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Faculty Invited to Enter a ‘Brave Space’ to Learn Tools for Facilitating Challenging Conversations
When Jeanine Irons attended an international conference a few years ago, a fellow participant asked her why the room was set up the way it was—with two seats in the front facing the audience.
The woman told Irons that the configuration “makes it seem like all of the knowledge is in the front of the room, that all we can do is listen and receive.” In her country, she told Irons, gatherings are configured in a circle, so that every voice carries equal weight. “We believe we create knowledge together,” she said.
That experience has stayed with Irons, faculty developer for diversity, equity and inclusion in the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence (CTLE). It has been a constant example for her of the importance of dialogue and a healthy exchange of ideas. When Irons and CTLE Director Martha Diede learned of a desire among faculty for guidance in facilitating challenging conversations, they turned to something that most people have in common—the love of a hot beverage.
Irons, Diede and CTLE staff have collaborated to develop the “Brave Space Coffee Hour,” which began last week and will continue throughout the semester. Faculty are invited to join on Zoom on Tuesdays from 10-11 a.m. ET and Fridays from 3-4 p.m. ET, where CTLE staff facilitate conversation among faculty members from around campus. No registration is required; faculty members are encouraged to join one or both of the coffee hours each week. Related material is posted on the CTLE website on the previous Friday, in advance of the week’s discussions, to spark conversation.
The changes that happened last semester in the nation and in the world—from the George Floyd incident and Black Lives Matter movement to the COVID-19 pandemic to a divisive presidential election and political climate, created a desire among some faculty members to learn more about handling discussion of such topics in the classroom. “Last semester we got quite a few questions about facilitating discussion when there is potential for things to become heated or controversial,” says Irons. “Those kinds of things were very much in the news and on people’s minds, and faculty members wanted to address them.”
Irons says that while there was a strong desire to address issues, there was also a desire to do it with caution, particularly as classes were taking place online. “In an online format you don’t get body posture; if the person doesn’t have their camera on you don’t get facial expressions. It can be difficult to teach in that kind of environment,” she says. “We found that faculty members want to have these kinds of tools in their tool belts in case they need them.”
The coffee hour is intended as a space where faculty members can practice the techniques, tools and terminology for facilitating discussions on potentially troubling topics in their classrooms. “You have the opportunity to explore research-based strategies for co-creating knowledge in inclusive classrooms in the company of your peers,” Irons says. “These are no-judgment, brave spaces, so bring your thoughts and questions and a cup of your favorite tea or coffee.”
The coffee hour also has the added benefit of bringing people together who may not normally cross paths on campus. “Perhaps in these conversations, people can interact with peers they might not know or work with, but might decide to work as partners with future endeavors,” Irons says.
In past years, faculty members would have lounges that served as conversation areas. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the dynamic even more. “I think we have to try to recreate or establish those spaces online as much as we can, because we don’t get the casual interaction like we did before,” Irons says. “We have to find ways to bring people together online.”
The name “brave space” is intentional. “In a brave space, we ask people to step out of their comfort zone and expose more of their authentic and whole selves than they might normally do at work,” Irons says. “Uncomfortable conversations are how we learn and grow, nothing covered up can heal. In a lot of ways, we need to peel those bandages and layers and protections away a little bit and let fresh air hit it.” The goal is to teach, to learn and to grow.
Irons and Diede both refer to a “crisis of civility” in our nation—where rising tempers and the inability to engage in dialogue are increasingly becoming the norm. “Dialogue is messy, it can be awkward, but is it needed,” says Irons. “We have got to learn to reason together.”
Diede agrees. “The challenge of this national crisis of civility resonates with me, as I have seen it and experienced it,” she says. “We need to allow ourselves to stop and think. My way is one way, not the only way.”
“Even something as simple as how we sit has a message,” says Irons, referring to her experience at the conference. “When we talk about reasoning and diversity and inclusion, how are we situating each other? Who are we looking to, how many voices are present and how many voices are not present? Who gets to make the decision, set the agenda? We need to bring in more voice and more ideas, so that all of us can reason together,” she says.
Irons and Diede are looking forward to engaging with faculty over the coming weeks. “We encourage faculty to show up and be brave,” says Irons. “It is a learning experience for all of us.”