by morgan miles, staff writer
The Ethics/Religion and Society Program (E/RS) hosted a recurring panel discussion on Monday called, “Conversations Across the American Divide.” Richard Polt, director of the E/RS Committee, invited former social psychologist Deb Mashek to speak on how to better facilitate difficult discussions.
Opening with experiences from former students, Mashek emphasized the importance of difficult conversations. She recounted one student saying: “There are so many eggshells that are invisible. You don’t know where you can step without offending someone. Silence is safer.”
Another student, who feared sharing her opinion with others, confessed that she was worried about being met with hatred, threats and harassment.
Mashek continued by focusing on the reasons for sharing student experiences. According to Mashek, difficult conversations are most likely to happen on campus and specifically in classrooms. Students, she believed, are afraid to share opinions despite the positive effects which stem from open discussion.
“When you opt-out of discourse, your learning suffers, as do your peers. Challenge their thinking. Challenge their assumptions. Iron sharpens iron,” Mashek asserted.
Drawing from her social psychologist roots, Mashek brought up attachment theory and how responses are crucial to development.
“Learning stagnates in the absence of challenge.” So does unnecessary struggle where we feel we are under attack,” she added.
Embracing complexity, ambiguity and context are ways that Mashek feels as though she can improve discussions in classrooms.
Xavier, in Mashek’s opinion, should serve as a secure base for exploring what’s difficult and classrooms should be the most easily accessible base.
At the beginning of the panel, Mashek reminded attendees that no one knows everything. Understanding nuance requires us to learn from others and understand new perspectives while becoming curious about differences garnered through relationships.
“Ultimately, we can’t develop muscles without exercising them. If we can’t do that in college classrooms, where else will it happen?” Mashek said.
“It’s crucial to do so right now and right here.”
Mashek also provided suggestions, such as books and organization websites. To hear these suggestions in the recording, which are available for the next 30 days or receive the suggestion list from Mashek, email Dr. Richard Polt.
Professor panelists Dr. Mack Mariani and Dr. Kristen Renzi attended alongside student panelists Alexa Ollier and Grayson Walker.
Kickstarting the discussion was Ollier’s comment on reciprocal self-disclosure and how it stuck out to her.
“I think building trust is really important to these difficult conversations,” she explained.
“People tie their own self-worth up with their own ideas,” walker agreed. He continued to explain that this contributes to walking on eggshells without knowing the backlash one may get for openly having difficult conversations.
Renzi brought up that openly discussing with strangers becomes more acceptable because of how we can get on internet forums and discuss freely without judgement. Discussing with strangers and self-disclosure is one of many topics the panelists went back and forth on.