Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Part 1: Using Curiosity, Courage and Caring to Promote Civil Discourse in the Classroom

Shewmaker with students

It seems like everywhere we look these days, there are people yelling at one another, disagreeing vehemently, and sometimes violently, over everything from politics to gun control to health care ethics. On cable television hosts rant angrily against those with differing opinions, and when guests with different perspectives are brought on, they yell over one another so that no single voice is heard. In fact, in a poll earlier this year, it was found that even across the widening chasm of political party lines, Americans are “generally united in the belief that uncivil behavior is rampant and having profound and negative effects on our democracy.” In this environment, it can be difficult to foster civil discourse within our classrooms.

In my almost twenty years in the field of education, I’ve learned that civil discourse must be intentionally promoted, rather than assumed. There are three key avenues to encouraging it within the classroom. These are through the use of curiosity, courage, and caring. Let’s take a look at each avenue and think about the kinds of strategies that can be used to encourage each one. 

In her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks says, “School was the place of ecstasy – pleasure and danger. To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone.” In order to help our students navigate this danger zone, hooks introduces what she calls “engaged pedagogy,” which allows us to educate “as the practice of freedom.”I like to think of the classroom as a connected community, one that values the ideas and voice of each member. To truly engage with our students in this requires curiosity, courage and caring on our part, as well as a call to those things on the part of the student.

The first step to building this kind of connected community is to see the classroom as communal. hooks says, “Seeing the classroom as a communal place enhances the likelihood of collective effort in creating and sustaining a learning community.” By a communal place, she means a few specifics things. Within a communal classroom everyone contributes to learning, we connect the will to know with the will to become, we value student expression, everyone shares including the professor, and in fact the professor takes the first risk in being vulnerable.

What might it look like in our classrooms to model community? Here are a few ideas shared with me by my colleagues. One faculty member makes sure that, sometime near the beginning of the semester, she shares her own experiences of tokenism, and how it has affected her throughout her life. She models vulnerability by sharing the story of being told at a young age that she only received an honor because of her race. She talks to the students about how she felt in that moment, and the questions of value that haunted her into adulthood, and how she’s learned to cope with those. In the face of this kind of vulnerability, this professor has found that it’s very important to set ground rules at the beginning to allow students to share, ask questions of her and one another, and not be afraid to seek clarity when they have differences. She says that she doesn’t ask students to agree with one another, but to learn to listen respectfully to one another and acknowledge their differences.

A professor of Teacher Education said that she regularly shares stories with her students about her own failings as a teacher. Her goal is to give them permission to try new things in their teaching, not expect perfection of themselves, and to have the courage to fail and try again.

In order to establish a communal classroom, we as teachers must be willing to risk sharing ourselves with our students. This can be hard for some of us, it may feel like it goes against your desire to be seen as an expert. hooks admits from the outset that engaged pedagogy is more demanding than others, asking teachers to be “actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes…well-being” in both themselves and in their students. In fact, this sounds a lot like Brene Brown’s call to vulnerability, to really sharing our authentic selves with our students and inviting them to do the same. That is a very different thing than focusing primarily on teaching information. In fact, this approach asks us not to just be experts in our fields, but to strive to be authentic human beings working in relationship with others to seek the greatest learning and well-being for all of us.

I wonder, for faculty in higher education, what are the challenges and the benefits of such an approach? What scares you about it? What excites you about it?

Brown, B. (2013). Daring greatly. [text(large print)] : how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Thorndike, Me. : Center Point Large Print, 2013, c2012.

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the wilderness : the quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. New York : Random House, 2017.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress : education as the practice of freedom. New York : Routledge, 1994.

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This entry was posted on September 12, 2018 by in Creativity, edu, Education and Learning, Series, The Future of Higher Education.
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