Dialogue & Disagreement
This resource presents a snapshot of an ongoing project that is dedicated to exploring techniques for facilitating complex classroom dialogues. Two goals inform our approach to this subject. First, this project aims to test and share pedagogical strategies that understand disagreement as essential to the process of learning. In this regard, all of the strategies and processes we describe below can be treated as tools for working through and with a range of social, political, and experiential differences in the classroom. Second, this project seeks to intervene in narratives that offer popular, but debatable, interpretations of what makes dialogue challenging today. In other words, rather than take widely circulated frameworks like cancel culture or safetyism at face value, this project explores how issues like burnout, political instability, cultures of punishment, and debt shape the conditions in which people perceive the value of teaching, learning, and relating across difference.
While these practical and critical aims inform each other in every iteration of this project, the snapshot you are currently reading emphasizes pragmatic tools and approaches to facilitation and mediation. The sections of this project that we are foregrounding now include one on common group dynamics and another on specific tools that can be used to address them. To access the larger project, visit our forthcoming site, which will include a larger introduction to this initiative, a planning checklist for the semester and individual class meetings, a glossary of key terms, and a series of critical considerations on the broader topic. Eventually this site will include other features, such as a series of short essays that explore perspectives on dialogue, difference, and pedagogy today.
Both this snapshot and the larger project it is connected to are intended to be dynamic resources that the CEP will expand and revise as it learns about and experiments with different facilitation tools and processes. The version you are reading was published on August 15, 2023. Edits to this page will be documented here.
Below are descriptions of common group dynamics that present either an obstacle to robust dialogue or a barrier to thoughtful engagement. These dynamics were selected in order to illustrate common concerns that emerged in a Spring 2023 survey of Barnard instructors about their experiences planning for and facilitating discussions of volatile topics. On our related site, we identify preparatory steps instructors can take to anticipate and circumvent these dynamics.
Eva Boodman defines critique fatigue as “the discouragement, demoralization, and disempowerment that groups of students may collectively experience when there is too much ‘critical’ content (content aiming to reveal and explain the patterns and mechanisms of oppression)” and a dearth of structured skill-building in one’s course that would allow for creative and practical responses to the material they are being asked to engage with, especially when it may relate to their own experience (Boodman, 28). This type of fatigue may compound and/or be interconnected with the high levels of chronic stress, depression, disconnectedness, and anxiety that college students are already experiencing, as detailed in this recent article, “Stress is Hurting College Students'' and in a recent study showing that these issues of emotional wellbeing take an unequal toll on students of color.
In a context in which many students report that they are already experiencing high levels of anxiety and depression, a course centered primarily around, for example, repeatedly discussing patterns of oppression but not allowing for or encouraging creative, affective, or activist expression about the material may produce critique fatigue. Manifestations of this fatigue might emerge in students disengaging from class discussions entirely or expressing that they know the violence of these histories, but don’t see what—if anything—can be done about them. Intentionality in syllabus design is an important first step to considering how the pacing of your course, the nature of your assignments, and the degree of agency that your course offers students. What Boodman calls radical scaffolding, a type of course design that emphasizes students’ agency, can be helpful as one way to decrease alienation and apathy (Boodman, 2019).
Roger Fisher and Taryn Petryk, two researchers who use intergroup dialogue—a discussion format that facilitates peer learning between groups with different social identities—describe their work as the practice of affirmative inquiry (Fisher and Petryk, 2017). Affirmative inquiry is the name these authors give to a set of values that guide facilitators as they aim to foster mutual risk-taking in conversation and shared responsibility and benefit in learning. But before the complexity and mutuality of this form of facilitation can be realized, it is necessary to take stock of group dynamics that Fisher and Petryk say obstruct affirmative inquiry’s values—indeed, that constitute what they call exploitative forms of inquiry.
Fisher and Petryk observe two closely related and common forms of exploitative inquiry: experience parasitism and cultural strip mining. The former occurs when the contributions of an individual or small number of individuals become the source of energy that powers the work of the group as a whole, leading others to feed from what they offer and to cease engaging when their host is absent. The latter, cultural strip mining, happens on a group level: the viewpoints and narratives of a single, often marginalized group of people are sought as an educational resource for their peers, but without those peers offering their viewpoints or narratives in return. What makes these dynamics complex is that they often arise from good intentions: an instructor or subset of members within a classroom dialogue recognizes some member(s) as holding authority on a topic and defers to their real (or presumed) expertise. But they are exploitative in the sense that they put to work just one person or group for the benefit of others, and do not allow peers to practice the mutual risk-taking, responsibility, and benefit that can happen when people put their differing, sometimes conflicting perspectives into conversation with one another.
Punishment cannot be understood solely in terms of how it excludes but must also account for how it binds together and offers pleasure to those who punish. Referring to this form of belonging as hostile solidarity, the sociologists Henrique Carvalho and Anastasia Chamberlen identify how it becomes an especially attractive practice during moments of conflict and instability. In these moments, punitive actions offer senses of control, reassurance, and social solidarity and allow for the release of feelings of anger and anxiety. Hostile solidarity is a sense of sociality so potent that it distracts from the feelings of anxiety and insecurity that initially prompted the individual or group to enact punishment in the first place (Carvalho and Chamberlen, 2017).
Hostile solidarity can manifest when potentially polarizing topics are discussed in a classroom environment that has not cultivated a sense of mutual obligation and belonging. A post-election discussion, for example, could result in some students with the same ideas about its implications banding together against a student or group of students with differing views. In this case, one group of students might unite by—and derive pleasure and meaning from—ostracizing, deriding, or otherwise excluding another student or students who dissent from the commonsense that has emerged in the classroom. One way of proactively addressing the emergence of hostile solidarity is to instead take steps toward cultivating cooperative solidarities between students—solidarities that are anchored in collaboration and the understanding and appreciation of differences as opportunities for learning.
One might think that “idle talk” refers to the informal, time-filling banter instructors and students share before class begins. But Eyo Ewara, drawing from philosophical approaches to language, provides a more critical account of idle talk as what happens when convention comes to stand in for riskier and more purposeful ways of understanding complex topics. Engaging with the ascendance of a narrow construction of anti-racism in contemporary institutions of higher education, Ewara observes that “our ameliorative, anti-racist sentiments can themselves become reflexes, habits of speech, orientation, and gesture that … can cause us to under-examine what we are speaking about or what we are doing with our speech” (Ewara, 33-34). Beyond the specific topic of anti-racism that Ewara takes up, idle talk can be seen as posing a unique instructional challenge. For teachers, the problem it represents is not that of disagreement that rises to unmanageable levels of intensity. It is instead the problem of presumed consensus and the surface-level engagements (with a subject and one another) that flow from it.
“Society says…,” “People talk about…,” “Nowadays…,” and similar phrases are a few indices of idle talk that both instructors and students can use in the classroom. As Ewara writes, generalizations like these can represent a flattened, unengaged form of understanding that risks calcifying into indifference toward whatever subject is at hand. When this happens, topics of discussion appear as both already fully known by and far away from the speakers themselves—that is, in “society” or in some “people” that are outside the circle of conversation (Ewara, 2022). Doing justice to particularly complex subjects might require developing strategies that are able to work the drift of idle talk into more directed and difference-driven engagement—even in cases where everyone broadly agrees with each other.
Tools and processes
The tools and processes identified below can be used in a variety of ways—as practices to incorporate into a course or lesson plan or as techniques to keep in one’s back pocket. In each entry, we describe: first, how to use this tool or process without squashing different contributions or perspectives; second, the affordances and risks that instructors can anticipate while using them; and third, which of the dynamics identified in the previous section any tool or process might be used to address.
This is a tool for surfacing perspectives that someone feels are worth at least understanding, even in cases where someone may not hold these perspectives themselves. It works like this: as discussions move forward, anyone may propose that a viewpoint has been excluded, mischaracterized, or unfairly attacked—and they may propose that the group consider this viewpoint regardless of whether they personally subscribe to it. If the instructor agrees that considering this viewpoint is relevant to their learning goals, they can pause the conversation and give students five minutes to describe the merits and underlying values of this perspective without criticizing it. Students are not obligated to describe these merits, but for the duration of the exercise, only those who feel they can do so are given the floor to speak.
The advantage of this tool is that it encourages students to articulate the values and affordances of a viewpoint without asking them to agree with, advocate for, or embody that viewpoint themselves—a process that instructors can then ask them to apply to the construction of their own perspectives. The risk is that it can be abused if one person continuously asserts the rule in order to derail a conversation. Instructors should be prepared to assess in the moment what kinds of perspectives are in fact valuable to consider in a discussion.
Dynamics that this tool might be used to address include hostile solidarity and idle talk.
This is a tool for encouraging reflection on what one learned from a discussion. It works like this: at the end of a contentious discussion or shortly after one has concluded, distribute a set of questions to students that ask them to reflect on their experience of a conversation and any of their major takeaways from their colleagues. Instructors are encouraged to create their own questions that align with their course objectives, but common ones include: At what moment were you most engaged in the conversation? At what moment were you most distanced from it? What action or argument did you find most affirming or helpful? What did you find most puzzling or confusing? What surprised you the most?
The advantage of this tool is that it allows for metacognitive processing that encourages students to understand the discussion they are reflecting on not as an interruption in their learning but a central component of it. It also provides instructors with material for debriefing and synthesizing. The risk is that it can stretch out a discussion that does indeed need to be tabled in order to keep the course schedule on track.
Dynamics that this tool might be used to address include critique fatigue and hostile solidarity.
This is a tool for drawing out various perspectives on an issue while deepening students’ engagement with course content. It works like this: in advance of class, the instructor identifies a series of quotes from the course content and transfers each quote to a slip of paper. Place students in small groups and give each group two quotes at random. Their task is to decide what they want to affirm or challenge in these quotes in light of their understanding of contemporary social and political conditions.
The advantage of this tool is that it combines students’ understanding of class material with their abilities to transfer that learning to new contexts, and to do so while generating a broad range of perspectives on how course material applies to new conditions and problems. The risk is that it is most useful when there are clear and robust connections between course material and a specific topic that emerges for discussion.
Dynamics that this tool might be used to address include idle talk and experience parasitism & cultural stripmining.
This is a tool for mapping multiple perspectives on a topic in a structured manner in advance of a discussion. It works like this: the instructor presents a guiding question to the class and then invites students to spend a few minutes organizing their response to it. Students then have the option (which they may decline) to share their perspective for 2-3 minutes without being interrupted. The exercise concludes not with students responding directly to each other but working together to synthesize major points that emerged, name overarching themes or values, and/or identify points of difference that require further engagement.
The advantage of this tool is that it creates a context in which students must listen carefully to one another, aiming to identify resonances and tensions between perspectives. For the instructor, depending on how and when this tool is used, it may generate topics and questions that can be folded into later classes. The risk is that it can favor students who are already comfortable articulating their viewpoints.
Dynamics that this tool might be used to address include idle talk, hostile solidarity, and experience parasitism & cultural stripmining.
These are processes that anyone can use in order to call attention to the ways that people’s comments or approaches to conversation are adversely affecting others. The first, “Open The Front Door,” or OTFD, is a mnemonic device that outlines four steps a person can take in order to redirect a conversation that is becoming derailed by uncollegial dynamics.
- State what you Observe (“I noticed that you said…”);
- State what you Think (“I think you might be assuming…”);
- State what you Feel (“I feel this conversation can’t be productive if anyone assumes…”);
- State what you Desire (“I’d like us to remember that assumptions like this can…”).
RAVEN is an acronym that outlines steps one can take to remind participants of norms they’ve established.
- Redirect (“I want to pause the conversation to address…”)
- Ask questions (“Can you clarify what you meant when you said…”)
- Values clarification to everyone (“Remember that we agreed that in this class…”)
- Emphasize your thoughts (“As your instructor, I find it…”)
- Next steps (“As we move forward, I suggest that…”)
The advantage of these processes is that they provide instructors with structured methods of intervening when a discussion becomes so heated it risks burning away good will or understanding between participants. Their emphasis on collegiality also asks students to be mindful of how they interact, but does not insist they reach agreement or stifle their perspectives on the topic at hand. The risk is that, by aiming to observe and redirect dynamics in the room, instructors must act in a facilitative rather than instructional role (a task not all teachers are familiar with executing).
Dynamics that this tool might be used to address include hostile solidarity and experience parasitism & cultural stripmining.
Boodman, E. (2019). Radical scaffolding against critique fatigue. Radical Teacher no. 115, 27-32. https://doi.org/10.5195/rt.2019.669
Carvalho, H. and Chamberlen A. (2017). Why punishment pleases: Punitive feelings in a world of hostile solidarity. Punishment & Society 20(2), 217-234. https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474517699814
Ewara, E. (2022). Idle talk and anti-racism: On critical phenomenology, language, and racial justice. Puncta: journal of critical phenomenology 5(4), 32-50. https://doi.org/10.5399/PJCP.v5i4.3
Fisher, R. and Petryk, T. (2017). Balancing asymmetrical social power dynamics. IGR Working Paper Series #3, 1-15.
Flaherty C. (2023, May 23). Stress is hurting college students. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/student-success/health-wellness/2023/05/23/survey-stress-hurting-college-students
Hubrig, A., Masterson, J., Seibert Desjarlais, S. K., Stenberg, S. J., Thielen, B. M. (2020). Disrupting Diversity Management: Toward a Difference-Driven Pedagogy. Pedagogy 20(2), 279-301. https://doi.org/10.1215/15314200-8091903
Lipson, S.K., Zhou, S., Abelson, S., Heinze, J., Jirsa, M., Morigney, J., Patterson, A., Singh, M., Eisenberg, D. (2022, June). Trends in college student mental health and health-seeking by race/ethnicity: Findings from the national healthy minds study, 2013-2021. Journal of Affective Disorders 306(1), 138-147. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2022.03.038