Meredith Magazine

Civil Discourse

Advancing the dialogue at Meredith College

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

“They walk into the class thinking black and white. My side is right and their side is wrong. After the semester, they see how gray it gets very quickly.” – Whitney Ross Manzo

Integrity and intellectual freedom top the list of Meredith College’s seven core values. Students are expected to uphold high standards of “truth” and “personal honor.” They must foster a “spirit of openness and inquiry” and “respect a range of perspectives and voices.”

Throughout the heated 2016 election cycle, however, integrity, openness, respect, and other attributes of civil discourse often weren’t on display as political players threw barbs and encouraged party polarization instead of thoughtful discussion.

Personal attacks have long been a staple of the political process in the United States. Abraham Lincoln was dubbed the “original gorilla” soon after taking office. In 2016, with social media and the 24/7 news cycle, pundits just have more avenues to blare angry rhetoric.

That’s political discourse today. But students, faculty, and staff at Meredith are working to ensure that uncivil discourse doesn’t continue in the future. Through classes, community programs and even trips to both party conventions this summer, Meredith students are learning that the best way to move public discourse forward is to become better informed and be ready to listen. 

“This isn’t just about the election. It intersects with so many different issues - negotiation and compromise, hearing somebody else’s opinions, making sure people are treating each other with respect,” said Ann Gleason, dean of students. “It’s hard for any adult to navigate these kinds of conversations. But it’s difficult, especially for those who are still growing and learning and really trying to articulate their own beliefs. It’s brain development. It’s identity development. For a large number of students, this will be the first time they can exercise that right to vote. This is the first time they are involved in that national conversation. That’s powerful.” 

Bigger than Politics 

Building engaged and informed citizens can’t just happen during a heated election season, Meredith leaders agree. Racism and gender identity are just two of the subjects that can stir up difficult discussions, regardless of the election cycle.

At Meredith, efforts to encourage engagement and civic education happen inside and outside the classroom. Programs focus on getting students to dig deep into issues and introduce them to opportunities where they can look beyond the sound bites.

In Meredith’s social work department, for instance, Assistant Professor Joy Learman leads a regular class on social justice that explores the topic of civil discourse. 

During the class, students delve into topics of privilege, oppression, and identity. Learman insists on creating a safe environment where students understand that the conversation in class remains confidential.

At the start of the semester, Learman asks for students’ “culture chests,” which include five items that represent how others view them and five items that represent how they feel about themselves in terms of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and age. 

“By the time you go through people’s chests,” she said, “you realize how totally inaccurate stereotypes are.”

Learman wants students to understand that their experience as an American doesn’t mirror the life of every other American. Students might not agree with their classmates, but the class helps them build a deeper understanding of how issues such as race, class, or gender identity could impact the daily lives of the people sitting right next to them. Once they see all sides of an issue, they can better form and articulate their own opinions.

For Melissa Jenkins, a 21-year-old senior majoring in social work, the class was an eye opener. 

“It definitely made me recognize how important our own backgrounds and experiences are and how they influence how we see things,” she said. 

Said Cassidy Cloer, a 20-year-old junior majoring in social work: “When we hear about things happening in the media, it makes it a little harder to push away or not think about it when your Meredith sisters are sitting around you and these are the things that they experience on a daily basis. You can’t deny that. It gets you more fired up when it’s people you know.” 

#MeredithValues

As part of the class in Spring 2016, Learman assigned students to develop campaigns to encourage civil discourse at Meredith. Students came up with videos, hashtags, and fliers.

One video begins with this message: “Let an open mind make you stronger.” A flier features tips for talking about the 2016 election, including tip No. 1, “Don’t dismiss others’ opinions. We all have different experiences.” Students created social media hashtags such as #includemeMC, #MakeItYourMissionToListen and #MeredithValues.

This past summer, Gleason launched a working group of faculty, staff, and students to build on what the students created.

“We really are supporting the work of the students in trying to think through what information and strategies would be helpful for students in the campus community,” Gleason said. “Something that resonates with students is that feeling of community– wanting to feel included, respected and valued. That is really key to our community and is very real to our students.”

Community-Based Learning

As they work to better understand their classmates, Meredith students also have opportunities to explore the world beyond campus. Community-based learning programs pull students out of their comfort zones, broadening their perspectives, and helping them see how policies directly affect others.

In an advanced Spanish conversation class, for instance, students worked at a free clinic in Raleigh, served as tutors or mentors, and helped translate during swimming classes.

“We were able to talk about the policies, talk about the theories behind some of the policies, talk about the different perspectives people have with the immigrant community,” Assistant Professor of Spanish Callie Debellis said. “Then, they went out to the community and saw the other side that often doesn’t have that voice in the community and how policies impacted actual people.”

There are about half a dozen other classes like Debellis's Spanish class offered at Meredith. This spring, Debellis, who also serves as chair of Meredith’s Community Engagement Advisory Committee, will offer workshops for faculty to learn more about the pedagogy of community-based learning classes. It’s critical, she said, to ensure that programs are developed in conjunction with the community partners they are designed to help. She anticipates more community-based classes will be offered in the coming years.

Truth and Consequences

The 2016 election cycle, of course, has been a focus in the classrooms and offices of Meredith’s political science department this semester. But discussion went beyond high-level comparisons of the leading candidates. The emphasis was on research and experience.

“Our view is, let’s teach students to make good arguments that don’t devolve into personal insults,” said David McLennan, visiting professor of political science at Meredith. “It’s okay to make an argument that the Affordable Care Act will cost jobs or the Affordable Care Act is necessary to protect the lives of citizens. It’s not okay to say that anybody who supports the Affordable Care Act is a socialist. That’s off base. Do it in a respectful, rational way. Attack the policy.”

During the fall 2016 semester, McLennan is leading a ThinkStrong course that applies the basic processes of critical thinking to the electoral process. Students are learning techniques to evaluate political messages with the ultimate goal of becoming better citizens who make informed decisions when voting.

The curriculum includes an examination of the current presidential campaigns, but McLennan also is drawing from historic examples so students can explore the truth behind political statements. Students fact check and learn the difference between reliable and unreliable sources.

McLennan wants students to approach politics in a thoughtful, not reactionary, way. 

“What they say has consequences,” he said. “If they don’t think it through critically, then they are perpetuating the same complaints that everybody makes about politics - it’s nasty, nobody is listening to each other.” 

McLennan and Whitney Ross Manzo, assistant professor of political science, also are collaborating this fall on an Introduction to American Government class, which includes a simulation of the U.S. political system. Students play roles – from president to members of Congress to journalists – and develop a better understanding of how Washington, D.C., works. 

“They walk into the class thinking black and white. My side is right and their side is wrong,” Manzo said. “After the semester, they see how gray it gets very quickly.”

Registration and Education

Because it’s an election year, Manzo and McLennan’s introductory classes also helped out with Meredith Votes, a long-running voter registration, education, and turnout campaign on campus. Students in the class helped put together a Voter’s Guide with information about candidates across the ballot and registered others to vote.

As part of Meredith Votes and with support from a grant with Campus Compact, a national group dedicated to campus-based civic engagement, Ann Cox, a Meredith junior, helped produce the Voter’s Guide and pulled together campus groups who have, in the past, worked separately on voter registration and engagement.

Cox’s efforts included a voter registration drive during orientation and a carnival in September on National Voter Registration Day with trivia and games. Cox worked hard to ensure the effort was bipartisan. Voting, after all, isn’t a Democratic thing or a Republican thing, Cox said. 

“Everyone who votes should be interested in voter engagement,” said Cox, a 21-year-old international studies major. “This is an outlet for everybody to be able to express their opinions and come together.”

Convention News 

This summer, a few students were able to witness history by traveling to the Republican and Democratic conventions in July. Along with McLennan and Manzo, they saw party leaders speak and watched the behind-the-scenes work to shape the party platform.

Mary Kolisnichenko, an 18-year-old sophomore, attended both conventions even though she couldn’t actually vote in the election. Kolisnichenko, a math major, is Ukranian. Still, she’s fascinated by the U.S. political process, an interest that was fueled during a program she attended in Washington, D.C., in 2015.

At the Republican convention, students saw New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, among others. They attended breakfast with North Carolina’s delegation, which featured Eric Trump and his wife, Lara, an N.C. native. They were even interviewed by several media outlets, including WRAL-TV and Buzzfeed.

“Even though with our guest credentials we sat far from the convention floor, it was incredibly inspiring to see some influential Republicans speaking in front of us,” Kolisnichenko said. “It was very motivating to see history in the making and make contacts with people from all over the country.”

Cox was part of the group of students who traveled to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. She managed to secure a ticket to the convention on the third day - seeing President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine speak. Cox sat high in the hall, behind the speakers. Her fellow classmate, Sidney Shank, also a Meredith junior, could even read the teleprompter from where they sat, noting when a speaker went off script. 

“We got to see it from a point of view that most people will never get to see,” Cox said.

When they weren’t in the convention hall, they attended breakfast with the North Carolina delegation, sat in on a panel about the importance of U.S. Supreme Court vacancies in a presidential election, and even had the opportunity to talk with Senator Bernie Sanders as they passed on the street. 

“It really made me see that my place is not necessarily as an elected official, but I really do want to be involved in policy and public service,” Cox said. “There’s definitely a spark that won’t go out.”

Building a Legacy of Engagement

Older adults often fault today’s college students for being too focused on selfies and social media. Faculty and staff see a different side at Meredith.

Meredith participates in the National Study of Learning, Voting and Education, conducted at Tufts University, which found that Meredith students register and vote at a higher rate than do students at other baccalaureate institutions, though voter participation rates for college-age citizens are the lowest of any age group. 

Meredith students are great researchers, said McLennan, and always quick to look facts up. They line up to participate in The Meredith Poll, which regularly polls North Carolina voters on topics such as the pay gap between men and women and preferred candidates in the North Carolina presidential primaries. 

“For four hours a night, five straight nights, they come down and call,” McLennan said. “They have great attitudes. They don’t get turned off by being told no 20 times in a row.”

That kind of experience is key to engaging students – especially women – and getting them interested in a career in politics or policy making. An American University study found that women who take a political science class in college are 58 percent more likely to think about running for office later.

“Women are 51 percent of the country, yet we are 24 percent of the legislators in this country,” Manzo said. “It’s especially important to graduate women who are educated in politics.” 

Cox said there’s every reason to be hopeful about her generation. “People really underestimate my generation,” she said. “But we all have something to say. We’re good at making connections with people. And I think that’s just such an important part of a political movement.”

“I’m really hoping when I leave Meredith,” she said, “that I have been a part of making something that will last.”

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