It’s an imperfect response to an impossible situations. As Campbell said in closing, everyday materials present much with which to work.

 

 

 

 

Summer Reading Series: Democratic Dialogue in Education

 

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

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

Title: Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence (published 2004; $33; available for purchase HERE)

Editor: Megan Boler

Context of Creation: This edited volume arises from challenges, critiques, and extensions to  Megan Boler’s notion of an “affirmative action pedagogy” that deliberately centers historically marginalized voices in the classroom at the necessary cost of (at times) suppressing dominant voices, which she first presented in 1998. The volume contains essays from a selection of philosophers of education engaged with “the profound ethical questions of how to create dialogue within classrooms that, like it or not, are microcosms that reflect the social hierarchies of race, class, gender, and homophobia that shape the larger world” (viii). Contributors respond to one another in their pieces without ever reaching a resolution or consensus regarding these ethical dilemmas, thus performing “dialogue across difference” (of pedagogical opinion) throughout the book’s chapters. “Troubling” and “disturbing” are meant both as adjectives and as transitive verbs–acknowledging the difficulties of navigating speech and silence while simultaneously interrogating dominant assumptions about speech and silence. Published in 2004, the book is grounded self-consciously in the early post-9/11 era, particularly legal and social debates over civil liberties and affirmative action. Boler is currently Professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto; at the time of publication, she was Associate Professor of Theory and Policy Studies at OISE. 

Context of Reception: I previously knew the work of Megan Boler only secondhand — from Brenda Daly’s account of her application of Boler’s notion of “testimonial reading” in an anti-racist literature classroom and from our own Difficult Dialogues faculty learning community member Danica Sumpter, who referenced Boler’s “pedagogy of discomfort” in a presentation she made to us in spring 2020. I was looking forward to her edited volume on dialogue, assuming both of these intriguing concepts would be addressed in Democratic Dialogue in Education. As it turns out, neither of them were, but I found this extended collective meditation on speech and silence in response to a third Boler concept, “affirmative action pedagogy,” a refreshing breather after reading so many books for this series that take for granted the positive value of a social identity-driven, participatory classroom “dialogue.”  

Overview of Structure and Content: Following a brief editor’s introduction in which Boler explains the volume’s genesis, a full introduction presents summaries of each chapter along with a series of synthesizing questions. Then, contributor chapters are divided into four parts. Part I, “The Challenge of Creating Spaces for Social Justice Dialogue,” begins with Boler’s explication of affirmative action pedagogy and contains two other perspectives on the role and importance of classroom dialogue; these essays diverge in terms of pedagogical approach to facilitating dialogue among a diverse group of learners but take for granted its value. Part II, “Complicating Speech and Silence,” contains three essays that interrogate that assumption by interrogating the (colonialist, Western) fantasies that attend the desire for dialogue and its assumed connection to “voice,” as well as contemplating the role and value of silence. Part III, “Moral and Philosophical Dimensions of Dialogue,” presents two essays reflecting on violence and ethical responsibility in dialogue. Part IV, “Dialogue in Practice: Risks and Benefits,” contains two essays that each explicate particular classroom experiences and what the respective authors both consider to be the pedagogical value of “trauma” during attempts at anti-oppressive lessons. This is a volume clearly written by and for higher-ed faculty, although most of the contributors teach in departments of Education, meaning they are training students who (will) teach in K-12 settings. And though the chapters are rich in anecdotes of practice, it is a work of philosophy/theory rather than a handbook.  

Three Thought-Starters for Teachers: 

  • Affirmative Action Pedagogy (AAP)

Boler explains that AAP “recognizes that we are not equally protected in practice by the First Amendment and that education needs to represent marginalized voices fairly by challenging dominant voices in the classroom” (4). In practice, this might mean prohibiting speech: outlining claims, language, and attitudes that will not be tolerated in the classroom, such as, for example, rejecting the existence of White privilege. It might mean prohibiting speakers based on identity. For example, Boler cites the case of Professor Mary Daly, who refused to allow two (presumed cisgender) male students to enroll in her women’s studies class. Boler herself argues that there are “justifiable cases” in which “white, middle-class male students” should not be permitted to speak, suggesting that self-disclosure on the part of these students is frequently a means of claiming the authority to “disprove” structural inequality in conversations about race, gender, and class by presenting their personal experiences and demanding the same validation for them as marginalized students (11). On the other hand, Boler notes that AAP can also be practiced as challenge to and condemnation of speech, rather than prohibition of it, referencing a professor of Black Studies who welcomes students to express any views they wish, with the understanding that all claims will be subjected to critical analysis and calls for accountability. The important thing, Boler writes, is that “until all voices are recognized equally, we must operate within a context of historicized ethics which consciously privileges the insurrectionary and dissenting voices, sometimes at the minor cost of silencing those voices that have been permitted dominant status for the past centuries” (13). 

  • What is your reaction to the notion of affirmative action pedagogy? What, or whom, do you choose to silence in your courses (in the syllabus as well as the classroom)? Why and with what effect?  
  • What do you imagine this might look like in practice? What do you imagine students’ reactions might be? 
  • What are the potential pitfalls of this approach? How does one prevent an earnest attempt to “privilege” or “center” certain “voices” from veering into paternalism, saviorism, tokenism, etc?

 

  • Voice. 

Alison Jones notes, “The key idea in contemporary praise of dialogue in education is voice — or speech — which is set in opposition to silence. . . . With a touching faith in the ‘talking cure’ of dialogue and self-disclosing narratives, emancipatory educators argue that, via a multiplicity of voices/narratives, teachers and students can speak and work across differences towards an egalitarian, multicultural, and democratic social order” (58-59). She observes how “disturbing” silence is to the progressive educator, especially when it is students who (are presumed or known to) occupy marginalized identity positions who are not speaking. In Jones’s analysis, exhorting “marginalized voices” to speak forcibly positions these students as the educators and redeemers of their peers; she begins the conclusion to her essay by asking, “Why, then, must the marginalized speak (engage in dialogue)? For whose benefit do they speak?” (66). 

Suzanne deCastell, in her own essay, pushes back against Boler’s persistent invocation of dominant versus marginalized voices, asking, “What is meant by voices here, and is it the substance of what is spoken, or is it the identity of the speaker that constitutes the basis of differentiated rights to speak? . . . Because of course identities are more often hybrid than pure. More important, identities that are ascribed rather than asserted work, again, to position the subject under the sign of passivity — the teacher, but not I myself, knows who and what I am” (51-53). 

I would add that it is telling that throughout this volume the “marginalized voices” most frequently referenced are related to race and gender — the identities that teachers often presume are most legible on sight, versus class, sexuality, religion, disability, and so on. There is thus an irony at work — if we listened more attentively to what students actually say about themselves, rather than how they appear to us (as a phenotype or as a list of identities), we would have a better, fuller understanding of what “voice” they are bringing into the conversation, both in terms of their identities and their ideologies. 

  • What desires drive your inclusion of dialogue in the classroom? What are you hoping dialogue achieves, and for whom? In what fantasies are these desires based? 
  • Think about students you have had who did not speak when you hoped or asked that they would. What feelings did their silence provoke in you? How did you respond? What conclusions did you draw? 
  • How do you know what “voices” are present in your classroom, and to what extent those “voices” have been silent/silenced or not? Put another way — how do you go about learning who your students are, where they come from, and what their experiences have been?

 

  • Trauma

The last two essays in the volume, by Ann C. Berlak and Ingrid M. Erickson, both conclude that some degree of “traumatization” of students occupying dominant identity positions is an a) inevitable and b) probably necessary component of anti-oppression pedagogies. “Crisis is essential in order for cultural secrets [such as racism] to be revealed,” Berlak argues (141); “I am increasingly skeptical about how much learning takes place in classroom settings where trauma does not occur,” Erickson writes (147). Both authors identify “trauma” as the result of challenge to preexisting worldviews: Berlak writes of her White students following a lesson led by a militant Black female educator, “Many students were traumatized by the encounter simply because Sekani challenged assumptions about racial hierarchy that . . . were fundamental to their conceptions of self” (137). Erickson describes how “responsible educators” are “compelled to induce trauma by challenging certain beliefs because they are wrong or destructive to self or other” (147). 

Accepting for a moment this arguable definition of trauma, I am struck by the continued focus on the learning experience of the “dominant” and in particular the focus on the trauma that those occupying non-marginalized identity positions in regards to a particular conversation might experience — that is, the focus on the trauma a White student might experience during a conversation about racial discrimination, which is the focus of both Berlak and Erickson’s essays, rather than a consideration of what the lessons they describe might possibly mean for students of color. (Berlak notes that the one African American student in her class responded resoundingly positively, but, though she identifies their presence in the class, does not discuss at all the reactions of her Latinx and Asian students, focusing on her White students’ journal responses.) 

I am also struck by the repeated reference to (new) trauma in the classroom without consideration for prior histories of trauma that students may bring into the classroom, whatever their identities, and the ways in which old trauma interacts with new. Berlak and Erickson describe or assume majority-White groups of students and seem likewise to  assume, based on White identity, that these students are uniformly psychologically “whole,” never having experienced previous humiliation, denigration, or violation, such that this fresh new trauma will be a painful, but straightforward and clean wound. It occurs to me over and over, reading these essays, that trauma is a very large missing piece from all of these conversations about student “identities” and “voices,” who should be exhorted or allowed to speak or exhorted or allowed to remain silent, who “needs” to experience trauma in the classroom versus who should be protected from it. Even if we know what every student’s list of identities are, we do not know the traumas they have or have not experienced, whether in connection to those identities or not. 

  • What is your reaction to the notion that “crisis is essential” for learning? Is “trauma” here just another word for discomfort, pain, and struggle in the learning process, or is it something deeper and more impactful? 
  • In your view, can you selectively target aspects of a person’s identity or selfhood to speak to/agitate/traumatize? If so, how? If not, what then is the approach? 

Two Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation: 

  • Invite Students to Critique Your Syllabus

In his essay, Ronald David Glass notes, “Educators routinely silence certain voices and amplify others through the selection of the curriculum, the design of assignments and assessments, and the structure of the classroom social relations and learning environment. . . . What most differentiates the liberatory educator/classroom is that these choices and actions are made subject to explicit critical examination rather than being left within hidden hegemonic practices. This includes making overt the moral and political commitments underlying the choices and shaping the intentions of study” (19).

It could also include, I suggest, inviting students to critically review your syllabus at regular points throughout the semester, starting in the first week of the course. Ask students to examine your reading list and identify which “voices” seem to be present and which might be missing. Have them review the course’s assignments and make comments regarding the kinds of learners who will do well with their format and the kinds who might not. Ask them to observe the physical configuration of the classroom as well as your methodologies (e.g. frequent pair work) and comment, again, on which learners might be particularly well-served by these choices and which might not, and why. Invite them to bring their own experiences to bear on these comments as well as exercise imagination.

In the first phase, their comments might be more speculative and prediction-based. As the course goes on, however, they will be responding from a location of more familiarity with the course’s goals and their particular experiences within it. You might leave several days’ or weeks’ readings as “TBD” or “subject to change” with the understanding that these texts will be nominated on the basis of what perspectives are deemed to be missing. You could identify 2-3 texts for the class to choose from, or invite students to contribute suggestions for texts. You might leave an assignment unspecified (or put in a placeholder), with the understanding that it will be designed in response to what students observe is needed. 

Inviting students to comment critically on your syllabus is not necessarily a promise to make all suggested changes or meet every demand (although at least some degree of adaptation in light of feedback should occur); you also have the opportunity to explain your choices, modeling in the process how it looks to seriously and respectfully consider challenges. 

  • A Day of (Teacherly) Silence.

Here, I suggested practicing periods of silence as a whole class. In the first post of this series on Stop Talking, I suggested a “day without reading or writing.” I will suggest now a day of silence on the part of the instructor only — in which students talk and interact with one another, but the teacher remains a silent observer/facilitator/guest. A decade ago, when I was teaching ninth and tenth grade English, I made my own silence a regular part of my practice. During formal dialogues, I would always remain physically outside the circle and silent for the duration of the students’ hour-long conversation (though not totally silent: students would start the dialogue with questions I had written, and in some dialogues I would occasionally scribble a new question on the board, thus my voice was not completely absent). Other times, I would greet students at the door with a one-page set of instructions for the day’s lesson and smile wordlessly in response to their questions (again, they could speak and work together; the goal was not disciplinary silence but rather self-direction). Though I did not yet have a body of theory (or even the language) to legitimize my silence as anti-oppressive or decolonialist pedagogy, I was acutely aware of my power as the authority figure (the “dominant voice” above all others) in the classroom. I wanted students to speak to themselves and one another rather than to, or for, me. I loved those days. I recommend it, and though the authors featured in Democratic Dialogue in Education do not engage meaningfully with the teacher as a “dominant voice” that needs to be suppressed at times, I believe an occasional refusal to speak on the part of the instructor aligns very well with “affirmative action pedagogy.” (It works, too, if you feel particularly vulnerable in your classroom. If you are transparent about needing to remain silent on a particular day or during a particular conversation, you have an opportunity to validate “opting out” as a real option for self-preservation for students, as well.) 

One Resource: Why Silence? 

Huey Li Li’s essay in the collection, “Rethinking Silencing Silences,” is perhaps my favorite. In it, Li Li deconstructs the binary opposition of speech and silence by suggesting that they form rather “a continuum of human expression” (69). She also pushes back against the oversimplification of “silence [as] the inevitable consequence of oppression” (70) (or an expression of defiance and empowerment) by arguing for an understanding of the meanings and functions of silence in, especially, non-Western cultures. She notes that even when silence is deployed as a pedagogical strategy in U.S. classrooms (as “wait time”), its ultimate purpose is to produce verbal responses. This is not an invalid or “wrong” pedagogical use of silence; it demonstrates, however, both the communicative continuum of speech and silence as interrelated and mutually complementary rather than binarily opposed on the one hand as well as the investment, in a Western context, in speech as the highest value, on the other hand. Li Li suggests, “It is not necessary to structure teaching solely through talk/speech and foster students’ exclusive commitment to speech making. Furthermore, it is imprudent to ‘evaluate’ students’ learning according to their ‘verbal participation’ in in-class learning activities. In contrast, it is important for educators to inquire into silence” (75).

Inspired by this entreaty to “inquire into silence,” I have created this graphic, “Why Silence? Reasons We Choose Not to Talk,” which names eight basic reasons one might not verbally participate. It complements another graphic,”Why Speech? Reasons We Choose to Talk,” which I originally created for the second post in this series under the title “7 Purposes for Dialogue” but have edited and adapted. I think it’s useful for students to inquire into silence, too; thus, below are some questions to accompany these “Why Speech/Why Silence” graphics, after sharing them with students.

  • Regarding “Why Speech?”: Think about a couple memorable conversations or interactions (in class, at work, at home, in a public space, or elsewhere) you have had in which you spoke up significantly. What motivated you to speak in these interactions? Is there a pattern in why you tend to choose to speak? In what contexts and for which of these reasons do you tend to speak the most? Which reason for speaking do you think is ideal, for you? Are there times you speak when you think you shouldn’t (or times you’ve spoken and wish you hadn’t)? Are there reasons for speaking that you don’t see represented among these seven basic reasons?
  • Regarding “Why Silence?”: Think about times you have been silent in conversation. Are you typically a “talker” or do you more often occupy a listening role (in class, at work, at home, in a public space, and elsewhere)? Which reasons for silence are most recognizable or resonate most with your experience? Which are new ideas to you or reasons that don’t ever apply to your own silences? Are you more comfortable with your own silence or with others’ silence? What contexts of deliberate silence (or non-speech) can you name and how familiar are you with them? Are there reasons for silence that you don’t see represented among these eight basic categories? 

Next Week . . . We will be reading It’s Time to Talk (and Listen): How to Have Constructive Conversations About Race, Class, Sexuality, Ability & Gender in a Polarized World (by Anastasia S. Kim and Alicia del Prado, 2019).

Summer Reading Series: Intergroup Dialogues

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

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

Title: Introduction to Intergroup Dialogues (published 2021; $73-$95; available for purchase HERE)

Editor: Stephanie Hicks

Context of Creation: This is a brand-new textbook designed for use in courses built around the concept of intergroup dialogue–“a form of social justice education that seeks to engage difference, social identity, and social justice” (2). It is a publication out of the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan, one of the most longstanding and best-known dialogue-based programs in higher education. It follows other volumes such as Intergroup Dialogue: Engaging Difference, Social Identities and Social Justice (eds. Zúñiga, Lopez, and Ford, 2014) and Facilitating Intergroup Dialogues (Maxwell, Nagda, and Thompson, 2011). Stephanie Hicks is a lecturer in the IGR program at Michigan. 

Context of Reception: I read half of this book on a picnic blanket in a park and the other half nestled in a window seat, both during the first week of living in my new home city of Philadelphia. The familiar concepts of the book came to me within a context of newness (the unfamiliar, exciting environment of a beautiful old city park), chaos (the unpacked boxes and disassembled furniture surrounding my window seat refuge in the new apartment), and difference (every time my eye wandered up, I saw something that contrasted in an immediate visual way with Austin, from the tall trees and Victorian-era rowhouses to the ethnic diversity of the people in my neighborhood). 

Overview of Structure and Content: The four units of the reader are based on the four stages of the intergroup dialogue model: 1) relationship-building, 2) social identity exploration, 3) hot topics, and 4) action planning. The units are not evenly balanced in terms of number of chapters or readings per unit: Unit 1 contains two chapters and one reading, while Unit 2 contains six chapters and 12 total readings. Unit 3 is a single, short chapter with no secondary source reading, while Unit 4 is comprised of two chapters and seven readings. Thus, although the introduction presents the textbook as a resource “created with student participants and facilitators in mind,” it is not primarily a skillbuilding handbook (there are really only two chapters that directly address the skills of participating in/facilitating dialogue — Chapter 2, “Affirming Inquiry,” and Chapter 9, “Exploring Conflict on Campus, in Communities, and Beyond,” both of which are very short at 2-3 pages). Rather, it is a collection of short readings, accompanied by pre-and post-reading reflective discussion questions and key term definitions, intended to introduce students to basic concepts related to social identity, oppression, and privilege. A number of these texts are drawn from Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (4th ed. 2018), such as the “-ism: An Introduction” texts and Bobbie Harro’s “Cycle of Socialization/Cycle of Liberation” graphics. Many of these texts are linked in our Difficult Dialogues resources at UT-Austin. Others come from people affiliated with IGR at UMich and/or are identified by the editor as “classic” social justice education texts (xiii), including particularly useful texts by (among others) Beverly Daniel Tatum, Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, Derald Wing Sue, Iris Marion Young, Devon W. Carbado, and Eesha Pandit. 

Three Thought-Starters for Teachers: 

  • Social Justice Education. As a dialogic model, intergroup dialogue is explicitly grounded in a social justice mission, with critical awareness leading into deliberate action towards change-making. Other models, such as Reflective Structured Dialogue, Story Circles, and Moral Conversation (all summarized, along with four other models, in this graphic), do not include action as part of the goals but rather focus on cultivating understanding and respect for difference. Given that Introduction to Intergroup Dialogues is a course reader, with the four stages of intergroup dialogue all presumably (necessarily) connected to a system of assessment, I wonder what structuring “action planning” into a course’s learning objectives means for student experience and engagement.
  • What is your purpose for including dialogue in your course(s)? How do you know if that purpose has been fulfilled? 
  • What do you think “authentic engagement” means (for what and how you teach)? (How) Can it be assessed? 
  • What are the pitfalls of a dialogic pedagogy that does not require or encourage direct action as a component of engaging with others across lines of ideological and identity-based difference? 
  • What are the pitfalls of a dialogic pedagogy that does require or encourage “action-taking” as part of the dialogue process? 

  • Against Curiosity. The intergroup dialogue model distinguishes between three basic kinds of inquiry: interrogation, curiosity, and affirming inquiry. The last of these is a “facilitation approach and set of techniques” central to the intergroup dialogue model (8). Curiosity, located in what we can imagine is the middle of a spectrum between the obvious non-goal of interrogative engagement and the ideal of affirming inquiry, seeks “explanation or insight” into unfamiliar experiences and concepts, comes from an attitude of “naivety, assumed normalcy, [and] unexamined privilege,” and is likely to result in the subject of the inquiry feeling “tokenized, ‘othered,’ commoditized, exploited, or used.” Affirming inquiry, in contrast, stresses “the mutual exploration of experiences/narratives by sharing and inviting others to share” (9). I am intrigued by this characterization of “curiosity” as a style of engagement akin to “interrogation” and “inquiry,” not (just) an orientation or motivation. 
  • What is your response to this description of curiosity as a colonialist sort of pursuit? 
  • Is curiosity a predetermined mode of engagement and interaction with the other or is it an affect? That is — can curiosity be channeled towards other ends besides tokenization, commodification, and exploitation? Can we stimulate and encourage curiosity without implicitly affirming invasive or appropriative means towards its satisfaction? How? 
  • If not — if curiosity is always already objectifying — what are other, better orientations or motivations for learning? How do we stimulate and encourage them in students?  
  • Privilege Discourse. The readings in Unit 2, which are focused on social identity and various “isms” of identity-based oppression, are frequently directed at a reader who is presumed to be in a position of privilege relative to the social identity in question and unaware of their privilege. It’s clear that the editor has selected texts whose authors represent a variety of identity positions vis-a-vis the topic at hand, but the intended audiences seem a much less diverse group. (The final reading in the book, “Loving Ourselves” by Susana M. Morris, is explicitly addressed to people of color, but I think it is the only one written expressly for a non-dominant identity group.) Several follow the lead of Peggy McIntosh’s seminal 1989 “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” essay on White privilege by including lists of examples of privilege, written in first-person plural (“Being a young person with wealth gives us an unspoken advantage,” in a reading on class privilege (151)) or second-person perspective (“You can worship freely, without fear of violence or threats,” in a reading on Christian privilege (199)). I began thinking about the ways in which privilege discourse often seems ironically to (re)center privileged identities when reading Being the Change a couple weeks ago, and I continue to think this through, now in relation, especially, to issues of class difference raised in last week’s reading, How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus. I am going to share the questions that keep reverberating in my head with you.
  • Why does it seem to be so consistently assumed that anyone, especially any college student, who occupies a less-advantaged identity position is already fully aware of all of the disadvantages they experience as a result and has fully “unpacked” and come to nuanced understanding of those disadvantages? (Sometimes this is explicitly stated, as in “non-White people are already very aware of their racial status and its implications,” while other times it is suggested more implicitly through omission of consideration.) What might unexamined instructor assumptions related to the socioeconomic class, political ideologies, and national/geographic origin of university students have to do with it? 
  • Why are so very few of these social justice readings for students on power and privilege directed at or “for” members of the less-privileged groups in question? To be clear, I think ongoing reflections on privilege are absolutely essential; I am not criticizing the existence of very useful “examine your privilege” texts or suggesting they be eliminated. 
  • What would these readings look like if they were? How would the ensuing dialogue be different (in structure, in tone, in goal)? What does a social justice conversation look like that does not start with confessionals around privileges and disadvantages that seem, always, to focus on the learning experience or the “awakening” of the privileged? (I am thinking of those exercises in which participants are exhorted to step forward for every statement of privilege that applies to them, creating a visual representation by the end of just how “far behind” the least privileged folks are.) 

Two Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation: 

  • The LARA method. Intergroup dialogue advocates a four-step response pattern for both participants and facilitators in dialogue called the LARA method: Listen, Affirm, Respond, and Affirming inquiry. This means that, regardless of what someone has shared, facilitators should model deep listening for connection and understanding. They should affirm the contribution, which is categorically different from expressing agreement or approval; affirming the contribution means, at a minimum, acknowledging the speaker with thanks or by paraphrasing what they have said to confirm understanding. In my interpretation, it is an expression of trust in the speaker: that they have integrity, that they are good enough to want to learn from their errors and intelligent enough to do so. Only after affirming, according to the LARA method, should the facilitator (or participants) respond to the actual content of the contribution; here, disagreement, correction, or pushback can be expressed. The final step, affirming inquiry, involves sharing one’s own perspective and inviting others to share their own, to ensure mutuality and equal vulnerability. 
  • Testimonials. “In intergroup dialogue,” Hicks writes, “we write testimonials in order to reflect on the impact that our membership in various social identity categories has had on our lives” (59). Testimonials are written with the understanding that they will be shared with the group. In this way, I suggest, “dialogue” expands beyond the merely oral and can continue asynchronously in written form. Testimonials can be integrated into dialogue in many ways, but I also suggest that it is powerful to offer a testimonial (or any other form of statement) without any response other than, perhaps, affirmation. bell hooks mentions using testimonials in Teaching to Transgress; Story Circles, as a dialogic model, is also based on oral testimony of a sort. Hicks identifies four parameters of a good testimonial that can be shared with students (I have paraphrased them here): 
    1. It is a specific story of something that has happened to you.
    2. You are willing to share it. 
    3. You remember it well enough to write about it.
    4. It focuses on an incident related to a particular social identity, but other social identities intersect and may be mentioned also.  

One In-Depth Activity: How I Got Here: A Testimonial

This activity borrows the notion of the testimonial and refers to Dori Laub’s seminal work on the topic of testimony and the need for an “addressable other” to stress the relational nature of testimony. Rather than introduce the testimonial as part of the “exploring social identities” stage of the intergroup dialogue process, however, as Introduction to Intergroup Dialogues does, I have designed this activity to be done in the first stage of relationship-building and dialogue skills development. Rather than speak to their experiences related to a particular social identity, students are asked to craft a narrative of “how they got here,” for the principal purpose of affirming everyone’s unique pathway to the university and right to belong, as well as practicing the critical dialogic skill of deep listening. The prompt itself takes inspiration from the Blanton Museum’s digital video resource “Belonging,” which could be included in this testimony activity. In leaving “how I got here” fairly open to interpretation as a prompt, I also intend the activity as a kind of assessment to gauge how students are (and aren’t) already thinking about (their) privilege, regardless of which identity positions they occupy. It strikes me that a great deal of the friction I am feeling with privilege discourse in these readings has to do with the way it is so (necessarily) generalized; this activity allows instructors (and participants!) to become aware of and responsive to the actual people in the room, where they come from, and how they are thinking and feeling. It also grounds an ongoing discussion of privilege and oppression related to various social identities in the one privilege everyone in the room is almost guaranteed to share, which is the privilege of a college education at (in UT’s case) a top-ranked, selective institution. Awareness of the privilege of being college students, spending part of their days in high-minded dialogues for the purpose of their own economic, social, intellectual, or moral betterment, is, in my mind, a good starting point from which to begin to empower students as critical agents. 

The dialogue that follows the testimonial sharing should ask questions that prompt critical self-reflection such as: 

  • Now that you have listened to others’ testimonies, what do you notice about the approach you took in your own? Was your tone defensive, proud, shamefaced, apologetic, or something else? Did you focus on yourself as an individual or make a lot of reference to your family, your community, or your identity? Why do you think that is? 
  • What did others express awareness about regarding their own history and journey that you did not? What did you express awareness about that others did not? 
  • Why do you think I asked you to do this activity? What do you feel has been the result, for you personally or for the group as a whole? 

Next Week . . . We will be reading Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence (by Megan Boler, 2004).

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: 

Pluralism 

“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.

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