Well-publicized incidents of speakers being disinvited or shouted down on college campuses, “watch lists” that single out professors at ideological variance from the lists’ creators, and general education classes that many students cannot imagine have real world utility are among the many things that have led some to declare a “crisis” in higher education.
The root causes of the problems are difficult to diagnose, though it seems clear that increasing political polarization, students raised in environments awash in social media, increased attention to security and safety in the wake of 9-11 and school shootings, and an emerging view of education as a consumer good shape the social realities on campuses today. While most colleges and universities are not disinviting speakers and most students are not videotaping their professors or their peers to shame them on social media, the anxiety produced by such possibilities does affect daily life and intellectual possibilities on college campuses. Students and faculty are afraid to broach controversial issues for fear that something will blow up in their classrooms. One effective response to this reality isn’t just teaching students to speak better but also teaching students to listen better: with purpose, curiosity, and resilience rooted in a sense of community.
That listening is a key component of effective learning and civic engagement seems obvious. We can’t understand someone or their ideas if we haven’t heard them first. But we regularly overlook listening as a skill to be taught and cultivated. In twenty years of college teaching, I have worked diligently to help students improve their abilities in writing, speaking, and presentation, often supported by institutional structures such as writing labs, programs sponsored by centers for teaching excellence, and student learning outcomes such as oral communication and writing “tags” enshrined in various parts of the campus curriculum. Recently, however, as part of a research project focused on dialogue in college classrooms, I have come to understand that emphasizing listening positively impacts everything from students’ willingness to speak to their grasp of course content to their ability to understand why that course content may matter for them and their community.
The form of dialogue my colleagues and I have been piloting in college classrooms across the country is anchored by core principles developed by a Cambridge, MA non-profit, Essential Partners. Founded in 1989, Essential Partners has developed an adaptable dialogue approach that fosters trust, understanding, and connection across differences of values, beliefs, and identities. Their model draws upon elements of family therapy, conflict resolution, mediation, appreciative inquiry, organizational theory, neuroscience, and intercultural development.
The Essential Partners approach asks people to tell a story about a life experience that will help others understand why they hold a belief, connect that position to deeply held values, and then speak about where they feel pulled or conflicted. It uses timed periods for speaking and listening and periods of reflection to ensure that people can both speak and listen deeply. In classrooms, this means creating a set of communication agreements with students that they consent to follow, often things like not interrupting and listening with courage to opinions that differ from their own. We often develop those agreements by asking students what conditions would have to be in place for them to dissent from a prevalent viewpoint, or by asking them how they know they are really being listened to.
The result of crafting dialogic classrooms where listening is valued and taught as a skill has been the creation of campus spaces where students are more willing to speak, even about things they know will run counter to majority campus cultures; greater engagement with course lectures, readings, and fields of knowledge; and an ability to articulate listening as a valuable personal and civic skill. Indeed, survey data of students involved in dialogic classrooms where faculty were trained in Essential Partners’ approach and then did a minimum of three dialogic exercises over the course of a semester shows that more than 50 percent of students reported an improved or greatly improved willingness to speak. 74 percent reported better comprehension of course material. Written responses show that students feel they can use these skills outside of the classroom, and faculty report using dialogic approaches to address difficult topics such as the synagogue shooting in Philadelphia. Students also report a greater resiliency and comfort with listening to viewpoints that differ from their own, something I have witnessed first-hand as my students have talked together about guns in American society, the death penalty, homosexuality in religious contexts, and government roles in human reproduction. They certainly don’t agree about these things, but given the right structure, they can speak, and listen, about them. Nothing blows up.
Valuing listening and teaching students how to do it better will not solve every ill of the modern university, or the society whose troubles the university reflects. However, it is a meaningful, low cost, and efficient way to mitigate many of the issues colleges and universities face.
One student, asked to reflect on being in a dialogic classroom, put it succinctly: “I have not become an eager political reformist that goes out to peddle their beliefs on the street corner, but this class did teach me that dialogue between people that don’t agree is possible. It can be civil, understanding, AND productive! This class changed the way I see people to some degree. I used to joke that I was a passive anarchist waiting for civilization to crumble under the weight of Twitter and its Friends. However, our dialogues and the outlook of the class give me hope for the world to come where I can listen and be heard by people that don’t have the same political beliefs as me. After all, we can’t get anything done if we’re not listening to each other. I didn’t come into this class expecting anything, but I will walk out of it expecting a great deal.”
It is on that expectation and the work of its fulfilment that I hang my hopes for the future of higher education and the greater society of which it is a vital part.