Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” the word of the year 2016 and defines it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries). The 2016 presidential campaign, the traditional media coverage as well as the emergence of fake news throughout the internet (and now with the appointment of Steve Bannon on the way into the White House) are exemplary for this move towards emotional politics that do not correspond to facts but rather to felt realities. Voters were swayed by what they felt was true, and no factual contradiction could convince them otherwise. Climate scientists, political analysts and journalists are facing accusations of lying (the German word Lügenpresse has made it into white supremacists’ rhetoric in the US and journalists are defamed as liars throughout social media) or political correctness (a long, but interesting article about the history of political correctness and how the right uses it to demonize liberals can be found here). Many of us have seen the Professor Watchlist by now which lists “professors with liberal bias.” Liberalism and anti-bigotry appear to oppress conservative perspectives and to push a liberal agenda. In this climate of felt realities, it is difficult to argue rationally against that view. So, what can we do? How then can we teach critical thinking and openness to multiple perspectives?
A few weeks ago, I organized a speak-out on refugees on campus. To avoid the “feeling” of being lectured to and to promote substantial and open dialogue, I conceptualized this speak-out as student-centered with a few professors present who could answer questions and straighten out misconceptions but who would not lecture, push any kind of agenda, or even engage with their own opinion. To say this right away, the latter was the most difficult thing about this event. Being used to a teaching role in the classroom, it is not easy to hold back and to not answer provocative questions such as “why do we need to take in refugees, can’t others do it? It’s just too dangerous.” While I managed to not chime in then, this question weighed on me and I had to answer it at least in the echo chamber of my blog later. Here is what I would have said in a class setting.
I do believe, however, that it was beneficial to hold back. The discussion proved to be excellent. There was a multiplicity of voices and students seriously engaged with each other. There was no polemic back and forth but rather mutual respect and the students who argued for welcoming refugees held their own. In the end, there was no need to engage with my opinions, the students were capable enough to do so on their own and experienced a sense of empowerment. Some ground rules were necessary to make this happen.
I borrowed the set-up from the fish-bowl approach which is a cooperative learning strategy. This method consists of two circles – a smaller inner circle where the discussion happens and a larger outer circle where the rest of the group observes the discussion. The inner circle should not be larger than 10 participants while the outer circle can have as many as 50. In classes, I would place half of the students in each circle and switch later. For this event, I used an alternative approach and observers could switch into the inner circle to participate.
Our inner circle of ten participants included four “experts” plus six students. Everyone faced inwards. This was the circle of discussion, everyone who sat here could participate in the debate. The outer circle of about thirty students, faculty, and members of the wider community (somebody from Freedom House joined and contributed practical examples) faced also inwards and thereby constituted the observer position. When somebody in the outer circle wanted to participate, he/she tapped out somebody in the inner circle and switched seats with them. I asked in the beginning to tap people out who either hadn’t said anything in a while or who had a similar opinion to one’s own to avoid the silencing of voices and perspectives. This set-up had two benefits: the smaller setting of the inner circle allowed substantial discussion and the necessity of moving into the inner circle before speaking helped emotions to calm before contributing. I believe that this set-up was a great success in both hearing many voices and also keeping the dialogue productive and open.
We got some good feedback about the fish-bowl approach from students who felt that their opinions were taken seriously and that the debate was in fact open-ended and not, as they sometimes feel in class, led with a specific goal in mind. That did not mean, however, that the discussion was held at the level of felt realities and fake news. The multiplicity of backgrounds and voices ensured that misconceptions and false narratives were corrected. Such a speak-out then seems to be an excellent strategy to combat accusations of bias in teaching and to push back on “post-truth” tendencies. I will certainly employ this strategy in future classes as well and we are already in the process of organizing the next speak-out on campus. This time on “Russia-Europe-US and the role of NATO”.
A well written preview article of the event, published in our campus newspaper, with more information on the approach, background, and goals can be found here.