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Deliberation in the midst of the crisis at Penn State

Wondering how Penn State is dealing with the hurt, anger, and conflicting emotions and opinions brought on by the Sandusky trial?  Penn State’s Center for Democratic Deliberation, an NCDD organizational member directed by Dr. J. Michael Hogan, has been encouraging deliberation about the crisis on campus.

Here’s a long excerpt from a thoughtful and resource-rich page added to Penn State’s Center for Democratic Deliberation’s website last fall…

The Penn State sex abuse scandal has rocked the core of our campus. Students, Faculty, and Staff are reeling as they struggle to find ways to talk about an issue of this magnitude and complexity amidst the swirl of information and misinformation. This situation is unprecedented, which makes it all the more important for us to remember that the higher-level administrators are not the only leaders at this institution and that leadership comes from a variety of people on this campus. While it is difficult to know how to guide conversations about a still-unfolding crisis, there is nevertheless more to do than to speculate about motives or to call for firings.

The Center for Democratic Deliberation believes that deliberation about such an emotionally fraught issue is most fruitful when it begins in established communities, particularly when those communities care about inquiry. At the end of the term, such communities of inquiry have been built in Penn State’s classrooms, student groups, residence halls, fraternities and sororities, as well as many social and interest-based organizations.

We are grateful for resources such as CAPS to help individuals work through personal turmoil. At the same time, we believe in the importance of 1) thinking about these issues collectively in groups, and 2) learning how to deliberate about community and social issues in real time. It might not seem like it now, but the discussions we have today and in the coming weeks and months will shape our campus and community—both in how we live together and how we are perceived. Penn State is a lot of things, but it is foremost an institution of higher learning, and there is learning to do in this midst of this crisis. In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, the Center for Democratic Deliberation urges instructors to devote class time—or to continue to devote class time—to structured conversations about issues important to the Penn State community. Finally, we urge students to remember that this is their conversation as much as anyone’s.

To these ends, we invite instructors and students to use the questions and resources on this page to help generate productive dialogue.

Below you will find two sets of resources. First is a set of guidelines for deliberation that will help facilitate discussion. Second is a group of discussion materials organized thematically. Each topic includes a brief overview followed by links to articles for reference or discussion. Please check back for updates in these resources.

If you have questions or suggestions, please contact Dr. Debra Hawhee (hawhee@psu.edu) or Dr. Jeremy Engels (jde13@psu.edu).

Page Contents

Deliberation Guidelines

We offer a copy of these guidelines for use inside or outside of the classroom. These can be distributed to each member of the class/group, or displayed on a screen for all to see. Consider having participants read these aloud before the discussion begins.

PDF of The CDD Deliberation Guidelines

These guidelines are meant to help facilitate a discussion around a topic that might be emotional and possibly contentious. Consequently, there will be times when you do not agree with what is being said, and there might be times when you hear something that makes you frustrated, upset, or angry. These feelings may be hard to cope with, but they help us learn and grow, individually as well as together. These guidelines will help create a productive, open, and friendly environment in the midst of dealing with sensitive topics and differing opinions.

  1. Remember that we are each responsible for enabling a productive, respectful dialogue.
  2. To enable time for everyone to speak, strive to be concise with your thoughts.
  3. Respect all speakers “by being present” and listening actively.
  4. Treat others with the respect that you would like them to treat you with, regardless of your differences.
  5. Do not interrupt others. Let them finish their statements before your begin.
  6. When you hear an argument that you do not agree with, take a few seconds to write down your concerns and process the logic beneath the statement. Always try to understand what is being said before you respond.
  7. Ask questions of the speaker so that he or she can clarify statements made. Ask for clarification instead of making assumptions.
  8. When countering an idea, or making one initially, demonstrate that you are listening to what is being said by others. Try to validate other positions as you assert your own, which aids in dialogue, versus attack.
  9. Under no circumstances should an argument continue out of the classroom when someone does not want it to. Extending these conversations beyond this meeting can be productive, but we must agree to do so respectfully, ethically, and with attention to individuals’ requests for confidentiality and discretion.
  10. Remember that exposing yourself to different perspectives helps you to evaluate your own beliefs more clearly and learn new information.
  11. Keep in mind that just because you do not agree with a person’s statements, does not mean that you cannot get along with that person.
  12. Feel free to speak with me privately if you feel that the classroom environment has become hostile, biased, or intimidating. I will do my best to fix the problem.

There’s much more up on the Penn State Center for Democratic Deliberation’s website, at http://cdd.la.psu.edu/education/deliberation-in-the-midst-of-crisis — so be sure to check out the full page there.

Also see the resource page from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence titled “Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom: Resources for Penn State Teachers.”

Sandy Heierbacher is the director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). She co-founded NCDD in 2002 with her husband Andy Fluke. Sandy has an M.A. in International Management from SIT Graduate Institute. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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