Negotiating Civil Discourse in Academic Advising

This article originally appeared in Academic Advising Today (Vol. 34, No. 4) December 2011. Shannon Burton completed a Master’s in Academic Advising from Kansas State University in 2009.

Shannon Burton, Michigan State University

Higher education professionals have come to recognize that our students are an amalgamation of their family structures, race and ethnicity, gender, religions, and educational experiences. As students converge upon our campuses, they are challenged to confront their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in new ways through coursework, the people they meet, and the extra-curricular opportunities in which they engage. Advisors hope to create environments where students feel safe sharing their views on coursework and their activities, but we realize that the comments students make can be positive, negative, or sometimes even inappropriate.

How should advisors engage students in deeper discussions when we hear comments about an experience that borders on incivility? What can we do to help students begin to develop healthy means to discuss experiences?  Academic advisors can help students put their views and experiences into perspective when we teach students to maintain discussions that support, rather than undermine, societal good in the academic environment. While it may be difficult even for advisors to reflect upon controversial topics, there are strategies we can use to manage civil discourse. To facilitate appropriately, advisors must examine our perspectives on societal issues first.

Understanding Ourselves

  1. Advisors should have an understanding of our views on issues so that biases can be checked.  The key is to engage students and allow them to reflect upon what they are saying versus imposing our beliefs upon students.
  2. Advisors should be aware of the ways in which we may respond to comments we consider “uncivil” and determine how we may mitigate our initial reactions. Remember, students should continue to feel that advisors’ offices are safe and secure places to talk about themselves and issues that may affect their academic success. Reacting, however instinctively, in a negative way may have reverberating repercussions for continued relationships. Additionally, as professionals and as representatives of the institution, we are role models for appropriate behavior and how to express views within the institutional culture.
  3. Advisors should be aware of our communication styles and how these styles affect our interactions with students.  We may need to offer other means for communication or ask for space to reflect so that appropriate responses may be given.
  4. Advisors should encourage students to use the advising time to discuss ideas. We should let students know that regardless of their opinions, advisors will respect them and guide them towards academic success.

Once advisors set the above parameters, we can use the following strategies to help engage students.

Civil Discourse Strategies(Landis, 2008):

1. The Five Minute Rule (Landis, p. 109):

Ask students to consider opposing viewpoints for a few moments. Have them reflect on the following questions:

  • What is interesting or helpful about this view?
  • What are some intriguing features that others may not have noticed?
  • What would be different if they believed this view, if they accepted it as true?
  • In what sense and under what conditions might this idea be true?

Students should only think positively about the opposing viewpoint at this time. This strategy allows students to try on a less popular view and entertain it respectfully for a short time.

2. Reframe the Discussion (Landis, p. 154):

This strategy provides a means to uncover the hidden historical, social, and political aspects of a position.   Advisors should help students identify the experiences informing their perspective and help them reflect upon the following questions:

Option One:

  • From what discourse or discourse community does this view originate?
  • In what social or political structures is this view most at home?
  • How does this discourse relate to different power structures in which believers might find themselves?
  • What does holding and voicing this opinion do to shape individuals and their different roles or relationships?

Option Two:

  • What kind of cultural work does this view promote?  Are proponents trying to get individuals to believe in something, act in specific ways, or change their minds about something?
  • Who loses?  Who gains? Which groups benefit and who is penalized?
  • What ideas gain traction because of this perspective, and which ideas are minimized?
  • What perspectives are mobilized if this view becomes accepted, and which are constrained, limited or eliminated?

3. Shared Writing (Landis, p. 199):

Personal journals are effective and safe spaces for students to consider and develop their ideas about controversial topics before engaging in dialogue with others.  Encourage students who have difficulty expressing themselves to write in their journals every day.  Ask students if they are willing to share their journals so we can help them think through issues in constructive ways.

Conclusion

These are three ways to engage students in deeper discussions about their thoughts. These strategies offer examples of how advisors can help students reframe discussions in healthy ways and engage in dialogues on controversial topics both inside and outside the classroom. Other strategies exist for classrooms and group environments.

Whichever strategies are used, advisors should make certain that we have prepared carefully. We should know what we think and why we think that way. We should be prepared for our instinctive reactions and know how to control for them. As advisors we must have the courage to make mistakes. We must be humble enough to stand corrected and apologize when necessary. Engaging students in deeper conversations is not easy, but our efforts can move students forward to lifelong learning.

Shannon Lynn Burton
School of Criminal Justice
Michigan State University
sburton@msu.edu

References

Landis, K. (Ed.) (2008). Start talking: A handbook for engaging difficult dialogues in higher education.  Anchorage, AK: University Press.

Resources

Teaching Tolerance. Founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance is dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children.  www.tolerance.org

National Issues Forum. This non-partisan network of educational and community organizations promotes the debate of current issues.  www.nifi.org

Choices for the 21st Century. Choices is a project of the Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University that has created 15 units on contemporary and historical U.S. foreign policy issues.  www.choices.edu

Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center. This center is dedicated to promoting civic engagement, academic freedom and pluralism in higher education. www.difficultdialogues.org

For Further Reading

Andrews, R. (1994). Democracy and the teaching of argument. The English Journal, 83(6), 62-69.

Barber, B.R. (1989). Public talk and civic action: Education for participation in a strong democracy. Social Education, 53(6).355-370.

Evans, R. W. and Saxe, D.W. (Eds.). (1996). On teaching social issues. National Council for the Social Studies Bulletin 93. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies.

Parker, W. C. (Ed.). (2002). Education for democracy, contexts, curricula, assessments. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

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