Director's Update: October 2020

Nick Monk: Smiling man with brown hair and tailored blue jacket.
Nick Monk, CTT Director

The two countries in which I’ve lived as an adult, the United States and the United Kingdom, have seen a polarization of political opinion most commentators and analysts consider to be unprecedented, such as in this Pew Research Study.

The outcomes have not yet devolved into large-scale violence and the destruction of lives and property, but some think it is merely a matter of time. In the face of this coming onslaught, all we seem able to do is lament the loss of social solidarity, grieve for disappearing civility, and castigate social media as the prime facilitator of our worst oppositional tendencies. Young people are often seen as the most vulnerable in our society to these powerfully negative forces.

Working in higher education it often seems that this is true as the polarization of political opinion among students increases and the numbers of the persuadable decreases. The shift in the attitudes of young people according to rigid doctrines of the right or the left may well be a significant feature driving a less civil environment and moving students along a path to possible radicalization. But what can we do to address these issues on the eve of the most divisive U.S. general election in living memory?

The good news is that there are resources available to help. This week the Chronicle of Higher Education outlines the problems we have working across divides in universities and offers some suggestions. The piece suggests it is possible to engage our students directly with this most polarized of general elections. They are not alone – the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching has an excellent resource for this. In addition, our own Office of Diversity and Inclusion offers a collection of materials to support students, staff, and faculty and Student Affairs at UNL is building a “Peace and Civility” resource.

Digging a little deeper into the research on the radicalization of young people reveals that it is increasing in many places in the world. The same article offers hope that engaging young people early and in the right circumstances will help. The article argues that the dialogic method it advocates might instigate real change in those attracted to extreme views. The article finds that safe spaces need to be created for dialogue, that dialogue should “be egalitarian; and that relationships in these spaces for dialogue are built on trust so that … young adults feel confident to raise their doubts.”

We have a unique opportunity in universities to create these safe spaces. We can do this by taking our opportunity to model discourse and provide examples of respectful disagreement. We can show in our feedback to students that we can be won over by a persuasive and evidence-based case. We can choose the more ambiguous areas of our disciplines and ask students to work together to reach shared conclusions. We can show that we value minority opinion. We can teach ourselves and our students to listen better. We can create learning environments in which everyone present engages. Perhaps most importantly of all, we can intervene where we see examples of disrespect and micro-aggression.

As ever, please contact us either directly, or through your school or college’s instructional designer, if you require more information on this or any other matter related to teaching and learning. All of us at the CTT wish you a peaceful election.

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