Dispatch- Employing BA Methods in the University Classroom

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By Joaquin Munoz

I have been a Better Angels moderator since the fall of 2017, when I trained under Bill Doherty to learn how I could help depolarize America. As a teacher, I was deeply drawn to developing skills of facilitating challenging conversations with people. As I completed the training, and began to facilitate Skills Workshops and Red/Blue Workshops, I continuously came back to the idea that this work would be greatly beneficial to students. As a teacher, I was certain that this kind of work would be hugely beneficial to students. I was also interested in helping to bring depolarization work to students as early as possible: the sooner I could get students to begin thinking and working on depolarization, the better.

During the fall of 2018, I was responsible for teaching a group of first year college students at a university in Minneapolis. It was this class that gave me the opportunity to bring my work as a Better Angels moderator to university students. My goal was to bring in as much of the Better Angels work as I could into the class, and build as much of the exercises and activities into the work of the course. With 16 weeks to the class, I had plenty of time to bring in elements of the Skills Workshops, the Red/Blue Workshops, and the Better Angels Debate. As the start for the class came near, I became excited about the potential for the class to engage in this work.

We spent the first few weeks talking about education, about the significance of understanding diversity, and of communicating across difference. In teacher education, we are well aware of the need to learn about students, and the power of relationship building to foster learning. My goal in bringing in elements of the Better Angels curriculum was to teach students practical tools to talk, to listen, and to learn to engage with each other. In beginning the class with a number of communication and relationship building exercises, I hoped to help students be ready to discuss with each other across their political differences.

The first module that we did in the class was the Skills workshop. I spread out the material over two weeks, with two days for the listening skills, and two days for the speaking skills. I was able to bring in two guest moderators to facilitate the Skills Workshop, which gave students the chance to work with the skills at a slower pace. Students followed all of the processes and procedures of the Skills Workshop. The class was fairly homogenous, with most students identifying as liberal, or liberal leaning, in the class. Although a few students self-identified as more conservative, these students said they felt more purple than totally red. All of the students described an interest in being able to talk to each other about political issues, and were especially interested in the ways that these exercises could help them in communication with friends and family members who they disagreed with politically.

Students appreciated the Skills Workshops, and also offered critique as well. At the end of the two-week session on skills, I asked students to write a reflection on what they had done, how it had gone, and what feedback they had for me. Students almost unanimously appreciated the very practical skills of the workshops, describing how helpful it was for the concrete approaches for listening, and for engaging conversations. Students had mixed reactions to the role play and practice aspect of the workshops. Many students were adamant about the benefit of the role plays. One student remarked how useful it was to have the chance to practice before being “confronted in the real world” outside of the classroom. Other students were less enthusiastic, largely feeling the role play to be too scripted and too artificial. Whatever the case, all of the students commented on how the practical skills was the biggest help to them.

In our second module, I intended to bring students the Red-Blue Workshop exercises. I immediately encountered a challenge in that my class was comprised almost entirely of Blue leaning students. (In an anonymous poll, 19 of the 22 students identified as liberal or blue, while 3 identified as Red or Red leaning). I decided then, to do a modified version of the workshop, specifically, the stereotypes workshop. Rather than focus on specifically on the Red/Blue differences, I decided to emphasize the skill of identifying a stereotype, examining it critically, and acknowledging the “kernel of truth” contained within it. Students were able to identify several stereotypes about political parties, and then work to disrupt the stereotypes to examine they were not demonstrative of all people’s experiences. While learning about the challenge of identifying stereotypes and counteracting stereotypes with more accurate information, students were challenging their own notions about who the other side is. Students often referred to Chimamda Adiche’s concept of a “Single Story” to articulate the problem of stereotypes, pointing out that their belief in stereotypes was the equivalent of holding a single story in mind, rather than allowing for complex human identities.

In our final module, students were given the opportunity to engage in the Better Angel’s style of debate. Of the three modules, all students were the most enthusiastic about this work. This enthusiasm was evidenced by student’s responses to the material, and a request to extend the debate module from two weeks to three weeks, a request I was able to fulfill. During our three weeks, we had one week of mock debates to have students get used to the debate structure, and especially to practice the structure of addressing a chair for questions, comments, or responses. After our mock debates, we took a class period to brainstorm a number of topics for debate, which students populated and selected from. To help give the students ideas, I borrowed from a list of debate topics from procon.com, was well as allowing students to bring in their own ideas about what to debate about. Once the topics were selected (8 total) we held a series of debates, two per class session, over the next six classes. Our topics ranged and shifted, from debates about drug legalization, to lowering the voting age, to the ethics of genetic testing and genetic modification.

The debate module ended up being the most successful of the modules, from a pedagogical perspective. What was most fascinating to see, from a teacher’s perspective, was how students grappled with understanding and describing their ideas and beliefs about the different topics we covered. As students worked to formulate their ideas, and then translate to talking, it was plain to see their thinking at work. Students struggled with formulating their positions, and for many students, the starting act of even thinking about their position was the most valuable aspect of the exercise. Many of the students openly admitted that they had never given their perspectives much thought, and were pleasantly challenged to consider what they believed and how they came to their beliefs. Another encouraging aspect of participation was watching students who sometimes did not talk during class be willing to step up and make a statement about a topic. These students often described their appreciation for the debate chair as a support not only in formulating the ideas, but in helping with questions. The added layer of the chair provided a degree of safety, as well as to dispel some of the tension around tough questions.

As I begin the planning for another semester of this course, I am thinking very deeply about the polarization that continues to confront our country. I am planning on continuing to bring elements of the Better Angels curriculum to my college courses, in the hopes that new freshmen students will begin early on to develop their capacities for engaging in ideas and with people across differences. I see this as a key skill for people in general, and future teachers in particular. An early start to building these skills is key, and I am excited about bringing this learning to my future students.

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