The School of Public Affairs is attempting to combat the adverse political dialogue taking place in today’s society by launching a new project on civil discourse. This project, designed by SPA professor Lara Schwartz, is expected to launch in fall 2018.
For Schwartz, civil discourse is a truthful and productive conversation between individuals. A discourse that doesn’t tell people who they are, but is rather a listening-focused discussion.
Plans for this project include a series of facilitated workshops where students will answer a list of related questions led by peer leaders, and will then open further discussion about their responses to practice the tools of civil discourse.
“When we focus on the responsibilities of our speech, we look long and hard at whether our right to infuse something into the discourse outweighs the importance of making it a place where we’re productive,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz added that it’s important to recognize that some speech, as a matter of goals and standards not as a matter of rights, can do harm. Eliminating unproductive discourse is one of the reasons behind students participating in the project, Schwartz noted.
“When we’re talking in classrooms, a professor might say, ‘great, let’s engage, let’s figure out this question,’” Schwartz said. “It would be wrong to silence you, if it was relevant to the topic, where it would [also] be wrong not to correct you and move on as educators.”
Lauren Weis, director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, heard about Schwartz’s new project and saw a potential opportunity to collaborate. Weis teaches courses on civility, including a first-year seminar on ‘Incivility' in the new general education Complex Problems program. She believes the project could be of interest to incoming students, particularly those who choose to study civility in their first semester.
“Right now it is completely voluntary, but there is some possibility going forward this could become a formal certificate, and my course may become a type of recruiting tool for the civil discourse project,” Weis said.
Weis sees a lot of potential for overlap between the project and some topics she teaches, but ultimately she thinks the project’s direction will be driven by the students who participate in it.
“It kind of depends on how the civil discourse project turns out, and what the students who sign on for it want to do with the resources that SPA is making available to support the project,” Weis said.
Schwartz hopes to help students become “architects of their own speech.” The goal is to figure out what exactly one hopes to accomplish through their speech, something that will serve as a valuable asset for students as they pursue their goals, she said.
As professors comes together to complete their vision for the project, Schwartz hopes that this project will reach as many students and faculty as possible. Interested students can email her for more information, she said.
“We’re moving from an idea of rights, which we have, to responsibilities,” she said. “Each student saying ‘here’s what I am, here’s what I demand from myself’ -- that constitutes the kind of speaking and the learning we want to do.”