Teaching toolbox: Habits and skills of civil discourse

10 January 2018

Yesterday we kicked off the term with an LTC teaching toolbox lunch discussing approaches to promoting the habits and skills of civil discourse. As a basis for our discussion, we read Andrea Leskes 2013 article from Liberal Education, “A Plea for Civil Discourse: Needed, the Academy’s Leadership.”   In particular, Leskes notes that students need to be explicitly taught the skills and habits of civil discourse as opposed to simply being exposed to civil discourse or asked to use civil discourse. Here are the discussion questions the group tackled:

  • Are there approaches you have tried to explicitly teach the skills of civil discourse? What has worked well and what has not worked well? What are you trying in your courses this term?
  • In her article, Leskes notes that it is important to provide multiple modalities for students to explore civil discourse. The Convo schedule this term (in particular Yuval Levin, Arno Michaelis, and Daryl Davis) seems like it might offer opportunities for exploring civil discourse. Do you have ideas about how to connect the presence of these Convo speakers on campus with the concept of promoting civil discourse in your courses? 
  • What is the biggest challenge you face in trying to promote the habits and skills of civil discourse? How have you tried to address that challenge?

Civil discourse focuses on building understanding through an exchange of viewpoints that works to find points of common interest, seeks sources of disagreement, and includes an open-mindedness and willingness to change one’s mind. We noted that students are often comfortable sharing their thoughts in the classroom, but are less willing to voice their disagreement with others or asking probing questions of their peers. Yet it is thoughtful questions and respectful disagreement that help build better understanding, and we shared some of our approaches to inviting questions and disagreement into classroom conversations.

Students don’t often have the opportunity to see the messiness of civil discourse and the changing perspectives that happen as a result. Faculty, or invited speakers on campus, are often sharing perspectives that have developed over years and, because of that, their engagement with topics is quite polished. Where do students see the missteps and awkwardness that often accompany civil discourse? Team teaching can provide one place where unscripted faculty interactions can demonstrate the clumsiness and learning that is a part of civil discourse. Outside of a team-teaching context, faculty can share personal stories about how discourse with texts or colleagues brought them new understanding, as a way to highlight the process of intellectual change that can result from civil discourse. One of the LTC lunch participants noted that she always asks her advisees to share a moment in the term where they changed their mind about something.  In doing so, she encourages students to focus on moments of transformation.    

If you weren’t able to join the conversation, additional resources are available to members of the Carleton community by signing into the Google drive folder.