April 28, 2014

Dialogue Project Course Tackles Issues Through ‘Positive’ Conflict

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A month after winning the James A. Perkins Prize, the University’s highest diversity-related honor — students of Education 2610: Intergroup Dialogue Project say the course has been “life-changing” in its ability to explore issues of intergroup relations, conflict and community.

The course — which has been offered in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences since fall 2012 — is structured in a way that emphasizes on dialogue rather than following a regular lecture or discussion-style format, according to Jake Wright ’16, a student involved in the religion group of the Intergroup Dialogue Project.

According to Wright, being able to engage in a dialogue in a classroom was a “unique” experience.

“It’s different from debate,” Wright said. “You are not attacking anybody or not trying to persuade anyone of your thoughts — you are just putting your thoughts on the table and letting others hear them. It is understanding how a person thinks the way they do, but not necessarily agreeing with them.”

The dialogue encompasses three important concepts, according to Wright: empathy for others, active listening and putting all assumptions on the table. (The course is divided into different topics that range from religion and race to gender, with dialogues on each topic taking place on different days of the week for the entirety of the semester, according to Wright).

For students in the religion-focused group, which meets Mondays, such issues as abortion, gay rights and religious education in schools were discussed during the first three weeks of the course, according to Wright.

The latter part of the course focused on an intergroup collaboration project, in which students worked on a group project that aims to “enrich one’s surrounding community” through lessons learned from the dialogue.

One group interviewed religious leaders about controversial topics and examined how views and texts differ between religions, according to Alyssa Troutner ’15.“[Dialogue] is understanding how a person thinks the way they do, but not necessarily agreeing with them.” — Jake Wright ’16

According to Troutner, some of the questions asked included “How do you feel about restrictions on space for religious activity?” or “Can marital separation be allowable under any circumstances?”

“What we gathered from the interviews is that everyone realizes that the world is changing and it’s not realistic to ignore sexuality, for example,” Wright said. “Religions are starting to be more modernized, more accepting and religions are evolving.”

Wright and Troutner said they think it is important to open an arena for these dialogues.

“The terminology we use enables us to look for conflict in positive ways,” Troutner said. “We need to have empathy for others, become active listeners, and understand where another person is coming from.”