What We Have Learned About Inclusivity in Controversial Conversations at CSB and SJU

Five of the conversational components featured on our assessment rubric emerged directly from our analysis of survey data. We chose to add the component of “inclusiveness” because it seemed so important, even though our survey was not structured to reveal that importance clearly. Just one of our behavioral items, “participants with extreme views spoke more than those in the middle,” was directly related to this component, and even it connected only to one part of what we are “calling inclusiveness.” We have defined inclusiveness as “respect for the margins and the middle,” and an exemplary conversation as one in which “participants who are personally affected by the issue at hand, those who hold minority viewpoints, those who are from underrepresented groups, and those who are uncertain of their views all speak repeatedly.” It might have been more accurate to distinguish “respect for the margins” from “respect for the middle,” though in practice we found most of our campus conversations to fall far short of the ideal in both respects.

Of the 138 observations we conducted in spring 2007, 20 (14.9%) generated an inclusivity rating of “unsatisfactory,” more than for the other five dialogue components combined. Another 37 (27.6%) were rated as “needs improvement.” Put differently, in nearly half of our campus conversations, at least one of the four groups named in the definition does not participate at all.

In part, these negative ratings reflect the fact that while we defined the other components entirely in terms of the behavior of the people in the conversation, the inclusiveness rating also depends on who is part of the conversation. By our definition, a group composed entirely of white people cannot have a satisfactorily inclusive conversation about racism, no matter how skilled they are at dialogue. (This point helps to explain the difference between inclusiveness and courage. An ideologically homogeneous group can have a courageous dialogue so long as they explore their relatively small disagreements, but inclusiveness depends on the expression of major differences. Unfortunately, not all of our observers grasped this distinction.) However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the low ratings can be explained entirely by the homogeneity of our campus. We observed many conversations in which marginalized groups were present but silent. At the lively conversation following our campus production of the Vagina Monologues, for example, hundreds of students were present but no one chose to criticize the play.

The inclusion of inclusiveness in our rubric kept us aware of the particular challenges caused by the homogeneity of our campuses as a whole. Our students are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly upper Midwestern in origins, and overwhelmingly either Catholic or Lutheran. There is more diversity in class background, but virtually no public conversation about issues related to class. (In our survey, moreover, we did not find many significant differences in conversational experiences related to levels of parental education, which we used as a proxy for class.) Ideologically, students are more likely to identify themselves as “middle of the road” than either “liberal” or “conservative,” though most hold liberal views on virtually every issue other than abortion. Moreover, the polarization we found on the issues of sexual orientation and abortion contrasts with a tendency of students to cluster toward the middle on issues related to race, economics, and the military. A whopping 52% of students, for example, declined to express either support or opposition to affirmative action.

As we have investigated various models for promoting good conversations on controversial issues, we have found relatively little discussion of the challenge of homogeneity. In general, national organizations such as the National Issues Forum or the Catholic Common Ground Initiative start from either the problem of polarization or the challenge of diversity. The task of dialogue, from this perspective, is to get people with starkly divergent views to engage one another without coming to blows. Although this approach is certainly appropriate in certain contexts, we worry that an excessive emphasis on polarization as a problem may blind us to the equally problematic implications of homogeneity. After all, our nation’s most pressing social problems, from global warming to persistent racial inequalities, require change, and change will not come unless homogeneous communities are willing to shake themselves up.

Thus, we have struggled to develop conversational models that foster inclusiveness. Indeed, one of our most important findings from the year is that one popular strategy for addressing controversial issues on campus—the creation of one-credit classes and voluntary discussion groups—is poorly suited to the promotion of inclusive conversations. Both the dialogue groups that preceded the production of The Vagina Monologues (which we observed) and the one-credit course on “Whiteness” (which we sponsored and observed) are cases in point. Though these experiences were valuable to their participants in many ways, they provided no opportunities for these participants to challenge or be challenged by peers with radically different views on sex or race. Only those students who were already sympathetic to the values implicit in the course descriptions chose to take part.

This is not to suggest that such events should not take place at all. Self-selecting groups can provide a safe conversational space for gay and lesbian students, students of color, or survivors of sexual abuse to dialogue with their campus allies, gradually building up the courage needed to engage in conversations in the public forum. Care must be taken, though, to ensure that these experiences do not reinforce a sense of marginalization. Especially if relatively few students join the group, participants may interpret the larger campus community as hostile to their concerns, when in fact it is merely indifferent or uninformed.

If self-selecting groups have a vital role to play, though, other approaches are needed to create truly inclusive conversations. One approach that we do not recommend is to attract a diverse audience by obscuring the real character of an event or course. This is what happened—albeit unintentionally—in the one credit course we sponsored on the “Minnesota nice” phenomenon. This course attracted one of the most diverse pools of participants we encountered all year, and the resulting conversations were in fact marked by regular expressions of vigorous disagreement. But participants at both ideological extremes felt they were victims of a bait and switch: some thought that the purpose of the class was to celebrate Minnesota culture while others assumed that the goal was to dissect a particular insidious form of racism. Because no one had been warned that one purpose of the class was to express and explore strong disagreements, many experienced those disagreements as incivility and left with less motivation to participate in similar conversations in the future.

On the other hand, it is sometimes possible to foster good dialogue by being very explicit about the goal of exploring sharp disagreements. In spring 2007, for example, students in a peace studies course (“Theologies of Violence and Nonviolence”) expressly invited members of Students Fostering Conservative Thought, the College Republicans, and the Military Science Club to participate in a dialogue on foreign policy. The resulting conversation was not exemplary in courage, in part because the peace studies students were so appreciative of the opportunity to hear what the “other side” had to say that they scarcely spoke at all. But the encounter was experienced as positive by everyone present, and most left with a desire for deeper conversation.

Ultimately, the best strategy for promoting inclusiveness is the same as the best strategy for promoting courage: inviting students to speak, repeating the invitation as often as necessary, and empowering them to extend similar invitations to one another. The dialogue just mentioned might not have happened, for example, if Controversial Conversations had not been patiently extending invitations to conservative students for the previous year.

The advisory group for Controversial Conversations was itself the fruit of this strategy of invitation. Even prior to beginning our research, we recognized that both conservatives and gays and lesbians are often marginalized in campus conversations, and so we took special care to ensure that both groups would be represented. (Interestingly, this proved to be much more difficult for conservatives than for gays and lesbians, and virtually impossible in the case of conservative faculty and staff.) Though our group was certainly not a perfect mirror of the larger campus, everyone was well aware that “the margins” were present, and as a result our conversations took on a significantly more respectful tone than some conversations on campus. The more religiously liberal members of the group, in particular, found that we needed to take special care to avoid dismissive comments about “fundamentalists” or certain teachings of the Church. This discipline—which did not prevent us from expressing our own firm convictions—made us much more aware of how often casually attitudes toward certain religious positions are expressed on our campuses.

The strategy of invitation can also be successful in the context of ordinary four-credit courses, so long as these enroll a diverse range of students. The degree to which this is the case, of course, depends on the particular issue to be explored. In most classes at CSB/SJU, it would not be wise to foster an explicit dialogue between GLBT and straight students, or between people of color and whites, because the first group might have only one or two reluctant representatives. But we would encourage professors to take the risk of inviting dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics, between liberals and conservatives, and perhaps even between middle-class and working-class students. All of these diversities are present but too often invisible in our classrooms, and by bringing them more to light we could create space for an even wider expression of diversity on campus.

In the end, it may prove to be even more difficult to promote “respect for the middle” than “respect for the margins.” Our students, and Americans in general, have few models for how undecided, ambivalent, or moderate individuals should participate in conversations about hot button issues. Though it is hard to do in practice, it is relatively easy to acknowledge that one should be able to learn from persons on the “other side.” But what exactly should one learn from the people who have primarily questions to bring to the table? Among students in our campus laboratories, a whopping 91% agreed that “I can learn a lot from people with whom I disagree,” while only 48% agreed that “I can learn a lot from people who don’t have strong opinions.” They were a bit more respectful of themselves as people in the middle, with 63% saying that “I believe it is important to participate in conversations on controversial issues even when I do not have a strong opinion,” and only 17% saying that “I should not speak up in a controversial conversation unless I have a strong opinion.” But none of these numbers changed significantly over the course of the semester, even though we had identified “respect for the middle” as one of the primary goals we would promote in our campus laboratories (see Table 40, Respect for the Middle).

Still, we would advocate the same strategy of invitation for the “middle” as for the “margins.” It can, of course, be harder to identify “middling” students than their “marginalized” counterparts, since there are no specific student organizations to contact. One strategy that can be helpful in the classroom is to conduct a “spectrum” exercise (in which students line up according to their views on a particular issue) and then begin by inviting the students in the middle to identify the questions they would need to resolve in order to reach a more decisive judgment. More work is needed, though, to bring these students more fully into our campus conversations.