Be understood. Be understanding.
In a larger culture often defined by combative discourse regarding emotionally charged topics, Shenandoah University is carving out a space for itself in which students and faculty are learning how to better engage in thorough, meaningful, thoughtful conversation and debate.
A Quality Enhancement Program (QEP) piloted in fall 2018 by 16 faculty members encouraged civil dialogue by using a specific process to create greater understanding among students and an enhanced culture of thoughtful discourse throughout the university.
Encounter, Engage, Express: Shenandoah Conversations
The QEP process, “Encounter, Engage, Express: Shenandoah Conversations,” asked faculty members to use a variety of methods, according to Director of the QEP Pilot Program and Associate Professor of Spanish Adela Borrallo-Solis, Ph.D.:
Encounter: Video, virtual reality experiences, readings, guest speakers, etc., which evoke student perspectives
Engage: Thoughtful discussion, in the context of multiple perspectives, using Reflective Structured Dialogue (RSD)
Express: Reflection on the discussed topic, often in written form
Assistant Director of Spiritual Life Keith Jones Pomeroy used video created by the Shenandoah Center for Immersive Learning to encounter a specific experience in his First-Year Seminar course, “Skin Deep: ‘The Walking Dead’ and the Human Experience.”
Ahead of time my students were given the scenario that was used in the film. ‘There is a nuclear warhead headed to Winchester. You and the class can fit in the nearest bomb shelter and there is room for five more people. Ten people have shown up at your door and you must decide which five people are allowed in.’ Students had to make this decision based first on the demographics of the ten people in the abstract. Then they viewed the video and had to decide if putting a face to the people changed their previous decision.”
Keith Jones Pomeroy | Assistant Director of Spiritual Life
The visual element added a more personal dimension to scenario, he said. “Seeing the people making their pleas made it seem more real and students were able to empathize with some characters more than just their description (i.e. parolee who was convicted of marijuana possession).”
He said the Encounter, Engage, Express model proved valuable in his class.
It facilitated a process where students were able to reflect more deeply on their values and perspectives. In that reflection, they were able to articulate these both orally in groups and in written form.”
“Reflective Structured Dialogue (RSD) provides a framework for facilitating active listening, careful reflection, open consideration, and empathic acceptance and understanding among students as they learn to discuss and explore their own and others’ viewpoints on challenging/emotive topics,” said Assistant Professor of Music Therapy Bronwen Landless, MMT, MT-BC, who used the method in one of her courses.
The strategies of developing group agreements, asking questions of curiosity, providing time for reflection, dedicating opportunities for speaking without being interrupted and accepting differing viewpoints and stances allow students to engage more respectfully, openly and deeply than they might otherwise. Students are thereby exposed to diverse viewpoints and are subsequently able to expand their perspectives and better tolerate, respect, and even embrace differing ones.”
Bronwen Landless, MMT, MT-BC | Assistant Professor of Music Therapy
The benefits of RSD are many:
- Improved sense of student belonging
- Fosters an environment of curiosity, rather than defensiveness
- Empowers students to be genuine with each other
- Promotes deeper learning of course content and critical, reflective thinking
- Faculty and students learn to ask better questions
- Promotes students’ willingness to speak in class
- Helps students identify and articulate their personal commitments
So far, the results of the QEP, “Encounter, Engage, Express: Shenandoah Conversations,” have been impressive.
Associate Professor of Curriculum & Instruction Karrin Lukacs, Ph.D. shared her favorite story from the fall pilot, which occurred in her The Teaching Profession class (15 students, a mix of lower/upper classes):
I asked students to read the educators’ code of ethics and then use the Paper app on their iPads to draw a picture of what the ethics meant to them personally. Once their drawings were complete, I asked them to get up and move around the classroom with their iPads to share their pictures with each other. After a few minutes, one of them said, ‘Let’s RSD this thing!’ So, ON THEIR OWN, they moved into a circle, shared their pictures (instead of a story), and then asked/answered ‘What is at the heart of the matter for you?’ and ‘How are you conflicted?’ just as we normally did. The fact that they did this on their own without my facilitation made me a believer. I had other stuff planned for the class, but it was so awesome to see them come together like that – I just had to let them go for it. It was – in a word – amazing.”
Karrin Lukacs, Ph.D | Associate Professor of Curriculum & Instruction
This fall, two of my classes managed to have an unstructured and civil dialogue about gun control after the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. This, to me, displays the real potential of RSD. RSD prepared the students in the classes to listen to each other so that they were prepared when it really mattered – and even when I hadn’t intentionally prepared a dialogue about this specific issue. If we can listen to one another’s experiences and how they connect to the positions that matter to us, perhaps we can learn how to learn from people who disagree with us.”
Meredith Minister, Ph.D. | Assistant Professor of Religion
A number of students involved in the fall pilot are participating in the continuing initiative this spring. The Shenandoah Conversation Fellows will help instructors facilitate RSD in their classrooms.
I think RSD definitely helps encourage better discourse, because of the underlying values/ethics of using RSD. Some of the most significant values that I perceived would be patience, vulnerability, intellectual humility and curiosity. To me, all of these values are considerably crucial when pursuing honest communication.”
Madeleine Bohnett ’20 | Music performance (violin) major, participated in RSD through Dr. Minister’s Religion Outside of Religions course
“RSD asks students to draw on their own experiences,” Minister said. “This is revolutionary because academia often assumes that knowledge is objective and context doesn’t matter. RSD pauses for reflection. Spending a minute thinking about a question before responding to it might not feel revolutionary, but it allows students who wouldn’t otherwise join the conversation to consider what to say. RSD teaches students how to use their own experiences as data and to take their stories and themselves seriously.”
The process proved meaningful for Bohnett, who plans to be a facilitator. “I believe that in order to better understand each other, we must consistently question what it takes to develop the ability to have an honest conversation,” she said.
“RSD has given me the confidence to feel like I can express my opinions, over often controversial topics, in a group of people that may not always agree with me,” said nursing/Spanish double major Jennifer Shoemaker ’21, who encountered RSD in Dr. Borrallo-Solis’ Spanish for the Health Professions class and plans to be a facilitator. “I also now feel like I have the skills to navigate conversations like this in the workplace, or whatever environment. It has taught me what it means to be a true active listener, and to always strive to understand where the other person is coming from.”
English major Hannah Hale ’20 is excited about her role as facilitator.
I will be sitting in on RSD groups and helping students who are new to this exercise learn how to participate effectively and follow the guidelines set for that session. I will also act as a buffer for students who are resistant to RSD and be able to encourage and support them as they navigate through it for the first few times. By doing this, I think I will be able to continue to grow my conversation skills and continue to gain a greater understanding for people with even greater differences from my own personal perspective.”
Hannah Hale ’20 | English/secondary education major & biology minor, who encountered RSD in both a First-Year Seminar Course – Seeking After the Iron Throne: “Game of Thrones” – and a world literature course taught by Assistant Professor of English Christin Taylor, Ph.D.
Hale, who is also a biology minor and also studying secondary education, notes that through RSD, she’s developed skills she can use outside the classroom context. “I find myself more willing to reflect on someone’s responses during a conversation prior to responding. I am also more prepared to ask questions of someone after I listen to them speak like I have learned to do through RSD,” Hale said.
“Instead of asking questions to try to lead a person to see my perspective, I am now more prepared to ask questions for greater clarity and of genuine interest. By doing this, I can now say I understand opposing viewpoints much better, and I am more able to dissect why the other person or I may react or feel a certain way in a conversation,” Hale added. “This practice inside the classroom has allowed me to grow to be more open minded outside of the classroom. By promoting student listening and reflection and then allowing room for exploring further only for clarification or understanding, it allows students to share differing views without causing conflict. Instead of entering a conversation with the goal of winning the argument, students instead enter conversations with the goal of reflecting and growing their understanding of someone who has a different perspective.”
Meg McCormick ’22, who encountered RSD in the Empathy and Connectedness First-Year Seminar course, said she uses the process almost every day now. “It truly helps me to empathize with others and have collected thoughts when it is my turn to chime in.”
It was interesting to see that even though faculty were given choices to create a post-dialogue assignment in the Express phase of the QEP where students could reflect further on multiple perspectives through an oral or written assignment or a performance, most faculty chose to assign a written piece to their students. I can hypothesize that this happened because faculty is well aware that improving written communication is such a priority for future employers.”
Adela Borrallo-Solis, Ph.D. | Director of the QEP Pilot Program and Associate Professor of Spanish
In the Express piece I really felt that the papers from students were more thoughtful, more reflective, and more cogently structured than if I simply gave them a topic to research and write about. I really believe that the reflective structured dialogue we did about controversies surrounding the commemorative landscape afforded students the opportunity to focus and think in a way that they could not have with a traditional paper assignment.”
Jonathan Noyalas ’01, M.A. | McCormick Civil War Center Director, who used the process in his First-Year Seminar course, The Uses and Abuses of the Past
Shenandoah Conversations: Be Understood. Be Understanding
Assistant Professor of Religion Kevin Minister, Ph.D., was extremely pleased with the Shenandoah Conversations pilot. “The most positive impact has been seeing my fellow faculty excited about teaching and seeing the way that students not only begin to know and like each other more but also begin to see each other as partners in learning,” he said.