How Courage is Exemplified in a Controversial Conversation

We believe that the single greatest weakness in our campus conversations is the lack of courage. Too often, students avoid the most controversial issues or choose not to speak at all in classroom or public dialogues. It is rare for students to disagree publicly with one another, and rarer still for students to move beyond the mere expression of disagreement to a real engagement with one another’s convictions.

This challenge emerged clearly in our initial survey. Student respondents had no difficulty identifying “flight” behaviors as extremely negative; indeed, our three “flight” behaviors were all among the five behaviors rated most negatively. 92.9% of students rated “avoiding the most challenging issues” as negative; 83.2% rated “changing the subject to something less controversial” as negative, and 85.5% rated “choosing not to speak” as negative (see Table 21, Flight Behaviors in Initial Surveys and Campus Laboratories).

Yet these same students identified all these behaviors as relatively common on campus. On a five point scale, 71.7% identified the frequency of “choosing not to speak” as 3 or more; 15% said this happens “almost always.” 54.8% rated “avoiding the most challenging subjects” as 3 or more, and 65.1% rated “changing the subject to something less controversial” as 3 or more. Overall, the gap between the composite ideal score for flight behaviors and the composite real score was 1.3030, a larger gap than for any of our other clusters of behaviors, and “participants choose not to speak” showed a larger between ideal and real scores than all but two other behaviors.

Moreover, student respondents were relatively willing to acknowledge that they personally engage in flight behaviors. 52% identified the frequency with which they personally “choose not to speak” as 3 or more; 6.5% said they do this “almost always.” 39% rated the frequency with which they “avoid the most challenging subjects” as 3 or more, and 32% rated the frequency with which they “change the subject to something less controversial” as 3 or more. Overall, the gap between the composite ideal score for flight behaviors and the composite personal score was .6658, substantially higher than the gaps for other clusters. Students are substantially more likely to acknowledge engaging in flight behaviors than in uncivil behaviors such as interrupting, using insulting language, or raising one’s voice. It may, of course, be that there is more self-reporting bias with regard to incivility than with regard to flight because there is a greater social stigma associated with incivility. If so, however, that is part of the problem: students may choose to disengage from conversations because they do not face any serious penalties for doing so.

Though the initial survey data clearly indicates that flight is a problem on our campuses, we believe that this data actually understates the degree of the problem, especially when compared to the problem of incivility. While the initial survey suggested that incivility is almost as widespread as flight, our subsequent surveys and observations identified far more flight than incivility on campus. The students who completed surveys because they were part of campus laboratory courses were, at the beginning of those courses, slightly more likely than students in the campus-wide survey to acknowledge that they engage in flight behaviors, and at the end of the semester they reported even higher levels of engaging in flight behaviors in that particular class. The surveys these students completed after particular class discussions also revealed substantial levels of flight behaviors, especially of “choosing not to speak.” By contrast, as will be seen below, students in the campus laboratories reported substantially less incivility in those courses than appeared in the campus-wide survey.

On the initial campus-wide survey, moreover, faculty and staff were significantly more likely than students to identify flight as a serious problem. While slightly more than half of all student respondents said that conversational participants avoid the most challenging issues at least sometimes, more than two third of faculty and staff respondents said this. 90% of students said that participants address challenging issues directly at least sometimes, but only 69% of faculty agreed (see Table 22, Faculty and Student Perceptions of Flight).

When we conducted observations of classroom and public discussions, we were rather shocked by the high levels of flight behaviors. In public events, even those with relatively small audiences, students were quite reluctant to speak at all; in some cases a handful of faculty and staff members did almost all of the speaking. In classroom discussions, students were more inclined to speak, but they were extremely reluctant to disagree openly with one another. On those occasions when they did disagree, they rarely went beyond the sharing of contrasting opinions to a direct engagement with one another’s ideas. Although homosexuality was identified in our survey as the single most controversial issue on campus, we almost never observed students who were willing either to endorse the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality or to identify personally as gay or lesbian.

These observations are reflected in the data from those observations where we used the Controversial Conversations assessment rubric. Observers rated conversations “exemplary” in courage only 37% of the time, while they provided ratings of “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” 24% of the time. These results were substantially worse than for civility or common ground, though they were better than for inclusiveness or values (see Table 20).

Using data from both the initial campus-wide survey and the campus laboratory surveys, we conducted an extensive comparison of “high flight” and “low flight” students—that is, students whose personal composite flight score was a standard deviation above or below the mean. This analysis suggests that flight behaviors have significant negative consequences, both for the individuals who engage in them and for the campus community as a whole, though there are also a few ways in which “high flight” students actually do better than their “low flight” peers.

On our initial survey, students who report high levels of flight behaviors also report that they do not enjoy controversy and that they are unlikely to initiate conversations on controversial issues. They are more likely to say that they don’t feel comfortable sharing all aspects of who they are at CSB/SJU and that their families of origin avoid controversy, though only a minority agreed with these statements. They are less likely have serious conversations with students of different races or ideologies, and they are less convinced that controversial conversations are an important part of a college education (though the substantial majority do agree with this). They are less likely to say that a professor has encouraged them to express views with which the professor disagreed. On the other hand, high flight students are more likely to say that they have changed their mind as a result of participating in controversial conversations. Moreover, they do not seem to have experienced as many negative consequences for their behavior as uncivil or highly competitive students (or, for that matter, as conservative students). Part of the challenge of overcoming flight is that so many of the negative consequences affect the community as whole rather than the individuals who are most prone to flight (see Table 23, Significant Differences for Students Prone to Flight Behaviors, Initial Campus-Wide Survey).

The surveys conducted in our campus laboratory classes provide another perspective on the educational experiences of high flight students. At the beginning of the semester, these students reported that they were significantly less likely to engage in a number of behaviors that are important to the success of a course. One third, compared to just 3% of low flight students, said that they should not speak up in a controversial conversation unless they had a strong opinion. They were half as likely (38% versus 78%) to say that they would work hard to defend the free speech of those with whom they disagreed. Though they were more likely than low flight students to say that they express middle-of-the-road opinions, they were less likely to say that they ask questions, speak up when they are unsure of their own opinions, or encourage others to participate (see Table 24, Significant Differences for Students Prone to Flight Behaviors, Campus Laboratories).

Fortunately, some of these gaps narrowed over the course of the semester. The number who said that they should not speak up unless they had a strong opinion declined to 11%, while those willing to defend the free speech of others rose to 58%. Indeed, the difference between high and low flight students on that particular item was no longer statistically significant. Significant differences persisted in several other areas, however.

High flight students in the campus-wide survey reported lower GPAs than those low flight students, and their counterparts in the campus laboratories likewise did not perceive themselves to be as academically successful as low flight students, though it is hard to know whether avoidance of controversy is a cause or an effect of low academic achievement. At the beginning of the semester, they were significantly less likely to say that they were knowledgeable about affirmative action, socioeconomic class, race, sexual orientation, gender, health care coverage, and abortion—all of the knowledge areas about which we asked. By the end of the semester, both high and low flight students saw themselves as more knowledgeable, but statistically significant gaps persisted in all the knowledge areas except health care coverage (unlike the other topics, this was explicitly treated in only one of the campus laboratory courses). Indeed, the gaps widened for the subject areas that received the most treatment in the courses (race, sexual orientation, gender, abortion), while they narrowed for topics that were not treated in many of the courses (affirmative action, socioeconomic class, health care coverage). After individual class discussions, high flight students were less likely to say that they had “learned a lot using this teaching technique,” that they had “gained a clearer understanding of both sides of the issue,” and that they “believe that I could faithfully represent ideas presented today with which I disagreed.” At the end of the semester, they were still less likely to say that they could faithfully represent ideas with which they disagreed, and they also reported having learned less from assigned texts. (Curiously, they did not report significantly lower learning from class discussions in the final survey.) Apparently, students who are prone to flight are less capable of benefiting from the education offered by CSB/SJU than students who engage controversial issues more directly.

High flight students tend to differ from their peers in their approach to some other dialogue components. They rate themselves more negatively on behaviors associated with both common ground and objectivity, and are very significantly less convinced of the importance of controversial conversations (see Table 25: Significant Correlations Between Personal Flight and Other Composite Scores, Initial Campus-Wide Survey).

We also found some demographic differences between the two groups (see Tables 26 and 27, Demographic Characteristics of High and Low Flight Students). High flight students are somewhat more likely to be female, Catholic, from Minnesota, and from rural areas. They are less likely to have mothers with graduate degrees. Both groups are overwhelming European American, as is our student body as a whole. (Intriguingly, the other high-flight students were Asian American, Latino/a, and Native American, while the other low-flight students were African American, international, and multi-racial. The numbers in our survey are too small to interpret, but the different approaches to flight among minority groups might be an area for fruitful research on campuses with racially diverse student bodies.) Troublingly, high flight students in both survey groups were slightly more likely to be seniors, suggesting that spending time at CSB/SJU does not help students overcome a proclivity to flight. In the initial campus-wide survey high flight students were disproportionately conservative, but in the campus laboratory survey the opposite was the case. Not surprisingly, high flight students were more likely to say that they hold middle-of-the-road views or lack strong views, while low flight students are more likely to say that their views do not fit into the conventional categories of liberal and conservative.

We also found some evidence that the culture of “Minnesota nice” may contribute to the lack of courage in our campus conversations. When we compared students from Minnesota with non-Minnesotans, we found significantly higher levels of changing the subject to something less controversial and of avoiding the most controversial issues, though not of choosing not to speak. Though the differences were not huge, these were the only behaviors for which one’s state of origin made a difference. It is not clear, of course, if this means that Minnesotans are more prone to flight or that students who attend college close to home are more prone to flight (see Table 28, The Influence of Minnesota Nice).

In any case, our one credit course on the phenomenon of “Minnesota nice” revealed that the very question of whether there is such a thing can spark intense controversy. In that class, it quickly became clear that many people of color, and indeed many white non-Minnesotans, perceive “Minnesota nice” as a form of veiled racism. Whether or not this interpretation is correct, it reveals one of the major ways in which flight can poison campus conversations. Rightly or wrongly, students who feel marginalized are likely to interpret the silence of their peers as hostility. Repeatedly during the course of our research, students of color, GLBT students, and religiously conservative students told us that they need multiple reassurances before they will take the risk to speak publicly. When many of their peers are culturally predisposed to avoid controversy, it is unlikely that they will experience these reassurances.

What, then, can we do to promote more courage at CSB/SJU? We believe that the single most important strategy is the invitation: all members of the CSB/SJU community need to invite one other to speak, to repeat the invitation as necessary, and to take visible measure to ensure that others will be “safe” when they choose to do so. Such invitations are double important for those students who are members of underrepresented groups or groups that are disproportionately prone to flight.

Invitations can take a number of forms. In our “Values and the Election” series of public panels, for example, we invited leaders from both liberal and conservative groups to share their views publicly, in effect guaranteeing that there would be open expression of disagreement at our event. The series would have been more successful, however, if we had developed a more explicit strategy for inviting liberal and conservative members of the audience to speak as well. Without such an invitation, conservative students were virtually silent during the open discussion time, despite the fact that our surveys revealed that they were in fact present.

In the classroom, invitation can mean asking students to speak out of their particular cultural, gender, or ideological identities. One campus laboratory professor, for example, frequently conducts “spectrum” exercises in which students position themselves in the room according to their views on an issue, and then “interviews” students occupying various positions. Another professor, who had the good fortune to have a class with a substantial percentage of students of color, conducted fishbowl discussions of racism with white students speaking first and then students of color. Both groups were especially forthright, because they could see that their unique perspectives were truly valued.

An atmosphere of invitation can also be fostered by practices that give students the sense that their words are valuable. In one campus laboratory, students leading a discussion on abortion were keenly aware of the heated rhetoric that often surrounds this issue, and so they chose to incorporate several elements of ritual into the conversation. Students were asked to light a candle before sharing their perspective on the issue. In addition to providing the discussion with a civil, reverent tone, this exercise was successful in eliciting a wide range of opinions. In another case, students distributed gambling tokens to their peers, and asked that they “pay” before speaking. Though one might think that forcing students to pay to speak would make them more reluctant, the opposite was the case: virtually everyone in the room participated in the discussion.

Given the prevalence of flight behaviors and the culture of Minnesota nice at CSB/SJU, it is important that we not be too overt in encouraging courageous expression of disagreement. One campus laboratory professor, for example, developed a “Disagreeable Exercise” in which students were explicitly required to disagree with one another. The resulting conversation did include disagreement, of course, but it was far from exemplary in courage. Many students were so uncomfortable with the exercise that they withdrew from the discussion altogether, while others complained about the lack of space for expressing uncertainty or middle-of-the-road views.

It is also important that provide students with the tools they need to extend invitations to one another, for there is only so much that professors can do to promote courageous dialogue. In particular, students need to learn to ask one another questions and actively encourage one another to speak up. In our observations of campus conversations, we very rarely saw such behaviors. Indeed, in our fall semester observations we kept a numerical tally of the number of times students “asked clarifying questions,” “encouraged others to speak up,” or “acknowledged the best arguments of others.” In the majority of observations, these behaviors occurred two or fewer times, while “sharing opinions” and “sharing factual information” occurred on average 21 and 11 times respectively. It would be helpful for professors to develop in-class exercises that would provide students the opportunity to practice behaviors intended to draw one another out.

It would also be helpful for us to provide students with more opportunities to lead events dealing with controversial issues. During the spring semester, we observed two series of student-discussions: the Vagina Monologues discussion groups and our own one-credit course on “Bennies and Johnnies.” We found students to be especially responsive to invitations from our peers. We could, however, do more to emulate schools like Lewis and Clark, which provides its students with many opportunities to lead public discussions during its annual gender studies colloquium, or Agnes Scott, where the religious studies department empowers students to mediate conflicts between professors and students and to participate in departmental governance.

Ultimately, the promotion of courage should be at the heart of CSB/SJU’s effort to promote a more rigorous “academic ethos” on our campuses. Our data makes it quite clear that if students do not speak up, express disagreements, and ask questions, they will not gain as much knowledge from their college education. We all can do more to empower them to do these things.