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Teaching Students How to Use Dialogue to Bridge Social Differences

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: we talk with Kelly Maxwell, co-director of the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan. The program began about twenty years ago as a way to promote dialogue and understanding across race and gender, and has since expanded to religion, social class and national identity.

RS: At least eight other universities in the United States now have similar programs, and interest is spreading. Kelly Maxwell says the University of Michigan offers a two-credit class called "Intergroup Dialogues," led by trained peer facilitators rather than professors.

KELLY MAXWELL: "Dialogues encompass kind of a four stage model, and later in the term, in what we would term stage three, there's something called 'hot topics.' So, for example, at the University of Michigan, you may be aware of the Supreme Court action around affirmative action.

"There was a legal case regarding whether or not race or gender should be used as a criterion for admission into the university. The courts have kind of resolved that and said that, indeed, if you look at a whole picture of a portfolio of a student, that could be one particular area that you might consider in addition to all of the other things, like grade point average and where they are in their class ranking."

RS: "So how would this play into a conversation or a dialogue?"

KELLY MAXWELL: "So then affirmative action becomes a topic, one of the hot topics for a particular day in a race and ethnicity or in a gender dialogue, for example. And so students, in advance, would do some readings kind of on both sides, both supporting affirmative action and opposing affirmative action. They would kind of talk to some of their friends and kind of think about some of their own ideas about affirmative action. And then they would come in and dialogue about it. "So they would wrestle together with those questions -- not in a debate format, where there's one side trying to convince the other of what is right, but really trying to get at some of the complexities that sometimes on the surface, it looks like, 'Well, I'm for it or I'm against it,' you know? Well, could I be for it in these particular cases, but over all I feel this way about it?"

AA: "Well, you mentioned there are four stages. What exactly are the other three?"

KELLY MAXWELL: "In stage one, it's kind of group formation, so developing 'what is this thing called dialogue,' how does it differ from a debate where we're trying to win or lose around particular topics. Or how does it differ from discussion, which is oftentimes just a kind of friendly conversation but that doesn't lead to any kind of deeper understanding.

"It also is the place where we talk about what we might call the guidelines for dialogue. How are we going to talk about these potentially hot issues as the semester progresses? And what are we going to do when, or if, we find ourselves upset with what someone else has said, or kind of excited about what someone else has said? What are the norms in the group? And they develop those during stage one."

AA: "And then stage two is?"

KELLY MAXWELL: "Really, they start stage two with something called testimonials, where that is where each student in the dialogue tells their story about being whatever the identity is. How is it to be white where they grew up in their community, or what is it like for them on the campus being a woman, for example.

"During that stage we also talk about socialization and what is that, and the process of how we learn how to be a particular identity. Or what we learn about ourselves and others' identities just from our families, from being in school, from listening to music, that sort of thing. We also start talking about issues of social inequality during that second stage. What is prejudice, what is stereotyping, that sort of thing."

AA: "And then, so we move on to stage three is the hot topics."

KELLY MAXWELL: "Hot topics."

AA: "And the fourth stage?"

KELLY MAXWELL: "Is really kind of wrapping up and potentially coalition building, or how to be an ally to one another as they go forward and move outside of the class."

RS: We'll talk more next time with Kelly Maxwell from the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan. And that's WORDMASTER for this week.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.