Celebrating a Semester of Community- and Skills-Building with the Difficult Dialogues Faculty Learning Community

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

This semester, in response to feedback from former faculty learning community members as well as attendees of our Fall 2020 orientation and open faculty meetings, we reimagined the format of our Difficult Dialogues faculty learning community (FLC). Our FLC meetings became a series of drop-in, bimonthly Friday meetings, alternating between skill-building workshops led by standout Difficult Dialogues faculty and open, unstructured conversations about dialogue in theory and practice. As with so many pandemic-era adaptations and experiments, we were trying hard to be responsive to people’s needs but unsure about how this would go. Would burned-out faculty want to spend the energy and the time to share and learn about dialogic pedagogy on Friday afternoons? Would the drop-in structure and lack of a formal commitment to the group still allow for meaningful community-building? 

As it turned out, yes! We could not be more pleased with the resilience, generosity, and engagement demonstrated by the more than 20 people who turned out for our eight hour-long sessions during the Spring 2021 semester — over half of whom attended multiple sessions. This post takes a look back over the semester, gathering together some of the most meaningful insights and practices shared over the course of the semester. It mimics in structure the same alternating pattern of our Friday meetings: highlights from our four faculty-led workshops are interspersed with stories of success shared by participants in our final open conversation on May 7. If you have additional stories of success to share, please let us know in the comments! 

Faculty-Led Workshop #1: “Self-Care” with Professor Gloria González-López

Dr. Gloria González-López (Sociology) set a wonderfully warm tone for our semester of work together during her January 29 workshop on self-care. 

One great technique: Collective Freewriting. Gloria modeled two examples of how she did this activity in her UGS/DD course after the Nov. 2020 election. First, she asked students to write a statement in response to the question, “How are you feeling now that the results of the election are known?” She compiled all of the statements in a single document, first with students’ names included, and then removed the names to create a collectively-authored poem. She facilitated a longer version of this activity the day immediately following the election, when results were not yet finalized, asking students to freewrite for 10 minutes in response to the topic of “uncertainty.” They shared their responses afterwards, and then her TA created a poem by picking out lines from their writing and knitting them together into verses. This poem was reshared with the entire class. In both cases, she asked students to reflect on the activity itself as well as share their responses to the prompt with the question, “How was that for you?”

One conceptual takeaway: Self-care is a collective and mutual practice. The privilege of being allowed to connect to others’ emotions provides care to me, even as my invitation to others to reflect and express themselves provides care to them. 

One additional resource: Gloria’s Daily Texan op-ed, “Teaching Discomfort at UT-Austin.

DD Faculty Success Story: Finding Community with Other Faculty

Dr. Louis Waldman (Art History) shared that they felt a “far greater sense of community this year” in comparison with other years. Louis noted that the pandemic created a new urgency to support faculty through the transition to online teaching as well as to create community more generally, and thanks to everyone’s new facility with Zoom, there were more opportunities to create community, in a way that was logistically easier than ever before. “Normally my only audience is my students,” Louis said. “Being able to share what I’m doing with other faculty has been a great source of energy, encouragement, and strength.” 

Faculty-Led Workshop #2: “Dialogic Meaning-Making through Multiple Modes” with Professor Katie Dawson and Beth Link 

Dr. Katie Dawson (Theatre and Dance) and Beth Link (Curriculum and Instruction) did a beautiful job modeling collaborative teaching practices in their March 12 workshop on dialogue in multiple modes. 

One great technique: Watercolor Conversations. Link, an arts educator, led participants in a non-verbal dialogue structure entitled “Watercolor Conversations.” In this activity, participants were split into pairs, and each pair of participants conducted a back-and-forth, silent conversation by taking turns to build upon each other’s drawings on a single canvas. (We used a digital painting tool called aggie.io; in a face-to-face setting, instructors would need to provide paper and watercolor paints, crayons, or markers.) Link prompted participants to consider what abstract elements–colors, shapes, and lines–might represent different emotions or states of mind. She instructed us to follow certain conversational conventions as we painted: one person initiated the non-verbal dialogue by painting an abstract shape or line that expressed how they were feeling, the other responded to it, and their partner responded to them in kind. Participants were encouraged to paint in the same space–i.e., not have a “one-sided” conversation–to be mindful of how much space they were taking up in the canvas, and to avoid “interrupting.” Each participant engaged in visual dialogue with their partner for about five minutes while soft music played. Back in the whole group, Link led a post-dialogue reflection, in which participants considered the experience of having performed the watercolor conversation (“warm,” “supportive,” and “happy” were some of the reports) as well as the activity’s potential application in the classroom. Community building and norm-setting were emphasized as this activity’s main benefits, as the visual medium provides a grounding literality to discuss with students the importance of listening, responsiveness, and not taking up too much space in the dialogue. 

One conceptual takeaway: Embodied and visual modes that both respond to different learning styles and attend to students as whole people are powerful tools for community-building.

One additional resource: See this blog post for two other techniques Katie and Beth demonstrated in their workshop. 

DD Faculty Success Story: Students as Teaching Partners 

Dr. Tonia Guida (College of Natural Sciences) collaborated with the Faculty Innovation Center to make students in her DEI Concentration course her teaching partners. Four students from the course were selected to collaborate with Tonia over a 4-5 week period to provide feedback and guidance on the course content and assessments. She met with her student partners for 30 minutes once a week, with their main role being to help design the final project assignment for the course, including the rubric. The students explained the final project assignment to the rest of the class, positioning themselves as conduits to power representing students’ interests. The response from students has been incredibly positive, Tonia said, and the quality of their work was impressive, demonstrating the value of sharing power with students and trusting them to rise to high expectations. Tonia said, “I’m floored by how amazing projects can be when you leave them open-ended.” 

Faculty-Led Workshop #3: “Helping Students Think Through Positionality” with Professor Shetal Vohra-Gupta

Dr. Shetal Vohra-Gupta (Social Work) provided incredibly useful and concrete techniques for integrating reflection, dialogue, and action related to positionality in a scaffolded, logical way for students in her March 26 workshop.

One great technique: Positionality Statements. Vohra-Gupta stressed the importance of participating in critical self-reflection around identity as an instructor–not just having students do so. She explained that she does this for multiple reasons: to model reflection for students, to acknowledge and ameliorate to some degree the power imbalance between instructor and student, and to engage with her own positionality as a scholar and teacher on a regular, ongoing basis. Vohra-Gupta shared a short positionality statement of about three sentences that she uses to introduce students both to herself as an instructor and to the content and format of a positionality statement. Her statement contains a list of three or so of her primary social identities, as well as a definition of her scholarly and pedagogical identities (for example, as a feminist and critical race scholar). She invites students, after they have participated in a social identity mapping activity, to craft their own positionality statements. 

One conceptual takeaway: Navigating positionality shouldn’t stop at naming identities and reflecting on privilege — to be truly transformational, those reflections should be applied in increasingly more rigorous and complex ways throughout the semester. 

One additional resource: See this blog post to learn about the activities Shetal uses to build up to, and build upon, this positionality statement activity. 

DD Faculty Success Story: Responding to Student Feedback

Karen Landolt J.D. (Computer Science and Business, Government, and Society) described how she adjusted content in her ethics courses to respond to students’ interests. Though she has previously had great success in using Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book to teach conflict resolution and dialogue skills through role play based on the book, the exercise fell flat this time around. Karen sought student feedback: they didn’t feel the book’s themes were connected enough to the course focus. Rather than push forward with her syllabus before students had adequately practiced the target skills, Karen responded by returning to resources and selecting a new role play scenario: the “roommates fighting over doing dishes” scenario from Difficult Conversations (Patton, Stone, and Heen 1999). Students found this much more relatable and were able to have a successful role play. 

Faculty-Led Workshop #4: “‘Warm Calling’ and Collaborative Annotation” with Professor Danica Sumpter 

Dr. Danica Sumpter (Nursing) led a highly effective exercise in dogfooding (i.e., trying out pedagogical techniques yourself first) in her April 23 workshop on collaborative annotation as a means to prepare students for dialogue. 

One great technique: Collaborative Annotation with Hypo.thesis. Sumpter’s procedure is quite simple: using the Hypo.thesis plugin for Canvas, she uploads a text to the course site and assigns students to read and annotate the text together by the night before the class is scheduled to meet to discuss the text at hand. Sumpter can prime the students to attend to certain questions by inserting questions into the margins, or help them understand uncommon or debated terms by providing definitions in the margins. Using the various features of Hypo.thesis, students can respond to the questions Sumpter poses for them as well as highlight and comment on sections of text that strike them as particularly interesting or puzzling. They can respond to each other in comment threads, thus initiating a conversation about the text in writing before they are called upon to do so orally during class. Ahead of the synchronous course meeting, Sumpter reads through the comments students have made, looking for trends, misunderstandings, particularly poignant comments, and questions. This, she explained, gives her valuable insight into students’ understanding of the text ahead of their class discussion. She uses their collective annotations to guide the questions she formulates for students to respond to in dialogue. In class, Sumpter will highlight trends as well as individual responses, inviting students to reflect and further elaborate on their responses.

One conceptual takeaway: “Warm calling” is a desirable alternative to “cold calling” that implies that students will have the opportunity to prepare for being called on to some extent. This is one great way to practice Universal Design for Learning. 

One additional resource: See this blog post for more from Danica’s workshop. 

DD Faculty Success Story: Accessing the World 

Dr. Pauline Strong (Anthropology; Director of the Humanities Center) shared how one of the gifts of the COVID era has been the new global accessibility of museums. Normally, the final project of her Museum Studies course would be based on one of the Austin-area museums she and students would have visited together over the course of the semester. This semester, Polly said, she asked students to choose a museum they thought had adapted well to the pandemic. “They came up with amazing projects from all around the world,” Polly said. She described how museums’ move to digitize exhibits and engage visitors virtually will have a transformative impact far beyond the pandemic.

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