Teaching and Learning for Meaningful Dialogue

Global Visions Week is here on Monday! I’ve always felt that this week is one of the most important things we do in our campus community. It’s a chance for us to model the things we argue are some of the key benefits of the type of liberal arts education we offer to our students: empathy and understanding towards a variety of cultural expressions and lifeways, the ability to both wrestle with difficult issues and differing perspectives–and an understanding of why that wrestling is important, and the willingness to listen deeply to the diversity of voices they encounter now and in the future. This year’s guest is Dr. Eboo Patel, who will be delivering our Ravenholt Lecture this year on Tuesday the 11th, at 10:40 in Sisam Arena. Dr. Patel’s work has a strong focus on interfaith dialogue, and he has become one of the country’s most prominent voices advocating for interfaith cooperation and community service, particularly in and among college and university communities.

As anyone who has worked with matters of faith in either the personal or pedagogical sphere is already aware, interfaith dialogue is easy to embrace in the abstract, but so much harder to implement in practice. Our embrace of religious diversity should go beyond mere sloganeering, but that can sometimes get messy in practice. In my Medieval History class, for example, we’re moving into the Crusades–the very opposite of peaceful, tolerant interfaith dialogue. The legacy of both sectarian and civil violence that arose from centuries’ worth of religious conflict has powerfully  shaped our own world. It’s one thing to look at this period and say, “well, that was an awful violent epoch, but what progress we’ve made since!” But that blithe dismissal doesn’t hold up when we look, for example, at the prevalence of the term “crusade” in our public discourse about present-day conflicts in which our country is engaged. Even the use of “Crusaders” as a mascot for Lutheran colleges isn’t without its problems, given the historical actions of the real-life crusaders. And this is merely one quotidian, content-specific example of how these issues can and do arise.

What Global Vision Week offers us this year, then, is the opportunity for us to engage as an academic community with these difficult, but vitally important, issues of religious pluralism and dialogue. In many ways, these are constructively approached as parts of a larger teaching and learning conversation. How do we create classroom spaces where students can take risks and grapple with controversial and difficult material in a safe and intellectually supportive environment? How do we make sure that all of our students’ voices are part of the conversation? How do we challenge our students to think critically and be globally aware beyond just shallow slogans? In what ways can we problematize and complicate students’ assumptions without alienating them or shutting down the dialogue? What can we do as educators to foster this type of learning, perspective, and empathetic conversation? This coming week will help us bring these and other questions into focus, giving us the opportunity to affirm how teaching and learning in a liberal arts environment can affect real, positive change.

This week’s links will hopefully give us food for thought as we begin to work with these issues as a campus community. Here’s to a productive, challenging, and engaging set of conversations, not just for Global Visions Week, but beyond.

One of the most important pedagogical questions we can ask ourselves is whether we are teaching in ways that acknowledge that there are different ways of “learning” and “knowing?” As Maha Bali puts it, “Does your teaching encourage epistemological pluralism?” As she also acknowledges, gendered thinking can play an implicit role in the ways that we have traditionally defined “thinking.” Being aware of how power structures are embedded in our definitions of what’s “correct” or “how we should learn” is important pedagogical work.

Some of our students–in ways which are neither evident or even acknowledged–experience the phenomenon of being in, but not of, the cultural mainstream. For some, it’s a bewilderment when confronted with college culture (particularly true for first-generation college students). For others, it’s a curriculum that doesn’t seem to reflect any of their experiences or cultural outlook. For still others, it’s the experience of trying to navigate higher education within a larger culture that often seems antagonistic to them and others like them. This excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s masterful Between the World and Me powerfully describes the experience of this cultural loneliness, and the effects it has on our ways of being in the world. In this same vein, Rusul Alrubail’s TED Talk from Kitchener, Ontario’s Ted-X event earlier this year poignantly underscores the importance of enabling our students to find and share their voice.

Finally, I’m often asked about specific ways in which we can incorporate inclusiveness and meaningful cross-cultural dialogue in our particular classes–in particular, how we can deal with controversial material in order to facilitate learning rather than alienate some of our students. This resource, from Flinders University in Australia, is an excellent place to start, and contains useful references to further explore ways in which we can teach controversial subjects in a way that truly empowers student learning.

Have a great Global Visions Week, and encourage your students to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities we’ll have for learning and conversation across campus next week!

Have a question? Need some help? Want to talk teaching and learning (maybe even in the scholarly sense)? Contact CETL here.

And here is an excellent example of truly cross-cultural collaboration to inspire us for next week:


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