-By: Tamra Wright
In this blog post, guest blogger, Tamra Wright examines her teaching practice and how she claims her classrooms as a civic-rich space through her role as a facilitator and guide. What are the limits of impartiality in fostering an inclusive classroom? Civic-rich classrooms not only connect course content and activities to questions of community and societal consequence. Civic-rich classrooms are also designed to foster civic skills such as deliberative decision making and dialogue as well as wrestle with values like justice, equality and collective self-governance. Wright takes us inside her practice and how she is adapting principles from InterGroup Dialogue to open up communicative spaces with her students.
Over the last year and half, many have had to navigate uncharted waters as we’ve faced a pandemic and issues of economic and social injustice. For some, the ripples in the water turned into waves, higher than normal but surmountable. For others, the waves turned into currents that were dangerous, relentless, and insurmountable. For me, the waters have been at times still but also choppy with many lessons learned. These lessons were profound in that they’ve impacted all facets of my life, most notably in my role as criminal justice faculty.
This year of transitions and disruptions taught me a lot and one of the most important lessons learned came from my students. My SPEA-J275, Diversity in Criminal Justice students pushed me to reflect on my teaching philosophy and methods. They’ve helped me to see that it isn’t possible to take a neutral or impartial stance during uncomfortable discussions because my lived experience won’t allow it. It is their engagement or in some cases lack thereof that pushed me to reflect on and revise my teaching method, particularly when it comes to the 3 Ds: debate, discussion, and dialogue.
While debate, discussion, and dialogue are each a form of communication, they are different in approach and impact (Maxwell et. al, 2012). In debate, a person is committed to his/her/their point of view with little appetite for diverse perspectives. The goal of debate is to win because as they say, “to the victor goes the spoils.” In contrast, discussion is not about winning; rather, the focus is on individual sharing. Yes, discussion is a step in the right direction and more positive than debate, but sharing is often at the expense of listening or inquiry. Dialogue unlike discussion or debate pushes a person to search for strengths in the positions and perspectives of others. It creates opportunities for communication that increase understanding and a shift in attitudes (Wayne, 2008).
In SPEA-J 275, before we explore topics such as racial profiling, sentencing disparities, or historical trauma, we talk about the 3 Ds. I think it is important to highlight the role that each plays as either a barrier or conduit to communication and how the 3 Ds inform how we make decisions that impact those touched by the carceral system. In working with the 3 Ds, I challenge students to embrace vulnerability and use problem based-learning activities to encourage the sharing of diverse perspectives. For example, in one activity, I invite students to select who to save among diverse members of a community. This group activity instructs students to come to a consensus as to whom they will save before the world ends. Though the scenario is fictitious, it pushes students to examine their beliefs, values, and attitudes. They have to ask themselves, “Who is worthy of saving and why?” As a group, they must agree on who is saved or perishes. In trying to find a solution to a very complex and uncomfortable challenge, they must communicate, and it has been rewarding to see their communication shift from robust debate to cordial discussion. In many cases, there is shift from discussion to dialogue that builds bridges across differences.
Impartiality versus Multipartiality in the Classroom
For quite some time, my approach to discussions around challenging and uncomfortable topics with students has been to take an impartial stance. It was my way of not ruffling any feathers or making students feel bad but this past year and a half of teaching has made me realize that an impartial or neutral take is not possible. To remain impartial or neutral, is to ignore the reality that no one can be completely neutral because all perspectives are biased (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007).
To remain neutral during challenging conversations around issues of inequity and justice does not challenge students to think critically. I’ve discovered that my students value honest and diverse voices. They have shared this with me through emails, evaluations, and after-class discussions. They have shared that they do not always want their peers or professor to take a neutral stance. They welcome vulnerability and diverse perspectives, including mine. My students have opened my eyes to the value of multipartiality during classroom conversations.
Multipartiality, is a technique used in conflict resolution that considers the role of social identity and power in communication, specifically dialogue (Routenberg et al., 2013). It is a pedagogical practice often used in Intergroup Dialogue (IGD) to structure facilitated face to face conversations between members of different social identity groups with the goal of building bridges across differences (Maxwell et al., 2012; Zúñiga et al., 2007).
Getting Started with Integrating Multipartiality into the Classroom
In adapting multipartiality for use in leading class conversations, here are a few principles that I’ve drawn from the literature on IGD and which may be of use to you to open up space for dialogue on difficult topics:
- Don’t presume to know the lived experience of your students or their levels of awareness of the topic under examination. Rather, glean such information from probing questions or pre-course assessments (Thakral et al, 2016).
Sample prompts: What do you know and when did you first learn about this issue or topic? When it comes to this issue or topic, what are some of your hopes and fears?
- Create spaces for students to explain a dominant viewpoint while also allowing and acknowledging counternarratives, the stories of individuals or groups that have historically been ignored or suppressed (Brewer et al., 2015). Ask questions to encourage the exploration of deeper meanings while respecting the diverse experiences of students (Gadlin & Sturm, 2007).
Sample prompts: Could there be other factors or predictors of crime in certain communities? Are there intersections we could explore that may provide a holistic picture of the challenges in this community?
- Use historical and empirical evidence as tools to engage students and encourage critical thinking, especially with topics that may activate or trigger students. Encourage students to question the stories they’ve heard because doing so promotes critical thinking and consciousness-raising (Ledwith, 2017).
Sample prompts: In terms of the perspective you just shared, what role if any, could history play in the present with this issue? The data or evidence you shared provides helpful context–could you share your resource with the class?
- Develop class norms rooted in dialogic norms, including your own role and habits as instructor. Help students establish habits of communication that view classroom conversation as “an exchange designed for learning rather than winning” (Herzig & Chasin, 2006, p. 15). Dialogic norms can help reduce the number of missed opportunities to develop and cultivate trusting relationships with diverse people.
Sample Prompt: I hope that my perspective helped and welcome others to add their voices to the conversation. If there are voices that you think would be helpful to include such as guest speakers, articles, or videos, please let me know. I welcome any and all suggestions.
With multipartiality, one of my instructional roles is to facilitate communication in ways that challenge students to share their perspectives and develop a more complex understanding of an issue through listening to how others experience and view it. The hope should be to help students understand that others may differ in their stance on an issue but these differences do not invalidate us or our perspectives. Rather, we recognize how our views are socially and experientially positioned. Individually our stances offer partial glimpses of the whole which grow in their nuance, richness and complexity by embracing multipartiality.
As educators, I sense that we often find ourselves trying to balance the roles of educator and facilitator. Through my students, I have learned that a multipartial rather than impartial position in facilitation can challenge us all to seek information to further inform perspectives. In asking our students to consider the impact of their identities, we as educators must do the same. We should incorporate diverse teaching methods that challenge students to stray from debate and instead, move the needle from discussion to dialogue. Yes, it is our responsibility to educate our students, but it is also important to be open to learning from them. For me, my students have taught me to regularly reflect on my teaching methods and that it is okay to make mid-course corrections. As we work to support and empower students, they are all too often the ones empowering us to be and do better in and outside of the classroom.
Tamra Wright Biography
Tamra O. Wright joined the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs in 2016 as faculty teaching courses in both criminal justice and public affairs. As an educator working across the public, private, and non-profit sectors for almost 20 years, she has extensive experience leading support programs and equity initiatives. In her current role as a Lecturer, Tamra teaches undergraduate courses that focus on an array of issues and topics impacting diverse stakeholders within the criminal justice system.
Tamra, trained in mediation and intergroup dialogue (IGD) facilitation, collaborates with campus and community partners to facilitate dialogues that build bridges across differences. Her research interest focuses on the intersection of social work and criminal justice with major interests in dialogic pedagogy and interdisciplinary collaboration, interprofessional practice and training, and service and support integration for justice-involved youth. With experience that includes directing federal education programs and national non-profits, she works to create inclusive and welcoming spaces for all.
Tamra holds a bachelor’s in speech communication from the University of Georgia and two graduate degrees, a master’s in public administration with a concentration in policy management from Georgia College & State University and master’s in criminal justice from Southeast Missouri State University. Pursuing a PhD in social work, she is a 3rd year doctoral student in the Indiana University School of Social Work (IUSSW).
Follow Tamra Wright on:
Aldana, A., Richards-Schuster, K., & Checkoway, B. (2016). Dialogic pedagogy for youth participatory action research: Facilitation of an intergroup empowerment program. Social Work with Groups, 39(4), 339-358
Brewer, T. J., & Matsui, S. (2015). Living in Dialogue: Teach For America Counter-narratives: Two Alumni Books Reframe the Discourse. Teacher Education.
Gadlin, H., & Sturm, S. P. (2007). Conflict Resolution and Systemic Change. Journal of Dispute Resolution, 2007(1), 07-147.
Hardiman, R., Jackson, B., & Griffin, P. (2007). Conceptual Foundations for Social Justice Education.
Herzig, M., & Chasin, L. (2006). Fostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide from the Public Conversations Project. Public Conversations Project.
Ledwith, M. (2017). Emancipatory action research as a critical living praxis: From dominant narratives to counternarrative. In The Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research (pp. 49-62). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Lopez-Littleton, V. (2016). Critical dialogue and discussions of race in the public administration classroom. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 38(4), 285-295.
Maxwell, K. E., Nagda, B. R., & Thompson, M. C. (2012). Facilitating intergroup dialogues: Bridging differences, catalyzing change. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Thakral, C., Vasquez, P. L., Bottoms, B. L., Matthews, A. K., Hudson, K. M., & Whitley, S. K. (2016). Understanding difference through dialogue: A first-year experience for college students. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(2), 130–142
Routenberg, R., Thompson, E., & Waterberg, R. (2013). When neutrality is not Enough: Wrestling with the Challenges of Multipartiality. In L.Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 173-197). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Wayne, E. K. (2008). Is it just talk? Understanding and evaluating intergroup dialogue. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 25(4), 451-478.
Zúñiga, X. E., Nagda, B. A., Chesler, M. E., & Cytron-Walker, A. E. (2007). Intergroup dialogue in higher education: Meaningful learning about social justice. ASHE Higher Education Report, 32, 1–128.