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Dialogue Course Builds Connection, Sparks Action

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Lorne Fultonberg

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Lorne Fultonberg

Undergrads learn communication skills through difficult conversations and uncomfortable topics

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Students in Dialogue Class

It’s not exactly the controversial question of our time — “What’s your favorite restaurant in the Denver area?” — but as the icebreaker in the University of Denver’s Identities in Dialogue course, it certainly reveals a lot about the 20 undergraduate students in the room.

Where they’re from. How they were raised. Trying times in their lives. Vulnerability sprouts in the form of a search for sweet tea that tastes like home, a uniquely afro-centric local teahouse and a French bistro forever linked to a father’s hospital visit. Each story elicits nods, smiles and looks of understanding from people who were shy strangers just a few weeks ago.

“I think the most fulfilling part of this class so far is seeing how open the students are to building those connections with each other,” says Cassidy Ellis, a second-year PhD student in communication studies who is teaching the class. “Hopefully, they will be able to have those tougher conversations in more productive ways.”

In developing the DU DialogUes initiative, the catalyst for the course, the first challenge for Thomas Walker, director of Inclusion & Equity Education (IEE), was getting the DU community to even consider having those potentially problematic conversations. The more he spoke with students, faculty, staff and prospective employers, the more he realized there was a problem: Texting, tweeting and commenting online are easy. But, “face-to-face, in-depth, sustained communication skills seem to be eroding,” he says. “We increasingly have students, staff and faculty who can’t or won’t engage in difficult conversations.”

Through the dialogue course, IEE is taking steps to create better communicators, better leaders and ultimately, better citizens. It all grows out of the University’s strategic plan, DU IMPACT 2025, and a goal to encourage academic engagement by supporting students holistically in their personal and professional development. Chancellor Rebecca Chopp wants students to acquire the skills they need to navigate their lives and careers.

Now in its third iteration, COMN 2000 is beginning to hone its curriculum. Walker’s office partners with communication studies associate professor Christina Foust and the graduate students who lead the classes. Together, they have created a classroom environment that challenges preconceptions and self-understanding while remaining a practice space where students can make mistakes and learn about how social identities affect communication.

“Education, by definition, means I’m being exposed to something new. Otherwise, I’m not learning; I’m just repeating. New means unfamiliar; unfamiliar often means uncomfortable. So if you aren’t being challenged in some way, you’re not getting your money’s worth.”

Thomas Walker Director of Inclusion & Equity Education
Thomas Walker

“Education, by definition, means I’m being exposed to something new,” Walker says. “Otherwise, I’m not learning; I’m just repeating. New means unfamiliar; unfamiliar often means uncomfortable. So if you aren’t being challenged in some way, you’re not getting your money’s worth.”

The DU DialogUes initiative sponsors a full schedule of on-campus events that promote the benefits of meaningful conversation. For example, a three-day retreat over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend served to equip ambassadors of sorts with the tools to build a more unified community.

“The skill most people lack isn’t the ability to give their opinion and walk away,” Walker says. “It’s listening to understand, which doesn’t necessarily mean agreement.”

Ellis notes connection can occur even without agreement. With that in mind, she has structured the content of her course around storytelling, inviting class members to study narrative literature and then share their own experiences through a series of assignments.

Meeting twice weekly, classes typically begin with an icebreaker, after which students hit their journals, reflecting on current events that relate to class themes. Pairs deliver presentations, diving deeper and critically analyzing reading assignments.

As a group, they dig into their individual social identities and the accompanying insecurities. Students share stories of their struggles with disabilities, eating disorders, gender identity and race. As the class progresses, some hot-button issues crop up, too: LGBT rights, immigration, abortion and gun control.

“Things are going to get heated,” says Neda Kikhia (BA ’16), a master’s student of communication studies and co-facilitator for one section of the course. “The topics we choose are things people feel very strongly about. I think there’s something huge about the way we’re modeling how to build relationships and have tough conversations. Being able to distinguish and model that in a class to apply outside of the University is going to be an incredible skill.”

Ultimately, the goal is action — moving these discussions to the greater campus and beyond, culminating with a visit from The Justice Fleet, a mobile exhibit that involves communities across the country in art, play and communication, particularly across difference. DU students in the dialogue courses will have a chance to participate in March. By then, Ellis says, her students will be more than ready to apply what they’ve learned.

“College students are engaged and excited and passionate, and I think this class is a way to engage them in a novel way,” she says. “I think when we give students something to hold on to like stories and relationships, that’s really where we can see them as the changemakers that they are.”

Adds Kikhia: “We’re not just having conversations. We’re not just debating. Those are pieces of it, but at the end of the day, it’s for action, and it’s actually implementing things that serve the public good.”

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