Vanderbilt has launched multiple avenues to practice and teach civil discourse, with the goal of preparing students to have difficult but constructive conversations in an increasingly polarized time.
“At Vanderbilt, we are deeply committed to giving our students the tools necessary to have healthy, constructive, civil conversations—to be able to listen and respect each other at the end of a discussion,” said Dr. André L. Churchwell, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer.
With the support of the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, , the university has expanded the successful Project Dialogue and Narrative 4 story exchange series first launched by the Center for Spiritual and Religious Life into residential college programming. Students also launched a Narrative 4 storytelling student group.
Narrative 4 is a global program built around a signature story exchange methodology of retelling another individual’s story in the first person, with the hopes of building empathy and understanding.
“The intentionality of sitting down and truly listening to people is so important,” said the Rev. Gretchen Person, associate university chaplain. “It changes the way people listen because all of a sudden they have to take on the sacred trust of retelling a person’s story.”
Narrative 4 exchanges are also now being used as part of Visions sessions with first-year students on The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons. Student-faculty VUcept teams have been trained to lead Narrative 4 story exchanges.
“One of the most powerful sentences anyone can utter is ‘I never thought about it that way before,’” said Vanessa Beasley, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of residential faculty. “I think the best way to start a dialogue begins with getting really clear about baseline requirements, which for me means committing to believing in each other’s humanity as the launching point. Narrative 4 supports that.”
The Project Dialogue series is hosting two additional initiatives focused on story sharing, This I Believe and Fireside Tales.
This I Believe
In the This I Believe series, a guest faculty member leads a dinner conversation with students each month, sharing a story that helps describe a foundational value or belief that has shaped them.
Churchwell was the host of October’s event, and Yara Gonzalez-Justiniano, assistant professor of religion, culture, and psychology will speak at the November dinner.
Fireside Tales is a new initiative launched in October by the Center for Spiritual and Religious Life where a group of six Vanderbilt students, faculty and staff members are chosen ahead of time to share a five-minute true story from their life based on a specific theme.
Once a theme is posted, people interested are asked to email a three-sentence summary of the story to this address.
Many powerful conversations start in the classroom. The Center for Teaching created guides to help faculty facilitate sometimes challenging conversations. The guide gives preparation tips and intentional strategies to help faculty guide students in dealing with and learning from difficult dialogues.