To the Editor,
At her Convocation Speech last week, President Bottomly spoke eloquently about the need to cultivate civil discourse at Wellesley, “our responsibility to engage in and promote open discourse in all that we do.” Civility, she argued, must be a key part of our liberal arts education of women for “noblest usefulness.”
I could not agree more. As a long-time (37 years!) professor here at Wellesley, who teaches about race and class inequality and oppression in seminar format, I have dealt with the challenge of promoting civil discourse on these challenging and potentially divisive topics. It is always tempting to shy away from hot button issues such as affirmative action and welfare policy, where there are strong opinions on both sides which often coincide with race and class position. Discussions can easily degenerate into name-calling, and can be extremely painful, undermining the good will necessary for learning together. Students who hold non-dominant opinions or perspectives can easily lose faith, and stop participating, depriving the classroom of a key source for learning. So, over the years, I began to try to develop ground rules for discussion, with the goal of encouraging discussion across differences in a way that promotes mutual respect, connection, trust, and community.
Last fall, at the National Women’s Studies Association annual conference, I heard a presentation by a professor who had her students agree to a Beloved Community statement at the beginning of the semester. Beloved Community is a concept referred to by Martin Luther King which denotes a diverse community committed to justice and peace for all. I embraced this practice, adapted my ground rules, and brought a statement to my first “Political Economy of Gender, Race and Class” seminar meeting. They discussed it in small groups, made revisions and additions, and we agreed upon the following statement. This semester’s Feminist Economics students read it last week, and agreed, without revision. Realizing it might be helpful to others working on building Beloved Community at Wellesley, I share it below.
I am committed to striving to create beloved community in our classroom. By beloved community, we mean a community based on love, peace, and trust, which celebrates diversity and dialogue, and works to create solidarity and justice.
Learning and Unlearning: Having grown up in the inequality paradigm, I know that I unconsciously internalize aspects of it. However, I am consciously committed to unlearning my subconscious biases, and to learning to speak and practice equality and solidarity in all dimensions – gender, race, class, sexual preference, ability/disability, religion, country, etc. – in our class. Throughout the class I will adapt a growth mindset and encourage others to do the same.
Diversity and Dialogue: I realize that a diversity of truths exists, and that expressions of different points of view are key to healthy dialogue and learning, especially among people who have different relationships to the inequality paradigm. During our discussions both in the classroom and online, I will strive to resist the pressures of group think by encouraging myself to speak up when I disagree, and by working to be open-minded and judgment free towards fellow students who think differently from me.
Values: I will value my classmates’ as well as my own lived experiences and emotions. At the same time, I will try not to universalize these experiences. I will strive to value emotions and experiences in the same way I value quantitative and statistical measures.
Confidentiality: In order to foster trust and openness, I agree to keep our class discussions confidential. While I can talk to others about what happened in our class, I agree to do so only in ways that do not allow listeners to identify the particular students involved.
In the spirit of civil discourse, I invite comments, additions, and suggestions.
Professor of Economics
Good idea, in my opinion. This emphasizes Mutuality as the underpinning of educational goals. Mutual respect is an important part of the quest for Truth, whether in the classroom, in politics, in scientific research or in religious institutions. Without an understanding of society as a mutual endeavor, it becomes a collection of individuals, isolated and disparate, unconnected to one another. This is not only unhappy, but also inefficient. A profound awareness of the Mutuality of human activity underpins civilization, I think.
Exemplary! Suggestion: strike “fellow” (students by itself is more inclusive)