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August 22, 2018+Kyle Emile

"Free Intelligent Conversation" as a Pedagogical Tool

Free Intelligent Conversation (FreeIC) is a nonprofit organization that facilitates engaging conversations between strangers. It’s simple: participants simply go to public places and hold up signs that read “Free Intelligent Conversation,” inviting people to talk with them about anything and everything. The conversations are then kicked-off using FreeIC Conversation Cards, each containing open-ended questions that can bring out individual stories. We’re doing this because we want to meet people and learn from them through meaningful face-to-face conversations. We believe it’s when people seek to learn from each other, that an intelligent conversation takes place. I started the project in 2012 because I was looking for a way to continually meet people who were different than me, and challenge myself to understand their worldview. Since then the movement has had thousands of people join in holding signs to start conversations, making its way to 31 cities across the globe. In fact, we’re partnering with Heterodox Academy for an event in NYC on August 25, 2018 from 4pm – 6pm, attended by myself, HxA Executive Director Deb Mashek and Board Chair Jon Haidt, among others.

FreeIC as a Teaching Tool

FreeIC looks to create spaces where intellectual growth is tied to interpersonal connection. The process of sharing experiences encourages individuals to connect on an interpersonal level where polarizing positions are difficult to maintain. And it is in this depolarized space that individuals are able to experience the value of viewpoint diversity. FreeIC has successfully fostered these spaces in public places across the world and we are confident that they can be effectively created in the classroom as well by actualizing three goals:
  1. Creating a space where individuals can engage with the intent to express personal experiences and perspectives devoid of judgment.
  2. Reiterating the value and purpose of viewpoint diversity.
  3. Fostering connections on an interpersonal level that will allow healthy discussions to continue outside of the classroom.
To achieve these goals, professors must first explain them to the students, then reiterate that their classroom is a space where a variety of perspectives will be shared for the sake of intellectual growth, and gain commitment of students’ participation in this classroom culture. Next, professors must fully incorporate these ideals into their classrooms throughout the semester. This will include implementing FreeIC resources alongside practices that will help develop students into multivariate thinkers. To begin, the professor could have students utilize the Open Mind Platform – giving them a foundation in perspective-taking, cognitive biases and limitations, and civic best-practices – preparing them to engage across difference. They can then dedicate a portion of a subsequent class to put these lessons into action, using FreeIC Conversation Cards to engage with one-another. This exchange of personal experiences can help forge bonds of trust and empathy. Once students have had the opportunity to engage with one-another in this way, the professor can poll them to gain a better understanding of the range of perspectives and politics that are present in the classroom (this can be through a show of hands, or through a discreet “clicker” or paper poll as preferred). The instructor can then highlight and engage these views, and encourage students to think through or discuss how different life experiences might lead to the diversity of perspectives represented in their classroom – sharing personal anecdotes as comfortable. In this process, it is crucial that the professor avoids creating value judgments for the identified perspectives, and instead presents each as one of many formulated approaches for understanding and addressing common societal problems. This concrete awareness that there are different, legitimate, ways of looking at the world can help inculcate a sense of intellectual humility (and hopefully, curiosity!). At the very least, students will be given a chance to practice talking to each other without necessarily tying their personal identity to their political commitments. Professors can then expand upon these classroom lessons by having students engage in a FreeIC Outing, wherein students hold up “Free Intelligent Conversation” signs in public places to dialogue with people of different perspectives and opinions. Beyond opening up students’ minds, exercises like these can help bridge the divide between academics and the publics they serve. In short, we at FreeIC believe that direct, curiosity-driven, engagement can contribute to a campus culture that values viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding and constructive disagreement. It is our hope that Heterodox Academy members – be they faculty, staff or students — will join us in this endeavor.

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