Advancing Public Discourse in Colleges and Universities

By: David J. Smith, September 2, 2014

Bridgewater College faculty engaged in dialogue
Bridgewater College faculty engaged in dialogue

In August 2014 I was invited by Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia to offer a one day program that would build capacity for faculty to promote discursive activities in the classroom.  Bridgewater College is a small liberal arts institution of 1,800 students founded in 1880 and prides itself as the first Virginia institution to admit women.  The invitation came from the Academic Citizenship Program at the college. The program is designed to improve the culture of engagement and collaborative problem solving.  My workshop was part of the college’s Annual Pedagogy Project which brings together interdisciplinary faculty to focus on a particular issue or topic to integrate college wide. This year’s topic was “public discourse.”  I worked with about 15 faculty from a range of disciplines including biology, English, sociology, history, political science, and education.

In that I take an applied and experiential approach to workshops, much of the program consisted of activities that might be used with students to engage them in conversation, dialogue, and discourse.  I started by considering definitions of civic engagement – that being the overall context to consider discourse – and then engaged in demonstrating examples of discourse including argument, debate, discussion, and dialogue. The participants participated in an exercise demonstrating an argument, we then discussed the benefits/detriments of various forms of discourse.  In considering dialogue, I used materials from the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network (and am thankful for allowing me it use their materials).

We also spent time talking about the theoretical foundations of civic engagement including looking at John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Lev Vigotsky.   I emphasized the benefits of considering David Kolb’s “Learning Styles” as an approach to experiential learning, which discourse invariably is part of.

Other aspects of the program included emphasizing the need for reflection, creating the right conditions for students to engage in discourse, and ways of supporting our students. Activities I employed included pairing and questioning, writing one’s symbol (as a means of considering identity and building confidence), paraphrasing, and deep listening (which I adapted from materials from Educators for Social Responsibility).

I developed three role play activities which I used to illustrate dialogue, facilitation, and consensus building:  “A Student Committee Meeting,” “Organizing a Student Protest,” and “A Dorm Meeting.”  We ended the day looking at curriculum integration, and means of advancing student “self-authorship.”

A resource guide developed for the program is below.



Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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