Last night I was one of probably 200-250 members of the campus community who participated in a discussion about campus culture. Dr. Katy Harriger of Political Science led this exercise. Dr. Harriger and and Jill McMillan, Professor Emerita of Communication, have worked with the concept of deliberative dialogue – and they used this model with our large group.
The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory defines deliberative dialogue this way: “a face-to-face method of public interaction in which small groups of diverse individuals exchange and weigh ideas and opinions about a particular issue in which they share an interest. In some methods of deliberative dialogue, such as the study circle, participants begin the discussion from their personal experience with the issue and proceed over time to examine multiple views and perspectives. In the end, whether or not they come to consensus, the group will ideally understand the complexities of the issue and come to an informed opinion about it.”
That definition accurately mirrored our exercise. As a large group, we all began in Pugh Auditorium while Dr. Harriger talked about the process and our goals – to consider three different perspectives on what our campus might want to emphasize if we want to move our campus culture in a different direction. We watched a short video made by a student that represented the three perspectives of the exercise:
1) imagining a more inclusive community – how do we live with each other better, how do we understand differences and respect each other, have better relations between campus organizations (particularly in Greeks and independents), etc.
2) imagining a more vibrant intellectual community – a lot of this discussion was about the difference between working hard just to achieve a grade vs. engaging fully in lots of opportunities to live ‘the life of the mind’ in and out of class, all week long; 0ne of the discussion points here was the idea that some students believe that if they worked hard all week and did well in their schoolwork, they earned the right to spend their free time however they like – and for many, that might be a weekend of parties and non-intellectual pursuits.
3) imagining a more engaged community – Wake Forest’s motto is Pro Humanitate (for humanity) and while many of our students are involved in service, are we really getting past the ‘Wake Forest bubble’ and learning more about our larger community? are we offering our skills and help, in partnership with the city and beyond? should we be?
Following the film, we were broken into groups of 20 people and assigned to an area to discuss each of the three perspectives. My group had students of all years, as well as some faculty and administrators; I am sure the other groups were similar. Each discussion group had moderators (many of whom I know and like a lot) and ground rules – listen, don’t interrupt, try to understand the points the others make, even if they disagree directly with your opinion.
So we sat together and talked about what we have experienced in terms of intellectual engagement, service, and inclusion. We shared positives and negatives for each. People were very honest. In my group we had Greek students and independents, students who did not drink at all, some who were very involved in service organizations, some who were RAs, some student athletes. We had science majors and English majors, students of all class years, including one who sadly said she was transferring because she felt like she had not found enough people who shared her values. It was fascinating to hear their perspectives, and to share mine.
We talked a lot in our group about the first perspective, the inclusive community. I told the group that one of the things that has pained me the most in the past couple of years is that I have had 2 young women advisees transfer because they didn’t get in to a sorority, and a 3rd of mine is in the pr0cess of deciding now whether to stay or go. I explained what these women told me, which was they felt like they were on this small campus with all these girls in the sororities who had ‘judged them’ during recruitment and must somehow be looking at her now like ‘there goes that girl we didn’t want, ha ha ha.” I was impressed with the reactions of the Greek students in our group I am not sure they realized the effect that recruitment can have, or how seriously some people take that rejection. These were girls in some of the most popular groups on campus, and I felt like they were genuine in their dismay.
Our group agreed that we need to have more social outlets – and more cross-pollenization of the various campus organizations. We debated the merits of keeping recruitment during second semester freshman year (it allows students to find a niche and a group to belong to, and is after they have acclimated to the academic life), and the idea of waiting until sophomore year (pro: it would give students a full year to find their friend groups and give them time to mature more to handle potential disappointment; con: it could create a divide between freshmen and ‘everyone else’ because of lack of mingling, and for those who really need a group to belong to, why make them wait?).
The goal of the exercise was not necessarily to find solutions right then and there. It was more to explore, discuss, listen, understand. Each group was asked to come up with some potential suggestions and action items that could be looked at further. All the groups’ feedback was collected, and it will be shared with the campus community.
I left thinking a few things:
1. We have amazing students. They came to the table with genuine interest and engagement. While a lot of them in my group might not have shared the same organizations/friend groups, they were kind, respectful, friendly. I wish I knew all of them better, frankly.
2. Civil discourse is a great thing. Not one person in my group got hot headed, angry, dismissive. Everyone participated with the right spirit. I was proud of the respect shown to others.
3. It is good to break out of your own mind pattern and experiences to consider that of others. I know what “I” think, and my reasons always make perfect sense to me. But it was enlightening and refreshing to have heard these other perspectives – because I don’t walk their same path, I wouldn’t know what it is like unless they tell me, and I listen.
4. The faculty and staff present are wonderful, giving people. They were there because they care about the campus, our students, and our shared experience – enough to sacrifice time at home with their families so they could meet at a time convenient to our students. There is no merit pay for this sort of thing. This is because they are just genuinely awesome people.
5. If we could harness the brainpower and goodwill of that group, I wonder if there is anything we couldn’t accomplish, working together.
6. I wish we could have found a way to involve more of the campus.
Finally, one of my friends (who had moderated) said on Facebook following the event: “This was, hands down, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done at WFU!!!!”