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The Difference Dialogue Makes: Teaching Through Student-Led Forums on Race
Douglas Challenger, Associate Professor of Sociology, Franklin Pierce College


At many colleges and universities, new diversity content and innovative teaching techniques find their way into the curriculum through new programs or designated diversity courses. In many fields, however, it is also possible to introduce new content and teaching approaches into traditional disciplinary or general education courses.

This is what I have tried to do in my sociology class, "Science of Society II," at Franklin Pierce College (FPC), a small, predominantly white college in Rindge, New Hampshire.

I decided to make some significant changes to how I taught this course after two racial incidents on our campus last year. I created space in the class for students to prepare a series of forums on race and ethnic relations last spring. These forums enabled approximately 120 students, along with a small number of faculty and staff, to deliberate and learn about racial diversity and intolerance.

Fostering Dialogues

This unique class project grew out of some experimenting I had been doing the semester before using a model of deliberative dialogue developed by the National Issues Forums and the Kettering Foundation to talk about pressing social issues. Participants in these kinds of public discussions have the opportunity to consider multiple perspectives, to learn from each other, to understand areas of disagreement, and to discover common areas of concern as they try to formulate public policy decisions together. This model is not only highly effective as a method for public problem-solving, but has enormous potential for improving student learning outcomes. The method allows for students to learn about a particular subject matter, but in the context of real-world problems that affect them directly.

My class of mostly white students worked for the better part of the semester to frame the issue, prepare discussion guidebooks, and learn how to moderate deliberative public forums. The culminating event of the class occurred in late April when the class organized and moderated a series of four forums on campus to address the question "How Can We Improve Race and Ethnic Relations on Campus?"

Revealing Social Differences and Building Unity

At the end of the semester, the students wrote about their experiences. Many had come to all the forums even though they were only required to attend the one that their group was moderating. They spoke about how they had been changed by engaging in and moderating this kind of dialogue with fellow students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

One of the biggest obstacles to progress in race relations today is white people's denial of the continuing need for significant changes and the existence of biased policies and procedures. Students' comments about this course reveal that this new way of teaching about these issues succeeded in breaking through that denial. It allowed this group of students and those who attended the forums to consider how different their various life experiences were as a result of their different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Listening to the many stories told by people of color, white students slowly learned that their experiences were not the same as those of minority students. They began to discover that their mistaken notions about the commonalities of experience were a major obstacle to developing productive relations across racial lines.

The framework for the course raised this awareness like no other technique I have used. The sustained dialogue that these forums facilitated raised white students' awareness about the inequities with which their classmates of color cope every day. The minority students who participated in the forums also seemed to be encouraged by the productive exchanges these conversations allowed.

Closer connections across racial lines were forged. Interestingly enough, this was achieved not by trying to insist that we are all alike and share the same set of beliefs. Instead, we were able to move toward greater understanding and unity by allowing for the expression of different experiences and perspectives. Students were able to express, question, and challenge different interpretations of experiences and situations.

Students proposed a variety of new policies. Throughout the process, they were challenged to re-think these proposals by the arguments of students whose backgrounds were different from their own. This led participants, to transform their proposals into policies designed to benefit the community as a whole, but also to address the needs of those who are uniquely situated within this predominantly white institution.

I am enormously encouraged by this new model and, with support from the Willian and Flora Hewlett Foundation, will continue to develop these sorts of dialogues in the future.


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