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Moving Beyond 'It's This or It's This' in Discussing Controversial Topics

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: more of our conversation with Kelly Maxwell, co-director of the Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan.

The program centers on a class called "Intergroup Dialogues." Kelly Maxwell says peer facilitators help students learn to discuss controversial subjects like race, gender or religion with members of different social groups.

RS: "What do you hope the students leave this class with?"

KELLY MAXWELL: "I hope that they learn a technique of communicating with one another that they could use in many, many different settings; so, dialogue as a tool for communicating with other people that are different from them in the future. I hope they also have a better sense of what they believe themselves about issues because they've talked about them. And, instead of just kind of having an internal conversation about a particular hot topic issue, they've actually talked with other people who are similar and dissimilar to them, and kind of have really formulated why they believe what they believe."

AA: "Now I'm guessing that over the last twenty years you've probably heard people say 'Oh, this is thought police or political correctness gone crazy' or something. What sorts of criticisms do you hear and how do you respond to those?"

KELLY MAXWELL: "Well, I have heard that one. And for me dialogue is about more communication not less. So I don't think any of us want to stop people from talking with one another. In fact, dialogue is about allowing for that space to challenge each other around a variety of issues and really, together, deciding how an individual feels, but then how various groups feel about particular issues.

"So rather than controlling what people think, for me dialogue is about expanding the conversation and the ways that we communicate together, rather than kind of shrinking it to a simple 'It's this or it's this.'"

RS: "Just one last question: Our audience is speakers of English as a foreign language. How would something like this work in a classroom in other countries?"

KELLY MAXWELL: "We actually have an international and U.S. student dialogue -- actually several of them. And that's a really interesting question because even though dialogue sounds like a way of communicating that everyone might be interested in, the ways that we communicate across cultures are something very different.

"So I talked about deep listening before. Sometimes in cultures other than U.S., actually the listening is the sign of respect or a recognition of understanding, whereas in the United States speaking or acknowledging our understanding is sometimes used. So we've really had to be intentional about paying attention to communication patterns in particularly the international and U.S. dialogues.

"All the dialogues, even the international-U.S. dialogues are in English. So that's another issue.

RS: "Are these cross-cultural dialogues held on the university campus, are they held on the Internet, are they held at other universities? How could our listeners engage in these cross-cultural dialogues?"

KELLY MAXWELL: "You mean the international and U.S. ones?"

RS: "The international ones."

KELLY MAXWELL: "Those are still affiliated with our course, so it's university students right here at the campus here. We are also working with a global scholars program here on campus that's part of Intergroup Relations and developing what's called a "Global Understandings" course. It's similar to a dialogue, not exactly the same, but it's using video technology to link students that are here at the University of Michigan campus with students somewhere else in the world. So, for example, this semester they are linking with students at the University of British Columbia as well as Seoul National University."

AA: Kelly Maxwell is co-director of the Intergroup Relations program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The first part of our interview can be found at our Web site,

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.