Dialogue in the Classroom: an interview with Lauren Barthold
Can we make space in the classroom for students to develop convictions—identify what they believe, understand why they believe it, and become willing to share it—while simultaneously inviting them to hold those convictions with humility—an openness, curiosity, and willingness to listen to others?
Dialogue in the classroom has been shown to deepen learning, improve student retention, and strengthen interpersonal connections. It can also help students strike that balance between humility and conviction, a balance that is crucial not only to intellectual rigor but also to the functioning of a diverse free society.
For the past three years, Essential Partners has been working with a team of faculty across the United States to identify effective dialogue techniques, design classroom exercises, and build model syllabi in a variety of disciplines.
One of the primary investigators on this project is Lauren Barthold, who teaches philosophy and peace studies at Endicott College (Beverly, MA). She is a Senior Research Fellow at Essential Partners, where she is writing a book, Civic Dialogue, that addresses the nature and relevance of dialogue for civic discourse in polarized situations. This past year, Barthold also participated in the Kettering Foundation’s year-long Research Exchange, which provided training to co-found a local center devoted to cultural engagement, dialogue, and the arts.
Danielle Isbell: It is so nice of you to take the time to talk to me. I'm wondering, first, whether and how your teaching style has changed since you began working with Essential Partners.
Lauren Barthold: I’ve yearned for years to make my classroom more dialogical, more of a community of learners along the lines of bell hooks, Paulo Freire and Parker Palmer. While these authors offered me inspiration and motivation, I’ve struggled to make their ideals my own and have felt a specific skill set was lacking.
Prior to working with Essential Partners, I articulated my expectations of “studentship”—the way a student is in the classroom. While I spelled out some of what good studentship looked like, my work with EP has allowed me to deepen language and be more specific. What is exciting about working with other faculty who are devoted to a more dialogic pedagogy is the way we are creating something together, something that feels alive, relevant, and powerful.
My teaching style now feels like it has more of a purpose and focus as I’ve worked to introduce various dialogic practices into the classroom. I’ve learned that it is not enough to announce my commitment to dialogue and expect students to know what I mean; I need concrete exercises to allow students to learn how to do it.
How has your work with EP affected the ways that students in your classroom interact with one another?
Many students report back after a dialogue that it really helped them get to know other students in a different and more significant way. One student remarked how he now felt much more comfortable with and accepted by his peers after engaging in a Reflective Structured Dialogue (RSD) in class.
Students have also reported that they’ve learned things from others and that others' stories have helped them see things in a new way. One dialogue around safety and violence allowed several students to speak of the experiences of their fathers, who were police officers. The described the stress these men felt when on duty and their deep commitment to keeping their communities safe. Other students during this dialogue shared their experience of fear around police, due to their ethnic and racial identities. Everyone listened with thoughtful respect.
I’ve also seen how dialogue can help students learn to ask genuine questions of each other. In one dialogue group, the first speaker shared how he was a strong Trump supporter and felt ostracized on campus due to his political views. The woman who spoke next then told how she did “feminist art against Trump.” I was prepared for some tensions to arise but they never did. In fact, at the end of the dialogue, the Trump supporter turned to the feminist and asked her to explain to him exactly what “feminist art” was.
Since RSD does not have as a goal agreement, students felt more relaxed to be themselves and to speak honestly. These two students did not agree at the end, and I do not think they became close friends. But they did learn how to listen to and express difference in a way that can help people establish a basis for cooperation and community.
In your opinion, does EP’s approach to dialogue (RSD) create space for both humility and conviction in the classroom? If so, how?
Using the specific form of dialogue, Reflective Structured Dialogue, in the classroom can promote both humility and conviction in students. Students, indeed campuses, tend to gravitate to one pole or the other: either they are fierce protestors (e.g. "social justice warriors”) in need of humility or they are more interested in avoiding conflict and finding commonality which leads to a conviction-less “we’re all good” attitude.
RSD requires students to listen to one another, to really listen, even to strong opinions of those who differ. By listening to genuine concerns, fears, and passions that differ from their own, students explore ways to understand the stories behind the difference, which often reveal a common humanity. The focus is not on the correctness of the position, but on the students’ subjective experiences—which cannot be right or wrong. Once students are able to figure out how to embrace the experiences of the other without having to surrender their own position, tensions are diminished.
The practice of this sort of facilitated and deep listening helps students then see that maybe their story is not the only legitimate story and that others, even those with whom they disagree, have something to offer.
If I may coin a phrase, I would say RSD helps to love the person, not (necessarily) the position. On the other hand, RSD helps students to get in touch with and reflect more deeply on their own stories and values. Through the experience of articulating and being heard, such students learn that expressing their views, strengthening them even, is not the cause of conflict. What RSD helps students learn is that difference is not the cause of conflict—conflict arises due to the manner in which people express themselves. RSD helps students find a way to discuss difference and avoid either shouting or silence.