Summer Reading Series: Creating Space for Democracy

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

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

Title: Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (published in 2019; $37; available for purchase here)

Editors: Nicholas V. Longo and Timothy J. Shaffer 

Context of Creation: This is an edited volume containing contributions from 45 educators, including the two editors. Longo is a professor of global studies and public and community service at Providence College; Shaffer is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Kansas State University. The book grows out of the authors’ prior work and collaborations related to what they have termed “deliberative pedagogy,” an education process that includes authentic and constructive dialogue as a key component in preparing students to encounter diverse perspectives and make informed choices as citizens (broadly, not legally, defined) in a democracy. 

Context of Reception: I haven’t yet finished this book. I work only quarter-time as Difficult Dialogues Program Coordinator, and nearly half of my hours for the week had already been absorbed by responses and deliberations related to the previous post in this series before I started work on this week’s reading and blog post. I share this in order to enact two gestures I consider important. The first is to make labor and its constraints more visible, and thereby resist the often unspoken but strongly felt expectation in the academy for uniform and steady production regardless of external stressors or unforeseen impediments (though I want to make clear that this is not an expectation of the Humanities Institute in particular, which functions incredibly humanely, in my experience!). The second is to demonstrate the necessity that so often comes up in dialogue and dialogic processes to slow down: circle back, rethink, hear new responses, and adjust course. Thus, I read the introduction and initial, framing chapter of Creating Space for Democracy, then decided to focus (for now) on Part II of the book as the section I thought might be most immediately useful for myself and others. I will be continuing to work my way through the rest of the text as I can. 

Overview of Structure and Content 

Following an introduction and a framing chapter written by the editors entitled “Discussing Democracy: Learning to Talk Together,” Creating Space for Democracy is organized into five thematic parts containing chapters written by contributors. Part I, “Concepts and Theories,” offers three chapters of different conceptual frameworks. Part II, “Methods of Dialogue and Deliberation,” contains seven chapters, in each of which a different model for dialogue is presented by representatives from seven different dialogue-driven organizations. Part III, “Dialogue and Deliberation in the Curriculum,” provides four chapters in which contributors describe and reflect on efforts to integrate dialogue and deliberation at their respective higher ed institutions. Part IV, “Dialogue and Deliberation Using College Spaces,” includes three case studies of campus dialogue in spaces beyond the classroom, including student centers, libraries, and residence halls. Part V, “Dialogue and Deliberation in the Community,” contains four chapters about collaborations between colleges and universities and the community to create dialogue spaces (including a chapter on “front porch conversations” in Austin from Suchitra V. Gururaj and Virginia A. Cumberbatch of UT-Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement!). Finally, Part VI, “Dialogue and Deliberation Networks,” contains three chapters detailing cross-institutional networks for resources and engagement. 

7 Models for Dialogue

I have created a snapshot overview of the seven different models for dialogue presented in Creating Space in this infographic (also available online HERE). I include the defining elements of each approach, the stated goals, the facilitator’s role, its origin and genealogy, and sample materials sourced directly from each organization that illustrate their approach. Organizations and materials are hyperlinked in the chart for further exploration. 

I hope that this chart is useful as a quick reference for instructors to compare and contrast the basic structure, goals, and background of a few dialogic models, so that they can explore the model(s) that interest them. Beyond that, here are a few ideas for how instructors might use this resource with students: 

  • Share these models with students at the beginning of the semester and ask for their thoughts and feedback. You might divide a class into 7 small groups and assign each group a model to further research. Groups present their summaries and thoughts on their assigned model to the rest of the class, and the class deliberates together over which model feels most appropriate for the content and aims of the course, balanced with student interests and identities. 
  • Select one or more different approaches to practice over the course of the semester. Share the background, goals, and structures of the model(s) you have chosen and your decision-making process and rationale with students upfront. Create structures for students to provide feedback and reflection on their experiences with each approach you have chosen. 
  • Have student facilitators select an approach to practice themselves as they lead dialogues. 

Are there other approaches to dialogue you have encountered or created? Do you have other thoughts on how to involve students in the process of selecting and/or reflecting on different approaches to dialogue? Please let us know in the comments! 

Next Week . . . 

We will be reading Teaching Through Challenges for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (Storms, Donovan, and Williams, 2020). 

Summer Reading Series: How to Have Impossible Conversations (UPDATE)

By Dr. Sarah Ropp

Title: How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (published in 2019; $17; available for purchase here)

Authors: Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay

Update June 7, 2021

It’s come to my attention, via a Salon article that my colleague Melissa Biggs at the Humanities Institute shared with me, that both James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian are currently involved in crusades to delegitimize critical race theory and gender studies. According to the article, they also have links to white supremacist networks and have promoted COVID conspiracy theories. 

My first urge was to gut the post entirely. I do not wish to amplify the voices of these authors. I frequently found their tone and rhetoric repellent when I was reading the book, and I find the political beliefs and public behavior described in the Salon article abhorrent. 

As a scholar and teacher of literature, however, I believe that the reader has power. Power to determine for themself what they need texts, and their authors, to do and be for them. Power to reject a text and/or its authors for failing, for whatever reason, to deliver what they need from them. Power to pull meanings out of texts that the author never intended but that are available in the text to be pulled and applied to the reader’s own purposes, which may be very, very different from the author’s (or even the text’s) purposes. 

My post on How to Have Impossible Conversations is an attempt to exercise reader’s power — to find what I can pull out of a text and apply towards my own purposes for dialogue, which are pretty clearly different from the authors’ purposes (as I acknowledge in the original post, the text of which, below, I have not changed at all). I believe that to find bits and pieces of the text that can align, or can be made to align through conscious repurposing, to decolonialist and anti-racist pedagogies is not an endorsement or misreading of the authors. Nor does it (necessarily) erase, excuse, or wallpaper over their harmful ideologies and actions. Rather, it can be an act of resistance against them and those like them. 

If I had been more aware of the authors ahead of reading, I wouldn’t have read the book at all. But since I can’t unread it, I also won’t unwrite my thoughts about it (yet) — just add to them, in light of new information, and also allow them to further develop and evolve in light of further thought and (I hope!) discussion from this community. Maybe this post will end up coming down entirely. Should it?

I would love to hear from you publicly (in the comments) or privately (via email: about your thoughts on any of what I’ve written above or below.

Context of Creation: This is a mass-market text for a broad audience written by a philosophy professor and a mathematics PhD. Its purpose is to “[offer] solutions to the problems of timidity, incivility, fear, and distrust that blight our conversational landscapes” (6). Defining “impossible conversations” as ones that “feel futile because they take place across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf of disagreement in ideas, beliefs, morals, politics, or worldviews” (3), the authors promise to help the reader “learn how to intervene in someone’s thinking and help them change their own mind and how to mutually search for truth” (8).

Context of Reception: I read Impossible Conversations on a plane from Austin to a city on the east coast. I began it in a spirit of agitation; my six-year-old son had been uncharacteristically whiny and uncooperative in the airport, and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the read, anyway. I was intensely irritated by the hyper-confident, corporate sales-pitch tone of the introduction, which I interpreted as stereotypically white and male: the authors assure the reader that they’ve “included exactly what you need to immediately have effective conversations across deep divides” (7) based on “proven, evidence-based techniques” (6). The book felt like it was going to be gimmicky, full of “tips and tricks” to convert a conversation partner cast permanently as less logical and rational than oneself rather than tools for authentic engagement and mutual respect and learning. As I got into the section on building rapport in the first chapter, however, I slowed down, recognizing many of the “tips” as community-building practices I’ve advocated for (and others as good ideas new to me). How is this different from building community? I asked myself. Is it just the corporate-rhetoric connotations of the word “rapport” that I’m chafing at? Is it the “instant results,” one-conversation focus? Does it really matter if the authors are talking about dialogue with a different purpose than (I think) I’m going for? Isn’t it possible that there’s still something of value within this text? I reminded myself that to take an adversarial stance and read (only) to critique and condemn rather than (also) to learn and be challenged is to reproduce exactly the kind of combative discursive engagement I want to unlearn and help students unlearn. My heart rate slowed, my son nestled comfortably into my side, and I read on — continuing to register the book’s missed marks (such as the authors’ citation of exclusively male scholars and dismissal of identity) but open to whatever might be of use. 

Overview of Structure and Content 

The seven chapters of How to Have Impossible Conversations are organized as a series of lists that sequentially build expertise, from the fundamentals of a good conversation for pre-beginners to “master level” approaches to handling ideologues (e.g. “Beginner Level: Nine Ways to Start Changing Minds”). 

3 Thought-Starters for Teachers


“Friendships based solely on religious or political agreement are rarely sustainable, at least until some deeper substance to the relationship is found. In fact, friendships with these bases can be the opposite of sustainable, as people with weak interpersonal ties often become more guarded and warier when small differences in opinion manifest themselves over time. In a relationship built only upon superficial moral markers like religious or political identity, small differences can threaten the only basis the relationship has” (74). 

  • To what extent do you agree or disagree with this idea, based on your own experiences and observations? If not religious and political identity, what (else) constitutes a strong interpersonal tie between people? 
  • What implications does this idea have for the classroom or college campus, where people are both interacting with people different from them in ways they might not have encountered before and forming (often very important) new relationships? 

Golden Bridges 

The authors define a Golden Bridge as “a means by which your conversation partner can change his or her mind gracefully and avoid social embarrassment.” The opposite of ridiculing and shaming, a Golden Bridge is a statement that affirms the other’s inherent desire to be good and do right, not for the purpose of excusing wrong thinking or behavior but in order to make it easier for a person to acknowledge the wrongness of their thinking or behavior and change it. Examples include “I can see where you were coming from,” “There’s so much confusing and inaccurate information out there and it’s so hard to sift through it all,” or “I don’t think you meant to say something offensive.” The authors write, “Golden Bridges are particularly important if someone believes they’re knowledgeable about a specific issue, is deeply morally invested, or faces a challenge to their sense of personal, moral identity” (76-77). 

  • What is your reaction to the notion of a Golden Bridge? Have you responded to students or colleagues with some version of a Golden Bridge before? 
  • What is the relationship between a Golden Bridge and the emphasis on affirmation stressed in Stop Talking
  • How might you integrate Golden Bridges into norms for dialogue or invite students to consider their utility and value? 


“Outsourcing is a broad strategy for turning to outside information to answer the question ‘How do you know that?’ The goal is to help your conversation partner become curious enough to want to know how they can justify their knowledge claims, or to help you realize something you haven’t had access to.” The authors stress that in a tense, emotionally fraught conversation, unsolicited “data dumping,” or references to fact-based evidence, is rarely received well even when the information people are referencing is precise and accurate — which it often is not. Outsourcing, as I choose to interpret it, is a way to slow the conversation down by seeking to draw closer to sources of information about the topic (to echo an idea from Stop Talking). While the authors focus on “experts,” “evidence,” and “counterarguments” in a sort of judicial sense — a quest for empirical, objective truth — I would suggest that part of the outsourcing conversation might be to ask, “Whose voices are missing?” or “Who are the stakeholders here, and where would we go to find the information that each stakeholder might find most important?” Such questions allow for a more nuanced consideration of what constitutes meaningful “evidence” besides/in addition to statistics and other forms of quantitative data. 

  • How do you generally intervene when students make sweeping or unsubstantiated claims in dialogue? Have you encouraged outsourcing before?
  • Thinking of a particular course, if you were to curate an archive of sources for students to refer to during typical conversations, what academic and, especially, non-academic resources would it include besides the texts already on your syllabus? 
  • What about “insourcing” — that is, in which contexts is it appropriate to allow/invite students to be themselves the source of meaningful evidence within a conversation? 

2 Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation 

Set Purpose for Dialogue 

The authors of Impossible Conversations provide a succinct list of the main reasons people choose to engage in a conversation with each other, which I have adapted into an infographic entitled “Why Are We Here? 7 Main Purposes for Dialogue,” available as a PDF HERE (also available online HERE). 

You might explore these purposes with students and ask them when they have engaged in dialogue for each of these reasons in the past. What were those experiences like? Which form of engagement felt most meaningful for them? What behaviors and language were typical for each kind of dialogue? Have students decide collectively what the purpose of their dialogue(s) will be, in general and/or before each new dialogue session. 

Define Terms Together 

Sometimes, the authors write, apparent clashes of ideology are really just superficial clashes of words: “Someone might say, for example, ‘I hate the government,’ when they mean they hate intrusive government, corruption, bureaucracy, concentrated political authority, or regulations that don’t comport with their values. Someone else might claim they like the government when they really mean they want security, stability, social services, and infrastructure. If these two people have a conversation about ‘the government,’ there’s a risk they’ll argue even if they agree about almost every issue of policy. Such clashes are frustrating because they appear to be substantive but are really about the meanings of words” (41). 

Take time before, during, and after dialogue to define important terms that will be, are, or have been in use. This can be simple and top-down: “For the purpose of today’s conversation, ‘diversity’ refers to. . . .” Or it can be process-driven and collaborative, with students contributing definitions of their own, looking up meanings, and engaging in dialogue about what a given term means. Or it can be more meta: Use a tool like Mentimeter to have students explore the connotations a word holds for them by creating a word cloud, and then discuss definitions. Take time in the middle of dialogue to stop and highlight the different ways in which a key word is being used and urge participants towards clarification and consensus around meaning, if necessary. After dialogue, have students describe how their understanding of, or relationship to, a key word in the conversation changed as a result. 

One In-Depth Activity: The Unread Library Effect 

The authors of Impossible Conversations identify a fallacy common among anyone with strong opinions that they dub the “unread library effect” — basically, a tendency to believe that you know or understand much more about a given topic than you really do, because of the access that you have (or exposure you have had) to other people’s expertise. We not only claim intimate familiarity with a topic on the basis of relatively shallow engagement, we also formulate strong opinions about that topic on the basis of this imagined familiarity — like never actually reading that book you bought on sight because you liked the cover and the blurbs on the back, but feeling confident about telling people what a good book it is. Therefore, becoming aware of our own susceptibility to the unread library effect (and where our knowledge, imagined or real, comes from) can help us develop deeper understanding of the issues we care about as well as greater empathy for others’ strongly held beliefs. 

HERE is an activity whose purpose is to guide students to self-awareness about the unread library effect, as well as reflection about the sources from which they derive their knowledge and understanding. It can be done as in-class independent freewriting, at-home writing, in-class dialogue with a partner, or some combination of these. It is designed to be inductive — that is, rather than being introduced to the meaning and purpose of the activity upfront, students are asked to think critically about its purpose at the end (and guess at a definition for “unread library effect”). It is important to stress, though, that the point is not to “catch” people in a state of ignorance or shame them for incomplete understanding. The point is also definitely not to validate one source of information, such as academic research, over another, such as culturally or experientially derived knowledge. Rather, it is to reflect on unacknowledged gaps in understanding. 

The authors of Impossible Conversations also stress the importance of “modeling ignorance” by acknowledging the gaps in your own knowledge and understanding whenever possible, as well as modeling self-reflectiveness around how your own beliefs and ideas have developed (37). Therefore, it would be particularly powerful to participate in this activity alongside your students, preferably early on in the semester in order to establish an atmosphere that allows for vulnerability, not-knowing, and self-awareness. 

Next week . . . 

We will be reading Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education, edited by Timothy J. Shaffer and Nicholas V. Longo (2019)


Summer Reading Series: “Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning”

This is the first post in our dialogic pedagogies summer reading series; for more information and a complete list of texts, see here. Not all posts will be as long as what follows — this week’s text is just a particularly rich one for inspiring thought and practice. 🙂 

By Sarah Ropp

Title: Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (published 2013; available for free via PDF HERE)

Authors: Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff and Libby Roderick

Context of Creation: This book comes out of a weeklong faculty intensive organized through a partnership between Alaska Native educators, Elders, and community members and two Anchorage, Alaska-based public universities: University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and Alaska Pacific University (APU). The book is a follow-up to 2008’s Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (edited by Kay Landis; free PDF available HERE). The UAA/APU Difficult Dialogues programming, funded by the Ford Foundation’s national Difficult Dialogues initiative, is considered a torchbearer in the field of dialogic pedagogies, in large part on the strength of these two open-access texts. 

Context of Reception: I read most of this book sitting in my backyard, on a pleasant May day in Austin, Texas. As the authors encouraged, I took frequent breaks to breathe, reflect, and connect to my environment, attending to the sunlight filtering through the leaves, the birdsong, the temporary drone of landscaping machinery, a hovering mosquito, some new mushrooms in the grass from the rain. At one point, barely into my reading, a squirrel ventured close to me. She rose up to rest on her back legs, made eye contact with me, and mimed eating a nut, nibbling at the air between empty paws. She came closer, and put a paw on the orange suede toe of my sneaker. I had my legs crossed, so she had to stand and reach for my foot; the pressure of her paw was delicate. I had never before interacted with our backyard squirrels. Her presence brought me happiness, and infused the reading of this book with added pleasure and significance. 

I give thanks to the Alaska Native educators and Elders whose words are featured in Stop Talking, as well as the authors of the book, for sharing their knowledge and making it available free of cost. I acknowledge that my home in Austin sits on indigenous land and pay respect to the Carrizo & Comecrudo, Coahuiltecan, Caddo, Tonkawa, Comanche, Lipan Apache, Alabama-Coushatta, Kickapoo, Tigua Pueblo, and all the American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands and territories in Texas, here on Turtle Island. (I also thank Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) at UT-Austin for providing the language of this acknowledgement.) 

Overview of Structure and Content: The structure of the book mimics the programming of the five-day faculty intensive and reproduces much of its content, in order to give the reader something of the experience of participating and learning alongside non-Native faculty members and the Alaska Native people who served as their guides and leaders. The book, directed at transdisciplinary higher-ed faculty, quite clearly assumes a reader who is non-Native and may be unfamiliar with decolonialist thought and pedagogy. Besides summaries of each day’s programming and content and some contextual information on Alaska education and Alaska Native issues, the chapters contain these basic elements: 

  1. Short written essays and transcripts of oral stories, performances, conversations, and talks that represent the direct voice of indigenous Elders, teachers, performers, and community members present at the faculty intensive. They speak mainly to indigenous ways of learning, teaching, and being and challenges that indigenous students face in traditional Western education structures.
  2. Index-card style graphics presenting ideas to implement some of these concepts as concrete, transdisciplinary classroom practices. 
  3. Reflection questions for readers. 

3 Thought-Starters for Teachers

I am so glad I began this summer reading series with Stop Talking, because it has prompted me to attend to the ways in which I frame the opportunities for learning and reflection that a text provides. My first instinct was to title this subsection “3 Takeaways for Teachers,” but takeaway (a word I’ve often used) suggests that I am packaging up the insights contained in the book into a kind of goodie bag of products (and the word itself is extractive: what you take away). This reproduces the transactional and reductionist approach to education that defines the Western system, in which knowledge can be parceled into clearly delineated chunks, distributed, consumed, and mastered. The indigenous approaches to learning centered in Stop Talking, however, value reflection, recursiveness, and independent thinking. In that spirit, I’ll strive throughout this book series to present not neatly packaged “takeaways” but rather thought-starters, with reflection questions rather than teaching suggestions. And although these thought-starters from Stop Talking are still separated out into three distinct ideas, please receive them and think about them as deeply interrelated and mutually reinforcing concepts. 

Place-based Teaching and Learning

Elder Elsie Mather, Yup’ik, says, in a conversation with other Elders, “In a way, it’s sad that we are becoming so dependent on reading for information. You and a book — you can closet yourself anywhere and learn (or not learn, depending on the quality of your reading material). You can be thousands of miles away from your source of information. When you have that book, it doesn’t matter where your learning takes place. . . . This dependency on books. I call it a monster because of the distance it puts between us and our sources” (57). 

This questioning of the value of written sources of knowledge may be deeply counterintuitive — even shocking — to those of us whose work (and teaching) revolves around reading. We might argue that this ability to be removed from a source or site and still learn about it is precisely the power and value of reading! But from a decolonialist perspective, if we consider how little of the literature (scholarly and otherwise) about non-White and non-Western people and places has been written by non-White and non-Western people, this critique of reading as the ultimate form of access to knowledge makes all the sense in the world. Educator Paul Ongtooguk, Inupiaq, highlights this issue when he describes his lifelong pursuit to attempt to understand “the disengagement between this enormous amount of literature about [Alaska Natives] and our complete invisibility in Alaska’s school systems” (49). 

Reading, Elder Elsie says, is “a necessary monster” (57), but Stop Talking emphasizes that one essential way to indigenize or decolonize teaching is to complement “book-learning” with place-based teaching and learning. Place-based knowledge, the authors explain, “springs from a deep and detailed experience of a place and manifests as a sense of belonging to, identification with, and awareness of everything that goes on in that place” (19). 

  • How can we bring students closer to the source of knowledge (even and especially if our content is based on sites and peoples that are geographically or historically far away)? 
  • How can we connect ourselves and our students more to place?
  • How can we ground dialogues (no matter the topic) in the communities and environments in which we are teaching?  

Affirmation and Relationships 

Educator Martha Gould-Lehe, Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan, writes that Alaska Native students “need to feel valued; and will respond only to relationships (most will not work to please a teacher if they feel the teacher does not value them)” (54).

Educator Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff, Aleut, writes: “Whenever I passed an adult, I would hear ‘aang laakaiyaax, exumnaakotxtxin. Hello young boy. You are good.’ I was never rejected, never judged, never criticized, always and only positively affirmed by everyone in my village nearly every day of my entire childhood. Can you imagine what that’s like, how beautiful that is?” (60). 

Throughout Stop Talking, the need to cultivate strong relationships between students and teachers through affirmation comes up again and again. Though it is something that the Native educators cited above speak about in the context of children receiving loving affirmation from adults, it transfers to university-level settings, even among faculty: one of the “Alaska Native Discourse Values” that faculty participants agreed to abide by in Stop Talking is: “Do not voice disagreement or use violent words; instead, say something positive about the previous speaker and then simply add your own thoughts” (7).

This may seem to be in stark contrast to “call-out” culture, or even “call-in” culture, in which direct challenge of another person’s wrong thinking or wrong behavior by peers is considered the right of oppressed people and the moral imperative of their allies. It also challenges the traditional Western view of the teacher as an evaluator, a grader, and a corrector. Instead, an indigenous approach to teaching uses indirect forms of teaching (for example, through storytelling or modeling without direct instruction) and encourages students to learn through observation and emulation. 

  • What is your reaction to these ideas? Where does that reaction come from? 
  • Are affirmation and non-violent communication necessarily opposed to “calling out/calling in”? Why or why not? 
  • What are students’ responsibilities with regards to affirming one another? 
  • What is the teacher’s responsibility with regards to affirming students? 
  • What is the role of affirmation in dialogue? 

Storytelling and Other Indirect Forms of Instruction 

One of the book’s authors, educator Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff, Aleut, writes: “Stories allow the teller to express whatever is most important and give listeners the latitude to take away whatever they are able to see or learn. Each person sees and learns different things from the same story. The story does not dictate the lesson to be learned; rather it creates the opportunity to learn whatever the individual is capable of learning. If I give you a direct answer, there’s no freedom. I am acting as the authority, the expert. But in the relationship between real human beings there is no one-upmanship. I am not the answer. I don’t know any more than you do. The only difference between us is our experience and how we use our inherent intelligence” (59). 

  • Do you integrate stories (either from your own personal experiences or literary/cultural stories) in your classroom? Do you invite students to tell stories?
  • If so, how do you guide students to make meaning of stories? 
  • If not, what place might storytelling have in your classroom? How might it enrich or add meaning to your content, even and especially if you consider your content to be very fact-based, data-driven, or objective? 
  • What is the relationship between storytelling and dialogue? Between place-based education and storytelling? 

3 Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation:

Center Listening by Outlawing Reading & Writing for a Day

Stop Talking emphasizes the value of presence, stillness, and receptivity. At their faculty intensive, no one was allowed to take written notes. The authors write, “In the embodied, direct, oral and visual style of learning common to most indigenous cultures, there is no writing it down. Instead, you pay keen attention, listen closely and deeply, emulate the wisest and most experienced among you, learn by doing, and take what you learn so deeply into yourself that it becomes part of your identity” (4).

Prohibit students from taking notes one day during lecture or dialogue. Likewise, do not write anything on the board or refer to any written materials. Encourage them to receive and share without recording. Build moments of silence into dialogue, to give participants time to process what they have heard and/or reflect and prepare to speak. Discuss at the end of class how it felt, how they adapted, what was challenging and liberating about it, and what they believe they will remember and carry with them. 

Center Marginalized Voices through Conversation Observation

Stop Talking encourages a “fishbowl” activity, in which a small group of students, representing a marginalized viewpoint or set of viewpoints (e.g. first-generation students; LGBTQ+ students), sit in an inner circle in the middle of the room and engage in dialogue with one another. The rest of the students sit in respectful silence in an outer circle (in an online classroom, you might have the “inner circle” leave cameras on while everyone in the “outer circle” turns theirs off). They observe and receive the conversation without participating and with the intention to learn from, not critique or debate, what they are hearing. After the inner circle completes their conversation, the observing students reflect and debrief on what they have learned.

In the faculty intensive of Stop Talking, Native educators and Elders formed this inner circle and non-Native faculty formed the outer circle. However, in a classroom setting, I believe this activity would have the potential to unduly burden minority and marginalized students (whether they self-identify this way or have been designated/assumed as such by instructors) with the pressure to agree to become a spectacle for the pseudo-scientific scrutiny of their peers. Unless you have students who are eager to participate in the “inner circle,” I suggest instead showing a publicly available video of a conversation between people who represent those whose experiences you desire to highlight, or inviting guest speakers to converse with each other in front of the class. 

Center Students’ Experience with a Critical Incident Questionnaire

The facilitators of the faculty intensive administered what they called a “critical incident questionnaire” at the end of each day’s programming, in which they asked participants to  respond anonymously to the same set of questions: 

  • At what moment today were you most engaged as a learner?
  • At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?
  • What activities did you find most affirming or helpful? 
  • What activities did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What surprised you most about today?

You might administer these questions in written form as an “exit ticket” at the end of a lesson or unit, or use them as the basis of a classroom dialogue. 

One In-Depth Activity

Responding to Alaska Native Discourse Values

This is an activity that uses short excerpts from Stop Talking to foster critical reflection and expose students to indigenous discourse paradigms during conversations about community agreements for dialogue early in the semester. 

These questions can be answered independently in writing, or in oral or written dialogue with partners, small groups, or as a class. Collaborative annotation via Hypo.thesis or Perusall is one option for responding in community; one or more shared Google docs is another option. 

If you would like students to work directly in Google docs, create a force-copy version of this document, which contains embedded hyperlinks to the texts. If you would rather access both the texts and the questions in a single file to share with students, use this PDF.

Next Week . . . 

We will be reading How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay (2019). 


Dialogic Pedagogy Summer Reading List & Blog Series

By Sarah Ropp

This summer, I am on a quest to distill and create usable classroom resources from the many books on dialogue floating around out there. 

Each week, I will be reading a different text related to some aspect of dialogue — its (contested) meanings, possibilities, and challenges; models and structures for dialogue; and participation and facilitation strategies. 

Each Friday, in a blog post published here on the Humanities Institute blog, I will briefly summarize the week’s reading and share ready-made materials for teachers and students based on what I consider to be the most useful and relevant content contained in the reading. These materials, which will include handouts, slideshows, activities, infographics, and so on, will be broadly adaptable across discipline and course topic. Neither teachers nor students will have had to read the text in order to understand and use them! My hope is to make it easier for instructors to access dialogic pedagogies and play with new structures, strategies, and approaches in their classrooms. 

Here are a couple of examples of ready-to-use classroom materials based on books on dialogue: 

Text: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Patton, and Heen, 1999)

Resources: “The 3 Conversations: A Framework for Understanding Difficult Dialogues” is an instructional slideshow to introduce students to this structuring concept from Stone, Patton, and Heen’s text. “Reflecting on the 3 Conversations” is a collaborative processing activity for students to complete after reading the slideshow. 

Text: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (DiAngelo, 2018)

Resources: “Terms and Concepts from White Fragility is a handout for students that defines and provides examples for key terms related to racial (in)justice. “Challenging Common Norms” is an activity that prompts reflection, dialogue, and collaborative norm-setting in preparation for classroom dialogue on sensitive topics. 

Below is a working list of texts I’ll be reading my way through. You are welcome to read along and join in the conversation! Though the main focus for the purpose of this blog series will be practical and meaning-oriented as opposed to critique-oriented — that is, a “What can we learn and use from this?” mindset versus a “What’s wrong with this?” mindset — I am also interested in discussions around the broader contexts in which these texts are embedded: who’s writing them, for whom, and towards what ideological or political purposes. I very warmly invite you to respond to both these texts and to my materials with questions, pushback, and suggestions. Do make sure to subscribe to the Humanities Institute newsletter in order to catch the posts each week. (Just enter your email address under “Subscribe By Email” on the left-hand toolbar.) 

Texts for the Dialogic Pedagogy Summer Reading Series: 

Week   Text Check for the blog post on…
May 24 Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (Merculieff and Roderick, 2013) Friday, May 28
May 31 How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (Boghossian and Lindsay, 2019) Friday, June 4
June 7 Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (Longo and Schaffer, eds, 2019) Friday, June 11
June 14 Teaching through Challenges to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (EDI) (Burrell Storms, Donovan, and Williams, 2020) Friday, June 18
June 21 Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (hooks, 1994) Friday, June 25
June 28 So You Want to Talk About Race (Oluo, 2018) Friday, July 2
July 5 Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension (Ahmed, 2018) Friday, July 9
July 12 How to Talk about Hot Topics on Campus: From Polarization to Moral Conversation (Nash, Bradley, and Chickering, 2008) Friday, July 16
July 19 Facilitating Intergroup Dialogues: Bridging Differences, Catalyzing Change (Maxwell, Nagda, and Thompson, 2011) Friday, July 23
July 26 Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence (Boler, 2006) Friday, July 30
August 2 It’s Time to Talk (and Listen): A Handbook for Healing Conversations About Race, Class, Sexuality, Ability, Gender, and More (Kim and del Prado, 2019) Friday, August 6
August 9 TBD!  August 13


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