Each fall, UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz co-teaches a seminar for graduate students – professors of the future – called ‘The American Professoriate.’ The class focuses on the role of public universities. This year, he teaches with Matt Springer and Buck Goldstein from the School of Education and Dean Suzanne Barbour of the Graduate School. Students and instructors write regular reflections on higher education’s role. We share some of those here.
By Suzanne Barbour
CHAPEL HILL (Sept. 22, 2021) – Think about someone in your life who’s good at managing conflict. What traits does that person have? How are they able to stay calm in the face of criticism or sharp disagreement?
That’s the thought exercise we put in front of 25 graduate students a few weeks ago in The American Professoriate, a class designed to get the next generation of teachers and researchers thinking about big issues in higher education. There’s probably no issue more challenging right now than teaching the art of productive disagreement. Calm argument doesn’t come naturally to most people, but it’s vital in academia. It’s the way you hash out new ideas, challenge people, and make class more interesting.
We invited some folks from the UNC Ombuds office — experts in dispute resolution — to help us out. They advised setting clear ground rules for discussion, which is a great way to give students a sense of ownership in the classroom. Are we going to prohibit Tweeting or texting during class, so people can’t broadcast a statement out of context? How do we make sure everyone feels free to disagree so that we don’t land on a false consensus? What’s the best way to counter someone’s idea without insulting someone’s experience?
- Take questions or criticism in good faith.
- Engage arguments; don’t attack people.
- Acknowledge uncertainty.
- Offer multiple formats for input (online discussion boards, not just in-person debate).
Those are just some of the principles our class suggested as we try to encourage full participation. One of our society’s biggest challenges right now is that the norms for public life are shifting, and no one is quite sure what’s permitted. Social media is a Wild West, and increasing polarization makes all kinds of substantive topics harder to discuss.
We feel the weight of that shift on our campus and in our classrooms. Two years ago, a group of UNC researchers conducted a comprehensive survey on free expression and found that students overwhelmingly want to hear competing ideas and viewpoints, but often feel reluctant to speak up. Students worry about the social consequences of sharing contrarian opinions, about whether they’ll face censure from peers. That’s why setting ground rules is important.
If we’re going to benefit from the full array of diverse talent in American society, we have to build social norms and classroom expectations that welcome free thought and honest debate from everyone. “Expressing unpopular views can reveal critical blind spots in prevailing thought patterns or that the eccentric opinion of today can become the orthodoxy of tomorrow,” wrote the authors of the free expression survey. “Under the right circumstances—those that institutions of higher learning strive to bring about—this exercise also deepens appreciation for a truth-seeking process grounded in civility and reason.” The same research team is now replicating their survey at seven other public universities across the state, with results expected next spring.
The remarkable thing about a university like Carolina is that the people doing much of the teaching are also respected researchers. They share established knowledge in the classroom, but they’re also working every day to make new discoveries and expand what we know about the world. The graduate students in our course are already experts in their fields — neuroscience, journalism, physical therapy, mathematics. One of our students gets up before dawn every morning to go teach at an elementary school before beginning her day at Carolina. Another spends long hours in a lab working on addiction pathways in mouse brains so that we can learn how to treat pain without causing drug dependency.
All of them do difficult and important work outside the classroom, and this class asks them to add another layer of challenging skills. Managing a college course, and encouraging real discussion among a crowd of reluctant undergraduates, isn’t easy. But getting students talking, discussing, arguing respectfully with one another — that’s a key aspect of a good education. It’s a critical ingredient of rigorous research. And it’s an absolutely crucial part of a healthy democracy.
We’re doing our best to model it, to show that discovering truth is almost always a group effort.
Dr. Suzanne Barbour is Dean of The Graduate School at UNC Chapel Hill and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics.