Wading into the Messiness: Civil Engagement for Civic Engagement

Robin Burroughs Davis, Vice President and Dean of Students, Colby-Sawyer College

November 17, 2017

In the past year, our nation has experienced incidents that have had a personal, visceral, profound effect on our students; incidents of intolerance, hatred, and violence fill the newsfeed. In an “us vs them” dichotomy where debate and arguing to win has surpassed discussion and listening to learn and understand, higher education needs to focus not just on civic engagement but civil engagement. At Colby-Sawyer College, our students have asked us to include conversations on current and controversial topics as part of their classroom experiences. At the same time we heard from faculty a desire to gain skills to be able to better manage those difficult conversations in the classroom. Campus wide we heard a craving to understand and connect across difference and to be heard across areas of identity. We recognize our responsibility to teach these skills as part of civic engagement and at the same time we know these conversations can be messy and if not facilitated well participants can feel marginalized and victimized. We entered this year determined to wade into the messiness armed with tools, strategies, and skills to engage our community members in meaningful dialogue.  

There are different resources available to assist and approaches to take when embarking on this journey. With a faculty and staff of under 200 and with 1100 students, we wanted to focus on building and maintaining relationships and really forging connections across commonality. To help provide us knowledge, skills, and a framework, we engaged the Sustained Dialogue Institute with their focus on “transform[ing] conflictual relationships.” We hosted them for four different sessions: to train all faculty and staff in a common language; to work with First Year Symposium (FYS) professors and then all faculty about how to infuse conversations around privilege, diversity, difference into their syllabi and how to manage classroom discussions; we also trained student leaders in how to engage in and perhaps moderate dialogue across differences. We started to see the results almost immediately.

  • FYS courses included Between the World and Me as a common reading and common point of discussion.
  • Attendance at our monthly “hot wings and hot topics” events has increased and the events are attracting a greater and more diverse audience. Students have stayed well after the program formally ends to continue the conversation and, in some cases, have continued the conversation later in the residence halls.
  • Student clubs have co-hosted a conversation about “taking a knee” at sporting events; they invited faculty from different departments to participate in, but not lead the conversation. What started as a medium sized club event soon grew to a standing room only crowd as students texted their friends to come join the conversation.
  • Student Government Association (SGA) facilitated a discussion for its members about racist incidents on our own campus. Students who did not identify actions or statements as microaggressions at the beginning of the discussion, apologized to their peers after hearing about their experiences and the cumulative effect of those experiences.
  • Students are more engaged in campus conversations around strategic planning and college governance in a real solution oriented way. Student participation at a SGA sponsored town hall meeting was up from last year and students invited the local Town Manager to a special town meeting to address community issues such as off campus students disturbing neighbors with noise and parking, students using neighbors’ property for short cuts, but also to discuss student issues such as feeling targeted or unwelcome at some community businesses.

One of our student learning outcomes is to communicate and interact effectively. Faculty, staff, and student generated dialogues help our students meet this outcome as well as engage in topics of global, national, and local concern. Since we have focused on fostering dialogue across campus, our students report greater satisfaction with the administration and feel a closer bond with each other. Most of all, we are pleased that faculty and staff are taking a back seat while students have taken the reins and are driving this initiative. We are excited to reap the benefits of those days of training and, more than ever, we remain committed to fostering civil and civic engagement through dialogue.

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