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Civil Dialogue and Discourse

Finding Civility

Calls for civility ring out from our political leaders and citizens alike, but concepts like mutual respect and affirmation of opponents, as well as allies, appear to be the exception – not the rule – these days.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse defines civil discourse as “the free and respectful exchange of different ideas. It entails questioning and disputing, but doing so in a way that respects and affirms all persons, even while critiquing their arguments.”

The University of Dayton is tackling civil discourse with a multi-faceted approach designed to involve the students as well as the administration.

“As free-speech battles play out on college campuses, in the public square and on social media, some may view engaging in respectful, civil dialogue and carefully listening to opposing viewpoints as a lost art,” University of Dayton President Eric Spina said. “I would say we’re reclaiming it at the University of Dayton, but, truthfully, it’s always been part of our fabric. It’s certainly a skill graduates need in today’s complex world.”

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Civil Dialogue 101

The building blocks for civil discourse are addressed on the academic side in the Principles of Oral Communication class. This class, required of all students, has received "Textbook of Distinction" and "Program of Excellence" awards from the National Communication Association.

According to course director Jason Combs, dialogue is a new concept for many students, which leads to a number of challenges.

"The initial challenge is understanding that through dialogue, you can explore differences without becoming antagonistic or becoming opponents and that’s new to many of them," Combs said. "And, even with all the skill building, they realize that real dialogue includes risk. So, how do we create an environment where we can reach a deeper level of understanding?"

But now, more than ever, Combs sees a need for competence in this discipline.

"Diversity is becoming more fundamental, so 21st century society requires us to acquire a way to deal with differences," he said. "And for us, at UD, it’s really consistent with the University’s mission. Dialogue and community go hand-in-hand.”

Best Practices for Integrating Dialogue Into Course Content

1.

Build understanding among students that dialogue seeks mutual understanding -- not agreement.

2.

Give students opportunities to practice dialogue using case studies relevant to their lives.

3.

Take time to build a sense of community in the classroom over time so that students trust each other.

4.

Create a climate in which people appreciate the expression of different views, even ones that contradict others.

5.

Help students to learn communication techniques for exploring different viewpoints explicitly.

6.

Provide instructors with opportunities to develop their own capacities for engaging in dialogue and exploring diverse views.

Tough Talks

Administrators aren’t the only ones on campus having those difficult conversations. The Student Government Association’s Tough Talks tackle similar topics.

Tough Talks was the brainchild of sophomore Delali Nenonene, who served as the SGA director of campus unity.

“The concept of community is a big part of the University of Dayton, but I definitely saw a disconnect on campus as certain groups didn’t feel the same way about the UD community as others did,” Nenonene said. “I wanted to create an environment where people wouldn’t be prejudged and everyone felt accepted.”

SGA sponsored two Tough Talks last year – addressing issues of race and gender identity on campus, and the American political climate  – with as many as 100 students participating in each event. The program will continue this year.

“At times, it can be uncomfortable for people to express themselves, but people were very responsive,” Nenonene said.  

We wanted to address the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion by placing an emphasis on dialogue.

Lawrence Burnley

VP Diversity and Inclusion

Courageous Conversations

As part of the University's ongoing commitment to civil discourse, Lawrence Burnley, vice president for diversity and inclusion, proposed the Courageous Conversations initiative. The president’s cabinet participated in four sessions during the program's pilot year.

"We're living in really extraordinary times; uncivil discourse seems to be the way people engage right now," Burnley said. "We wanted to address the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion by placing an emphasis on dialogue."

The president's cabinet completes assigned readings and participates in facilitated conversations, as well as open discussions, relating to people who have been historically marginalized in society.

"It helps us to identify our own blind spots and gain a greater understanding of the kinds of tension and challenges that other members of our community face," Burnley said. "Then we can go a step further to see how to equip ourselves, as leaders, to leverage these tensions to be constructive as opposed to destructive."

These are not easy conversations, but they are necessary.

"We are trying to create spaces on campus where people can participate in difficult conversations about difficult topics solely for the purpose of gaining a better understanding,” Burnley said. "It has been quite transformative."