Cultivating robust civil dialogue during times of unrest

Through the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Program, Penn students are learning how to reflect on and engage with subjects like the coronavirus pandemic and the criminal justice system.

Chris Satullo, Lia Howard, and Surayya Walters in class
Chris Satullo, Lia Howard, and Surayya Walters in the class titled Can We Talk?  (Pre-pandemic image: Eric Sucar)

When Penn’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Paideia Program offered its first set of courses focusing on dialogue across divides and exploring connections between the course curriculum and the common good this spring, it was in response to the growing ideological, cultural, economic, and racial/ethnic fault lines in the United States and abroad. 

Reflecting on the semester, and the importance and impact of the classes, the program’s funder, staff, students, and faculty could not have imagined how broadly these fault lines would deepen amid recent events notes Michael X. Delli Carpini, former dean of Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and inaugural faculty director of the SNF Paideia Program. “The COVID 19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd have shined a powerful light on long-standing racial and economic inequalities and injustices, while also exacerbating already intense partisan tensions,” he says. “It is all the more important that we provide Penn students with opportunities to reflect on, discuss, and engage with the contentious problems of our time, doing so in productive, informed, and ethical ways.” 

While designed prior to these events, the qualities inherent to the Program’s spring courses have helped students to grapple with difficult issues in striking ways. May graduate Wenhan Zhang completed School of Arts & Sciences Classical Studies Professor Jeremy McInerney’s course Rhetoric and the Community from her home in Singapore. “Of all my classes, Rhetoric and the Community has been affected the most by the quarantine because it is based on in-class participation,” says Zhang. “Ironically, this course is the only one that still makes me feel like I’m in the classroom. Even though the interaction is online, the level of trust and vulnerability established prior to self-isolation has allowed us to continue to be authentic with one another from afar.”

One of the first exercises the class participated in remotely was to take on the role of a governor and give a press briefing on the coronavirus. “Being able to learn rhetoric during a time when public life and speech has severe consequences increases the potency of the course material,” Wenhan adds.

Similarly, the curriculum of Weitzman School of Design Professor Kenneth Lum’s course The Chinese Body was able to meet the unique needs of students that emerged from the international crisis. “Several of the Asian students in the course expressed concern about the rise of anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic,” says Lum. 

Students in The Chinese Body course sit in the classroom.
Students in The Chinese Body course. (Pre-pandemic image: Eric Sucar)

He notes that the topic was aligned with the prescribed curriculum in particular the anti-Sino rioting in Chinatowns through the 19th century and first decades of the 20th century and the examination of various imaginings of the “other” through the prism of the Chinese contract laborer. Lum says the class enabled students to dialogue about, “the fears of the ‘other’ being actively stoked” through public discourse around the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lum notes that the pandemic did not alter the content of the course but reinforced the importance of the topics covered. 

One of the goals of Paideia courses is to connect notions of individual wellness to community wellness and engagement. Grit Lab: The Science and Practice of Passion and Perseverance, taught by Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth, was well-positioned to help students deal with the stress and adversity brought on by the pandemic and recent civic unrest. Grit is about staying on track despite obstacles and setbacks. In addition to reviewing psychological theories of grit, the class offered students practical tactics for managing real-life adversity. The class of 64 students was organized into smaller cohorts to create a sense of community and foster deep discussion. Each cohort was comprised of students from different backgrounds, both in educational concentrations, but also personal interests, hobbies, and career ambitions. Once the class went online, the cohort system was recreated through Zoom breakout sessions where students engaged in meaningful dialogue about the topics of each class. One session focused on resiliency while another on the notion of “paying it forward” through service and self-transcendent goals, all topics that help in times of upheaval.

Rising sophomore Joshua Baek, from Los Angeles, says the course helped him manage the stress of the pandemic. “Grit Lab,” he says, “taught me the growth mindset I needed to make my own isolation time productive. The road to success isn’t straight. It’s going to be a curved path, and COVID is just one hitch in the road.”

The SNF Paideia-designated course Can We Talk? Courageous Civility, Troubled Times, was designed to help students dialogue about controversial issues such as an international health crisis or race and the criminal justice system in America. Journalist Chris Satullo, one of three co-instructors for the course, says, “At the beginning of the semester, we stressed that the most important learning would come from the student’s willingness to be brave, candid, and kind with one another. The students worked to carve out the ‘brave space.’ Emotions sometimes flared, but by the time COVID-19 scrambled all our lives, I’d contend the group had begun to develop a reservoir of respect and trust for one another.” 

1950s-style car in front of Chinese architecture in Havana, Cuba in 1998.
Havana, Cuba, 1998 from Sarah Lerner’s final project, “The Globalized Paifang 牌坊 / Pailou 牌楼,Chinatown Gateways,” for The Chinese Body course.

Can We Talk? offered students opportunities to practice their dialogue skills, positioning them as moderators in a series of student forums called The Red & Blue Exchange (RBX), an initiative of the SNF Paideia Program sponsored by the Gamba Family, which modeled respectful discussion of contentious issues. Adjusting to the COVID-19 outbreak, the final RBX forum was held online with Penn students, as well as those from a number of local colleges and universities. The moderated discussions focused on concerns facing college students during the current crisis.

Sydney Nixon, a rising sophomore from Philadelphia who participated in the Can We Talk? course and the RBX student forums says, “One of the most relevant takeaways from Can We Talk? is that patience and an open mind are essential to a civil dialogue. As an African-American, the recent events have evoked very strong emotion; therefore, I have a greater appreciation for my peers who acknowledge that they can’t empathize with how I’m feeling, yet are still willing to listen.”

The framework for dealing with difficult, high-stakes situations through open, civil, and respectful dialogue has proven to hold up during the circumstances of the spring semester. Students in SNF Paideia courses demonstrated resilience and perseverance in their commitment to make these courses finish strong. 

“As we start to plan for the fall,” says Delli Carpini, “the SNF Paideia Program recognizes that students will be eager to find ways to respond to current challenges, incorporate experiential learning into their academic experience, and expand their ability to serve the community.”

Integrating wellness, citizenship, service, and dialogue through all of its courses is a program priority. Acknowledging recent events around the pandemic and civic unrest resulting from racial inequity in the criminal justice system has also heightened these objectives. 

“In some ways the idea of ‘civil’ discourse seems an anachronism, given the nature of the problems we face,” Delli Carpini says. “Our goal is to develop a more ‘muscular’ notion of civility that encourages disagreement and debate while preserving a sense that we are all, ultimately, in this together.”

This story is by Lisa Marie Patzer, communication and web director, SNF Paideia Program.