During the summer of 2020, as I was planning to teach my Fall 2020 courses at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay entirely online, I was eager to find new ways to support students as they developed their capacity to have meaningful discussions about U.S.-American history. To be honest, I also felt anxious, given that political polarization seemed worse than at any time in my teaching career. (Little did I know that the political climate of divisiveness and disinformation would grow even worse during the first several months of the academic year!) What could I do to help foster respectful dialogue? What tools could I provide to help students navigate difficult situations that might emerge, such as microaggressions or hate speech?
Perhaps I need not have worried, but given that an online discussion assignment that I called “Historical Conversations” was central to my courses, I decided that I needed a clear plan.
I thus created these Dialogue Principles, which became the topic of the first discussion in my online courses. I asked students to respond to these principles, to make suggestions for other principles, and to share their thoughts about the challenges of having meaningful dialogue during our time (which included the global COVID-19 pandemic, heated debates and protests over police violence, and the U.S. presidential election).
Across the academic year, I worked with about two hundred students in online courses, and across their thousands of discussion posts, I never once noticed a disrespectful remark. I occasionally observed respectful disagreement, which played an important role in the learning process, and scores of students commented on how much they learned from their classmates through these discussions, as they encountered new perspectives and information.
My students, of course, deserve all of the credit for their openminded and respectful engagement in these conversations, but I think that instructors also have an important role to play in creating the classroom community as a zone for respectful dialogue. I wasn’t aware of anything “going wrong” in these discussions, but if microaggressions or even hate speech became a problem, I wanted to have some principles to apply to address the situation.
I am sharing these principles freely through a Creative Commons license; see the end of the document for details. Feel free to modify or customize it for your own needs. I also share a number of resources on Reflective Dialogue, including other shareable handouts.