Making controversy civil: MU's Difficult Dialogues gathers universities for summer institute

Friday, June 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — An ugly moment can be turned into a teachable one, and the aim of the nationwide Difficult Dialogues Initiative is to do exactly that. This weekend, representatives from nine universities will meet in Columbia to learn how MU's program works and how they can develop one back home.

Two of the nine, the University of Texas-Austin and the University of Alaska-Anchorage, have similar programs and will also showcase their models at the Difficult Dialogues Summer Institute.

A hallmark of the MU program, and a focus of the conference, is the MU Interactive Theatre Troupe, in which participants act out a scene where conflicts arise — for example, managing a classroom when one student insults another about religion or sexual orientation.

Participants "can actually intervene physically and verbally in ways that change the nature of the scene by transforming the conflict into something more civil,” said Roger Worthington, MU's chief diversity officer.

Suzanne Burgoyne, MU Curators' Teaching Professor of Theatre and a co-founder of the troupe, said interactive theater provides a safe forum in which to learn how to address controversy. Burgoyne said, “It teaches you to appreciate a person with beliefs different from yours as a human being and makes you realize that people's world views come from their backgrounds and experiences.”

A significant portion of the conference will be dedicated to it. "Using the techniques of interactive theater, we are able to stimulate a dialogue among students or faculty and give them an opportunity to engage in more meaningful and rich discussions,” Worthington said. 

The event, which ends Monday, is being held at the Hilton Garden Inn and has about 65 participants. In addition to MU, Texas-Austin and Anchorage, they come from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Kansas universities.

Noor Azizan-Gardner, director of programming and professional development of MU Chancellor's Diversity Initiative, said she thinks the institute will promote deeper understanding of sensitive, complex subjects and how to discuss them intelligently in a civil and respectful manner. “Many controversial issues have multiple sides, and they aren’t just black and white,” she said.

Worthington said he hopes to make the event annual. “One of the great things about the Difficult Dialogues Summer Institute is that it provides models for institutions who are thinking about designing their own programs,” he said.

Robert Baum, one of the project team leaders and chairman of MU’s religious studies department, said he hopes administrators and faculty at other Big 12 universities will establish similar programs that will address issues of religious diversity as it comes up in a classroom environment. In the series of lectures and interactive seminars this weekend, Baum will emphasize “why it’s important to understand people’s religious background and how it affects the learning environment.”

In addition to interactive theater, the event will focus on faculty development. Baum said he hopes participants will develop greater confidence in their abilities to handle issues of diversity, especially as they relate to religion.

The Ford Foundation, which funds the national initiative, allocated $100,000 to MU for the program in 2006. The grant was extended in 2008 for another two years. Robert O’Neil, national director of the Difficult Dialogue Initiative, said MU was one of 16 universities that made it to the second phase of the project.

“It’s a result of outstanding quality in the first round of the program as well as an exceptional job of the faculty in their pursuit to use and implement conflict resolution and problem-solving techniques in a classroom environment,” said O’Neil, who is expected to attend the Columbia conference.

Worthington said the Difficult Dialogues program is meant to help higher education institutions handle tensions in the ongoing culture wars. With the help of faculty, he said, students will grasp effective communication, problem-solving and critical thinking skills that will help them to become “effective citizens in this multicultural and pluralistic society.”

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