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From the Discovery Classroom: Tough Talks

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Talking about social issues like poverty and race and gender identity isn’t easy, especially for first-year students. Yet Vilmarie Sanchez and Bruce Mallory have found a way to get them talking.

Sanchez and Mallory teach EDUC 444: Be The Change You Want To See.  Using a small group format, the course explores topics related to social change, democracy and citizenship. 

“We know that the college-age group often feels both detached and cynical about ways to effect change at the community as well as national level,” Mallory says. “This course gives them tools to make the change they wish to see within the larger context of a pluralist democratic society.”

Adds Sanchez, “When you start talking about social issues, right off the bat you know they are interested but they don’t say much because they don’t want to offend anyone. But things have to get messy to make any kind of progress. Yet, messy does not exclude a thoughtful process for dialogue to share thoughts, to listen, and to ask questions.”

Student are trained how to use a facilitated dialogue process, where, for instance, they share personal stories about such things as being a first-year student and their families' connection to immigration. Understanding their commonalities helps them build relationships necessary for working across their different lived experiences that inform their perspective, Sanchez says.

“The process works to help them open up to learn different perspectives and points of view, as a way to think and talk and together solve problems in communities,” she says. “In this way they start to learn a thoughtful method and the tools that get at the heart of civic engagement.”

Students also participate in an active citizenship project, keeping a journal and working in teams using the deliberative discussion process. The project’s theme is tied to this year’s University Dialogue: “Finding Common Ground: A University Dialogue on Solving Complex Problems.”

Each group picks a topic to explore that has them involving others in the UNH community. For example, a team might choose to talk about hate issues, as reflected in the derogatory comments left on the doors of students of color.

“The students might decide to engage everyone on the floor in a conversation,” Mallory says. “They might talk about what it means to live in a community.”

The Inquiry course is organized around the concept of the deliberative community.  Course content draws on theories, concepts, and practices associated with civic engagement, deliberative democracy, human development and diversity, and social justice.  Sanchez says they are trying to challenge the students in their thinking regarding service learning ideology as well.

“We want them to think beyond volunteering at a soup kitchen. Not that that isn’t something they should do but we want them to think about how to introduce real social change,” Sanchez says. “What does it mean to go deeper?”

 Assigned readings include “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, and “Thinking In Pictures: And Other Reports From My Life With Autism” by Temple Grandin. 

Language comes up a lot. Students mention terms like gay; retarded. They talk about racial comments, and wonder how to have discussions that won’t sound offensive.

“Difficult conversations don’t just happen naturally,” Mallory says. “People don’t know how to talk about these things so they avoid the conversation.”

Adds Sanchez, “But differences are natural so to deny them doesn’t make sense. Talking about them, students can make meaning out of something that’s uncomfortable.”