Academic journal article The Journal of Faculty Development

Developing Difficult Dialogues: An Evaluation of Classroom Implementation

Academic journal article The Journal of Faculty Development

Developing Difficult Dialogues: An Evaluation of Classroom Implementation

Article excerpt

The University of Missouri (MU) participated in the Ford Foundation's Difficult Dialogues Initiative (DDI) supporting faculty development projects at over 40 institutions of higher education from 2006-2010. This paper reports findings from an evaluation conducted with instructors who not only engaged in faculty development workshops but also implemented what they learned in their classrooms. Evaluators visited those classrooms to observe and survey students. The findings show that several classroom lessons came close to the DDI team's intentions, and we profile four of those. Other results varied. In the conclusion we pose possible explanations for this variation that warrant further study.


In recent years instructors and researchers have explored the practice of dialogue in college classrooms, in particular dialogues involving student identities (Biren & Gurin, 2007; Goodman, 1995; Reason, 2007; Sue & Constantine, 2007; Sue et al. 2009) and/ or controversial topics such as religion, economics, war, politics, and health care (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005; Dotson, 2006; Rice, 2008), or the practice of education itself (Cook-Sather, 2002). This is not a new idea; educational theorists for many years have argued that the capacity for dialogue is fundamental to participating in a democratic society (Dewey, 1916; Rossi, 2006), exercising freedom, achieving social justice (Freiré, 1998), and/ or developing an ethical perspective (Hensen, 2007; Noddings, 2002). As Paulo Freiré put it,

In my relations with others, those who may not have made the same political, ethical, aesthetic or pedagogical choices as myself, I cannot begin with the standpoint that I have to conquer them at any cost or from the fear that they may conquer me. On the contrary, the basis of our encounter ought to be a respect for the differences between us... (1998, p. 120).

Faculty teach in contexts that may not nurture such a dialogic standpoint. The traditional culture of college teaching is monologic; the instructor as expert transmits knowledge to students. Yet reactions to the events of September 11, 2001, concerns about "hate crimes" and incivility, and increasing stridency in political discourse have created a sense of urgency about classroom dialogues, coupled with a sense of urgency about preparing faculty to facilitate them (Mallory & Thomas, 2002).

Beginning in 2005, the Ford Foundation's Difficult Dialogues Initiative (DDI), in conjunction with the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, responded to this climate by offering grants to support systematic strategies to encourage campus dialogue. The foundation sought to "promote academic freedom and religious, cultural, and political pluralism" by preparing students to "constructively engage with difficult and sensitive topics" ( ). The funded projects took different approaches, but most focused on faculty development. However, the DDI leaders and external evaluators emphasized that students should be the ultimate beneficiaries. While some students may engage in dialogues in their residences or extracurricular groups, in too many cases they isolate themselves into segregated peer enclaves. The classroom, on the other hand, ideally brings students of different identities and ideologies together. Networks of faculty who can facilitate dialogues across these differences, on topics in their disciplines, might change the "monologic" culture of higher education and help students understand that there are ways of coping with conflict that do not involve verbal, psychological, or physical threat.

This paper reports findings from pre-post measures of faculty efficacy to facilitate dialogues and evaluators' visits to the classrooms of 21 participants who implemented lessons based on DDI. Observations and student data from the visits showed that implementation varied. Several lessons demonstrated the intentions of DDI, and we will describe four of those. …

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