Hard Conversations on Campus

For the third summer, Duke offers tools to academics nationwide seeking ways to defuse tensions in the classroom

Graphic of two people arguing against a university backdrop

Civil Discourse Summer Reading

Participants in Duke’s civil discourse seminar receive a list of suggested readings that represent a diversity of perspectives, including:

* Derisa Grant, “On Difficult Discourse” 
* Amy Aldridge Sanford, “Confrontation and Avoidance: Alternatives to Civil Discourse” 
* William Deresiewicz, “On Political Correctness” 
* Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder, “Yes, DEI Can Erode Free Speech. Let’s Not Pretend Otherwise” 

“I think the work of civil discourse is made more relevant, but also more difficult, by what's happening in Israel,” Rose says. “When war is happening, oftentimes the human reflex is to say, ‘Campus civil discourse is for after this is settled. Right now, we need to fight for our survival, period. There’s an existential threat before us.’ Both sides can feel that way.”

That helps explain why the number of seminar participants grew from 20 and one session the first year to 40 and two sessions this summer.

Attendees at this year’s first session in May and the next one June 10-12 come from a widely diverse mix of schools.

Faculty from large state schools, including UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State and Arizona State, and smaller private schools such as Brown, Elon and Dartmouth, are gathering behind closed doors at Duke. Rose says the privacy provides a safer environment more conducive to sharing their experiences and concerns. (The seminars are funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.)

John Rose
John Rose

David Skarbek, a professor of political science and political economy at Brown, attended the session last month.

“My university typically does a great job on this and related issues, but given how much the world is faced with pressing problems, I thought it would be a good idea to elevate these values, norms and practices,” Skarbek said.

“Key to doing so includes combining engaging and serious readings from diverse perspectives, cultivating the practices and habits of mind that embrace civil discourse and free speech, and creating a community of scholarship for engaged undergrads.”

A survey taken in the first half of 2023 of more than 55,000 students at over 250 colleges shows why promoting civil discourse is critical for improving campus environments.

More than half of students surveyed by College Pulse said they worry about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstood what they said or did. Twenty percent reported that they often self-censor, while 26% said they feel pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in their classes.

Elizabeth Corey, an associate professor of political science at Baylor University, said she attended a 2023 seminar at Duke because of an ongoing interest in facilitating discourse across political lines.

“What we gained from the seminar last summer was a sense that this is an initiative that can’t be replicated too many times; the need is tremendous.”

Elizabeth Cory, political science professor at Baylor University

“Our campus, Baylor, is not particularly polarized, but I have watched the public conversation degenerate on other campuses and in media and felt that it was my job to model something different for my own students,” said Corey, who attended with her husband, David, also a professor of political science at Baylor.

They co-taught a class this past spring semester called “The Hardest Issues of our Age: A Course in Political Philosophy and Civil Discourse.” Using Rose’s syllabus as a model, the course addressed immigration, Israel/Palestine, gender identity and affirmative action.

“What we gained from the seminar last summer was a sense that this is an initiative that can’t be replicated too many times; the need is tremendous,” she said. “We were encouraged by the diversity of participants who hailed from Ivy League schools, large state schools, community colleges and Christian schools.

“I am certain we do not all think alike, but we all had a shared commitment of promoting what I take to be the central feature of academic life: conversation across difference.”

The Coreys are now involved in a Baylor civil discourse initiative, started by another colleague.

During the school year, Rose leads the Civil Discourse Project, which sponsors courses, events, and scholarship that promote civil discourse both inside and outside the classroom.

Another effort to promote civil discourse on Duke’s campus is the Provost's Initiative on the Middle East. Provost Alec Gallimore launched the program February in response to heated campus debates over the Israel-Hamas war.

The program, which will continue this fall, brought in guest speakers and offered programs on the region to create space and opportunity “for rigorous and respectful debate in which differing perspectives are welcome on current and past conflicts in the region.”

If the Israel-Hamas war drags on into the fall, Rose said he expects the heated debates could get worse.

“That’s a test of our community,” he said, “whether or not we can have civil conversation about it.”