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Turning Difficult Dialogues into Constructive Communication

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Now in its fifth year at The University of Texas at Austin, Difficult Dialogues began as part of a Ford Foundation initiative developed in response to reports of growing intolerance and efforts to curb academic freedom on U.S. campuses. One of only 16 public and private institutions that were awarded two rounds of foundation funding, The University of Texas at Austin is unique in offering Difficult Dialogues courses as part of the core undergraduate curriculum. Difficult Dialogues seminars are distinctive in their focus on teaching students the skills they need to participate in constructive dialogue about controversial and potentially divisive issues.

Pauline Strong

Pauline Strong

Four original Difficult Dialogues courses were first taught during the 2006-07 academic year, including Race and Policy, Church and State, Islam in America, and Religion and Sexuality. Now courses on Immigration, HIV-AIDS, Science and Religion, Islam and Sexuality, Gender and Racial Attitudes, Human Rights, and Business Ethics have been added to the mix. And next year there will be even more. While a few Difficult Dialogues courses are taught at the upper division level, most are part of the university’s First-Year Signature Course program. Difficult Dialogues classes offer both students and faculty the opportunity to learn how to engage difficult issues in the classroom. For many, as the accompanying articles attest, the experience is powerful and transformative.

— Pauline Strong, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Humanities Institute.

Ann Cvetkovich: Listening to faith, desire and feeling in the classroom

Ann Cvetkovich

Ann Cvetkovich

Ann Cvetkovich is the Garwood Centennial Professor of English and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies. Her course on Religion and Sexuality was one of the four original Difficult Dialogues courses designed with funding from the Ford Foundation. She has authored or co-authored numerous books including "Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism" and "An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures."

Teaching the Religion and Sexuality course has been one of the high points of my teaching career.  While I was excited to have the opportunity to introduce beginning students to gender and sexuality studies, which can itself be a source of controversy and difficult dialogue, I was also apprehensive about my lack of expertise in religious studies. It was a constructive fear, though, especially because the Difficult Dialogues commitment to team teaching allowed me to learn from the collective expertise of participating faculty, such as Steve Friesen on Biblical interpretation, Martha Newman on the history of religious studies, Denise Spellberg, Kamran Ali and Sofian Merabet on religion and culture in the Middle East and South Asia, and Domino Perez on the role of La Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexican American culture.

I wanted to create an environment in which a diverse group of students would be able to discuss matters of religious faith and sexual desire that are often considered intimate or private. I also wanted to suggest how religion and sexuality, so often seen as at odds with one another, might actually have common ground because of their ties to deeply held beliefs and feelings.  Our focus on academic freedom helped to connect religion and sexuality (as unlikely bedfellows) because both have had a history of being considered inappropriate for academic and scholarly study, something students were surprised to discover.

My course investigated difficult dialogues around religion and sexuality by focusing on a series of controversies in the United States, such as sex education, homosexuality in the church and abortion. All of these topics can be traced to the transformative impact of feminism and the politics of sexual liberation on changing understandings of gender and sexuality in post World War II U.S. culture. Another crucial feature of the course was the effort to situate U.S. debates about religion and sexuality in a transnational context, so as not to universalize Christian and/or Protestant cultures. Students faced the challenge of how to negotiate cultural difference without falling into ethnocentrism or cultural relativism.

The most exciting part of the Difficult Dialogues program for me was the focus on dialogue as a tool for negotiating conflict and controversy in a group. The art of listening was a fundamental building block, and students were eager to become better listeners and to hear from those whose experiences differed from theirs. They shared their own backgrounds as part of our work in understanding each other and facilitating dialogue but with the ultimate goal of problematizing easy associations between identity and beliefs. On the first day of class, I taught the students to listen to each other without interruption, and I was consistently surprised by how powerful they found this simple exercise. They were genuinely curious about difference: the straight students wanted to hear from the gay students; the Christian students wanted to know about non-Christian backgrounds; everyone wanted to find ways to be able to talk about racial difference without feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Paying close attention to what others say also entails paying close attention to the emotional reactions that often keep us from listening carefully. Teaching Difficult Dialogues has confirmed my sense of the elegant and transformative power of learning from others by learning to listen.

Suzanne Seriff: Bringing the museum to the classroom

Suzanne Seriff

Suzanne Seriff

Suzanne Seriff is a folklorist and guest curator of "Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America through Galveston Island," a traveling exhibit that tells the story of Galveston's largely forgotten history as a major immigration port. Her Difficult Dialogues course Immigration and Community Engagement focuses on contemporary issues of immigration in the United States.

As a senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and independent museum curator, I was thrilled to have the opportunity in 2009 to develop a Difficult Dialogues Initiative course on immigration that would be based on a new, nationally traveling history exhibit on Galveston as an immigrant port.

As curator of the exhibit, I had spent five years in firsthand, community-based dialogues with immigrants and immigrant descendants throughout Texas. This level of community outreach was a new model for museums and the Difficult Dialogues course allowed me to bring the best of the experience from the museum to the classroom.

I lined up a stellar group of guest speakers for the class, taking advantage of my connections with immigrants, immigrant advocates, lawyers, border patrolmen, contractors and others.  On the first day of class, I anticipated that students would reflect my enthusiasm.

"Raise your hands high," I said, "if you picked this class because you were interested in the very relevant topic of immigration?" No hands.

"Raise your hands if you picked this class because you were interested in learning the technique of dialogue?" No hands.

"How many of you picked this class because it fulfilled a requirement and was in a convenient timeslot." All hands shot up.

This lesson in honest dialogue was both entertaining and effective. By the end of the first three-hour seminar, student responses had shifted 180 degrees, and Blackboard discussion blogs read like testimonials:

"I came into this class not very interested and certainly not enthused about the topic of immigration and cultural pluralism. However, as the course progressed, I not only achieved my goal of gaining appreciation and patience for the methodical nature of dialogue, but also a new perspective on the issue of immigration. This class exceeded my expectations of what I thought an undergraduate studies course entailed. I thought that a required undergraduate studies course meant a class on a topic that you will never think about once the class is over. Thankfully, after the first class I let down my guard and decided to give it a try, and keep an open mind to the idea of immigration for three hours every Tuesday."

A few weeks later, we welcomed our first community speakers — day laborers from Mexico and the director of a safe house for immigrants and refugees. The responses from students became even more laudatory.

"This was so far my favorite class we have had. What was very special to me about this class was that I gained insight from the workers that I had not been exposed to. I have always known how Americans feel about immigration, but I have never heard an actual immigrant talk about it. I was able to empathize with the immigrants, and understand the love for their family and the extent they would go for those they loved."

All semester, we alternated among dialogue techniques that exposed students to new ideas and new people. Among them were:

  • Engaging with guest speakers
  • Watching films coupled with visits from their directors and role plays based on the characters
  • Taking fieldtrips to museum exhibits and film premiers
  • Conducting personal family oral histories that were videotaped and discussed
  • Engaging in weekly in-class dialogue exercises with funny-sounding names like "conversation cafes," "Samoan circles," and "fishbowls."

The level of trust and openness in these classes was unlike anything I have experienced before or since. The final class evaluations reflected the progress.

"Through the process of dialogue we were able to explore the issue with information from many different medias. It is no contest that the information and perspective I gained in our class is much more in depth and unbiased then any previous method of inquiry I used in the past. I know that this class has positively impacted me as I achieved my goals and grasped a better understanding of the controversial issues surrounding immigration."

"I can honestly say this course was truly one of the most remarkable experiences I have been a part of and been able to learn from."

"This class I believe will expand my appreciation for diversity not only at here at The University of Texas at Austin but also in the world as a whole."

What more could you want from a group of kids who came to a class with no professed knowledge of the subject and no identifiable interest in the material?