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Convo dialogue program to strengthen viewpoint diversity on campus

Carleton’s Convocation Dialogue pilot program reached its end last week. The organizing committee plans to evaluate participant feedback to determine future steps.

The program, which was announced late fall term, aims to facilitate campus dialogue with regular group reflections on Convocations.

Participants attended Convocation in the first, third and fifth weeks of winter term, then met the following week for discussion.

Fifty-two community members participated in the program. Among these individuals, 16 were faculty members, 18 were staff members and 18 were students. Students of all class years were represented.

Carolyn Livingston, Dean of Students, convened an official committee—with the broad purpose of developing a dialogue program—in Fall 2017.

While this was the program’s initial run, discussions regarding how to improve campus dialogue have been on the college’s radar in other channels. The Convocation Dialogue program follows the college’s Winter 2016 Community Conversations initiative, Fall 2016 Living-Learning Community program, and student activist group Carls Talk Back’s mobilization around issues of transparency, diversity and inclusivity over the past calendar year.

“Carleton has been focused on the need for this type of dialogue for a number of years now, attempting to encourage such discourse in a variety of venues. Surely, we should all be listening to and trying to learn from each other in more focused ways, as student activists have correctly pointed out,” explained President Steven Poskanzer.

“There is a final debriefing meeting next week of all participants. During that meeting, each participant will complete a survey of their experiences with the program and will also indicate whether the convocation dialogue program should be repeated. We’ll need to receive feedback before making a determination about moving forward,” said Livingston.

In the initial stages, the committee consulted various community representatives to gain perspectives on campus dialogue. In particular, they met with faculty, staff and students who had previously engaged with discourse-related pilot programs.

Physics Professor Melissa Eblen-Zayas, a core committee member, noted, “we didn’t want to replicate those programs, but we did want to learn from the experiences.”

The process of creating an entirely new program had its fair share of challenges.

“It took us a long time to develop the basic idea for this program. If you are going to have dialogue, you need to have a topic which is the focus of your dialogue. We struggled with what that should be. We ultimately decided that Convocation might make a good focus for dialogue because that is a venue that belongs to the Carleton community as a whole and that time is already set aside for the community to come together,” said Eblen-Zayas.

Scheduling posed another challenge. “Everyone at Carleton is busy, and it is extremely hard to coordinate schedules,” explained Eblen-Zayas. “We didn’t want to require too much of anyone’s time, and yet engaging in dialogue requires that participants get to know each other.”

In the end, the committee asked participants to indicate their availability in a form. These participants were then assigned to groups with regular meeting times.

For the sake of regular scheduling, the committee did not select particular dialogues to discuss and chose to run the program every other week.

Joe Chihade, CEDI co-chair and committee member, also noted that the organizers initially grappled with power structures within groups.

“One of the things that stops dialogue is that people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. And they’re even more afraid to say the wrong thing if they’re in a group of people where there’s some sort of perceived or actual inequality of power.”
Chihade continued, “one of the first ideas was to a group that’s all faculty; a group that’s all staff; a group that’s all students, and a fourth group that’s a mix.”

However, not all interested participants seemed to reflect this concern.

“When we actually asked, there were more people interested in being in a mixed group than there were who were interested in a peer only group,” Chihade said.

Group discussions were led by assigned facilitators, which rotated each meeting. These facilitators were selected by the committee based on previous experience.

Eblen-Zayas, a facilitator for a mixed group herself, said, “because we only finalized the plans for this pilot project in December, and the first convocation occurred in the first week of winter term, we weren’t able to make time for formal training for the facilitators.

Rather, as the dialogue groups were being assembled, the core planning group identified students, faculty and staff who had facilitation skills or experience that had been developed in other contexts that could be transferred to this context.”

Andrew Farias ’21 served as a student facilitator for a mixed group. He was interested in this pilot program because he had participated in another—the Civil Discourse on a Diverse Campus program—during his freshman year.

“That experiential living-learning community offered a space for first-year students to engage in conversations about difficult issues across campus. I appreciated the mission of the class and wanted to participate in something like it again, albeit with voices that differed from my own perspective,” he said. “Joining a mixed group of students, faculty and staff offered that platform of dialogue.”

Facilitating a mixed group was not a notable challenge for Farias. In fact, he appreciated the diversity of opinions.

He explained, “what a biology professor encounters in their teaching is not the same as what a student majoring in women and gender studies learns in class. What an Alumni Annual Fund director encounters at the office is not the same as what a librarian coordinator experiences in their daily work. We all appreciated where the other person was coming from and what thoughts or opinions they brought to the table.”

Eblen-Zayas also praised the unique dynamic of a mixed group setting.

“Often when I interact with others on campus, the roles we have shape our interactions,” she said. “I appreciated that this dialogue experience provided the opportunity to engage with the other participants simply as members of the Carleton community. Putting aside our roles to really listen to others’ perspectives and think about how those might relate to my own perspectives was a valuable reminder of the importance of making space for thoughtful conversation.”

Chihade, who participated in a group but did not facilitate, identified one of the program’s potential limitations: “The conversations have been good, but I don’t know that we’ve really tackled anything that’s super difficult. The range of views—especially about political issues—at Carleton is not as wide as it is in the wider world. In some ways, we’ve been searching for disagreement more than searching for agreement in our conversations. But I’ve still had a chance to talk with colleagues and students and staff members about stuff that’s not work. In some ways, just getting that experience gives you a little bit of background with those particular people to have conversations in the future.”

Farias also acknowledged that his group did not truly tackle difficult issues with a variety of perspectives.

He added, “however, this wasn’t unique to our group. Unless you have a person playing devil’s advocate, the probability of you doing so anywhere on campus is not very likely. Politically, most students are progressively liberal, liberal or center-left. That’s not to say that you can’t tackle difficult issues on campus. The only problem is that there will not be a variety of opinions that are presented in that conversation.”

Now that the program is over, committee members are looking for feedback on how to proceed.

On his part, Farias noted that a more consistent or long-term program may be beneficial.

“Part of the difficulty in having these civil discourse conversations is that participants often have to get to know each other before they can truly delve deep into a discussion. There is a sense of vulnerability in sharing one’s ideas because of a fear of being ostracized, so building that trust and confidence between members takes much more time than this program allowed for,” he said.

Chihade also suggested that the committee may need to reach a broader cross-section of people on campus.

“Something we need to think about as we move forward is how are we are getting folks involved across campus,” he said. “How are we not just getting the same group of people who think, ‘I like dialogue. I’ll participate.’ You want to be pulling in more of the community.”

Committee members emphasized that the program was experimental and that they are open to adapting it.
“As a physicist by training, I embrace the idea that this pilot is an experiment. It’s not going to be perfect, but let’s collect data—what do participants think worked well, what do participants think did not work well—and learn from it to inform our next steps,“ said Eblen-Zayas.

“That’s the whole idea of a pilot,” added Chihade. “If it’s a success, then you repeat and expand. If it’s a failure, then you either try something completely different or tweak it and see if you can improve it.”

“I’m very excited about the potential impact and value of this pilot program, and I hope it will give community members—especially, but not limited to students—practice and experience in forthright dialogue about hard questions that can tear at the fabric of society,” said Poskanzer.

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