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College students seated at a table talk and collaborate.
Encouraging curiosity about people with opposing views can go a long way to engender mutual respect. Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

6 ways to encourage political discussion on college campuses

With deep divisions on college campuses – most recently over the conflict in the Gaza Strip and Israel – many observers fear that universities are not places where students can discuss divisive issues with people who disagree with them. In my research and teaching, I have seen that students in fact want to have difficult conversations across divides, but they need support from faculty and other facilitators in order for these discussions to go well.

Since early 2017, I have been observing events on college campuses in which students are brought together with peers with whom they disagree to talk about politics. In these sessions, facilitators provide students with guiding questions that help them to understand their peers’ political views.

I conducted follow-up interviews with students a few weeks afterward and, when possible, three years later.

My aim is to understand what happens in these conversations. I want to know: Who learns what from whom? Who feels satisfied or frustrated, and why? And what does this all portend for America’s democracy?

The conversations I observed have taught me that six practices help to support a better experience for all students.

1. Set norms and expectations

When people talk about setting norms for conversation, they usually assume it is an effort to mandate speech rules. But norm-setting accomplishes something better than rule-following: It allows students to become sensitive to their own and others’ hopes and fears for the conversation.

In my experience, opening the session with questions such as “What do you most hope will happen in this conversation?” “What worries you most about the conversation?” “What are you willing to give to it?” and “What do you hope to get from it?” can show students that they already share more than they anticipate.

Moreover, this discussion leads naturally into the question of “How can we interact in a way that is most likely to realize our aims?” Students typically volunteer their own guidelines, such as assuming good faith, objecting to a person’s idea rather than attacking the person, honestly conveying when and why they feel hurt, and listening generously.

2. Allow students to tell their personal stories

Beginning with students’ personal stories lowers the barriers to entry, so that students who are not experts on politics can contribute. It allows students to feel heard about their direct experience. And it allows for what I have found to be the most profound outcome of dialogue: the shifts in how students feel about each other.

For example, consider the “Can We Talk” campus dialogue series, which brings together ideologically diverse students for two-hour sessions in which facilitators provide a series of questions for students to ask each other. The sessions began with questions such as, “How were politics discussed in the home in which you were raised?” and “What is your earliest political memory?” before moving on to questions about students’ substantive views on relevant issues.

The focus of these sessions, which I observed in the 2017-2018 academic year at colleges throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is on cultivating students’ understanding of each other’s views and how they came to be.

A college instructor leads a discussion in a lecture hall.
Allowing students to tell their personal stories can enrich the discussion. Morsa Images via Getty Images

If the dialogue is intended to focus on a specific issue, such as gun control, abortion or the war in Israel and Gaza, questions can be geared accordingly, such as “When did you first learn about this issue?” “How did it affect you at the time?” or “What about this issue draws you to this conversation?”

3. Encourage curiosity

Students are often afraid that they will end up validating views they oppose unless they try to discredit those views. But in follow-up interviews I conducted three years after their participation in a dialogue session, I found that those students who did eventually change their political views were prompted to do so through sincere and nonthreatening questions. “I remember one girl asked me, ‘If you say you believe this, then why did you vote like that?’ I’ve been asking myself that question ever since,” admitted one student, whose politics changed considerably in the years between our first and second interviews. It mattered most that she felt questioned, not attacked.

Questions can be encouraged throughout a conversation by reserving specific time for them in each round, as well as through directions such as “Think of one question you have always wanted to ask someone who thinks differently than you about this issue. Ask it now.”

4. Dig into disagreement

One risk of emphasizing personal experience at the start is that students hesitate to dig into their disagreements. They want to be supportive, and it’s hard to argue with personal experience. In my research, though, I found that students ended up with the deepest respect for each other when they gained understanding of the nature of their disagreements.

Clarifying what is at stake in their differences allowed students to see that their opposition was not caused by ignorance, malice or madness on the other side, but legitimate contrasts in views of what is good and possible.

After students have shared their views on issues and asked each other curiosity-oriented questions, they can be directed to ask each other questions such as “What is at the root of our disagreement?” and “What really matters to me, and to you, and is it the same thing? To the extent that it is not, why not?”

Students -- some who are sitting on desks while others are sitting at desks -- talk and review notes.
Students gain a better appreciation for opposing views when they probe what matters to them, and why. Kentaroo Tryman via Getty Images

5. Collaborate on next steps

Students tend to feel most satisfied when they can work toward a more concrete aim. Most ambitiously, this can involve real cooperative projects.

For example, the Sorenson Institute, a political leadership institute at the University of Virginia, convenes dialogues that conclude with students putting together a proposal for the Virginia state Legislature on a specific topic such as gun control.

Even one-off conversations can conclude with what students might do differently on social media, on their campuses and in their families. When I followed up with them, I learned that many students had enacted these changes and found that people changed their own behavior in response. One student found that her uncle started reading and thinking about the articles she would send him. Another student discovered that peers in her political science class who had been dismissive of her in the past became respectful when she expressed her views and seemed to attend to them more sincerely.

6. Debrief

Some students will flourish in these conversations, while others will struggle. In my research, I found that students whose rights are threatened by policy proposals of the other side understandably experience the most difficulty. However, these same students’ experiences can be improved by debriefing with a trusted mentor afterward.

For example, one student who identifies as queer felt shaken after a discussion with peers who opposed her marriage rights. But meeting with a professor afterward helped her to feel empowered by the conversation, equipped with new knowledge to help her fight for a more just society.

Listening to protest

Dialogue can deepen divides when it is presented as the only appropriate form of political communication, thereby silencing people who do not participate in these conversations. Students should be encouraged to also listen to messages conveyed through other means. For example, they can study protest movements – including ongoing, contemporary movements – and read the texts posted by activists who organize them.

It is important to convey to students that dialogue alone cannot solve all of what ails contemporary democracy. Protest, boycott and other forms of collective action matter, too.

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