It’s a familiar scene: seats crowded in neat rows in impeccably straight lines across the room, a neat podium situated proudly at the prow, the rustle of papers and the click of pens as attendees prepare to absorb the assertions of an authoritative scholar.
Along with this lecture may come an audience member with a steadfast outlook that cannot be modified by any expert, no matter his, her or their qualifications. Oftentimes, in the question and answer portion, this one person will begin to relentlessly argue with the academic, amidst whispers of “who is this person” and “we didn’t come here to listen to this!”
Yet, why invalidate a perspective simply on the basis of it not being delivered from a lectern? After all, every position is reasonable. As intellectuals, we have an obligation to understand various stances on an issue. Regrettably, the atmosphere of a lecture fosters a sense of hierarchy, indicating that certain sentiments are more significant than others.
Wellesley’s lecture panels tend to be stifling since we engage ourselves wholly in listening to an expert speak and neglect to open conversation or consider opposing opinions. Following the “Erasing the Past: Daesh and the Crisis of Antiquities Destruction” conference on Sept. 24, students noted that a lack of context and support detracted from the content of the lectures.
For this reason and others, a number of Wellesley organizations have been shifting away from the classic lecture and refocusing on peer dialogues, which encourage us to understand the reasoning behind each other’s opinions. According to a description of the Agora Society Fireside Chats, the goal is to cultivate dialogues which are “unbiased and follow the spirit of salons in which ideas are understood and explored.” Conversations such as the TCO X Slater Global Tea Series, LGBTQ+ Tea Talks, Multifaith Teas and Open Up, Open Mic have similar intents of encouraging a multitude of opinions from a variety of backgrounds. Additionally, 2015 Student Leadership Training continued its tradition of using dialogue as a vehicle for instruction. In particular, an exercise known as Behind Closed Doors used role-playing to help attendees deal with difficult situations. Each scenario was followed by a discussion to enable student leaders to present ideas, consider compromises and recognize resources. Topics included sexual assault, depression, gender identity,and homesickness among others.
Recently, the administration of Wellesley College has shifted its support to a dialogue, discussion and debate model that promotes an exchange of opinions. Academic curiosity and forthrightness combined with support aim to forge “collective transformation,” according to a campus publication “Dialogue at the Heart of Change” by Tom Atlee.
Traditionally, a lecturer is an authority in their field of study, with many years of research to support their claims. Their presence, and the layout of the hall itself, oblige attendees to accept that a clear hierarchy exists in the ensuing conversation: the expert against the layman. While these opinions may not necessarily be in contention, it insinuates that only one of them is valid. Open-floor debates aim to eliminate the recognition of a ranking by encouraging participants to gather and argue with each other while maintaining their credibility. As a result, there is no clear leader, and more interpretations are contributed, allowing for richer discussions.
According to a Stanford University News release about the teaching techniques of linguistics professor John R. Rickford, the “chief advantage of class discussions…was that they often involved students more deeply in learning.” The major goal of most Wellesley organizations that have chosen to shift towards dialogues is to encourage more participation and engagement, enriching the conversation for all attendees. Given that they are restricted to a singular, authoritative opinion, lectures seem like weak forums for academic inquiry, while dialogues foster deliberate contemplation and involvement.
However, discussions do not solve the issue of anonymity. Because participation is voluntary, it can be difficult for certain groups to attend controversial or exposing conversations. For instance, students of Caucasian descent may find it uncomfortable to take part in colloquies regarding race and racism. Consequently, many opinions are not shared in the dialogue. For discussion based classes, in which participation is required, more thoughts are brought to light, but typically from people with similar interests. Open-campus discussions bring together a greater variety of backgrounds, and, as opposed to lecture panels, more closely reflect the daily experiences of the student body. The sentiments expressed in such conversations are the candid attitudes of Wellesley attendees.
Many organizations strive to combat this issue by promising a safe space for ideas. With established guidelines, societies and clubs hope to allow for unobstructed debate regarding controversial subjects. However, “safe spaces” are geared towards protecting minorities and typically oppressed populations. As such, unpopular opinions are often stifled in the process, detracting from the richness of the discussion. “Conceptually, safe spaces are great and in reality, we need them, but we also need to find a way to allow people to voice unpopular and even potentially offensive opinions, so we can enter into a real dialogue about important issues that affect our campus,” says Aili Olichney ’16.
From my own experiences, while lectures can be intellectually stimulating, discussions nurture analysis and diversity. Candid thoughts and uninhibited sharing often provoke a variety of views. Dialogues are the ideal forum for academic inquiry. In many cases, having someone else to examine my conceptions with has better informed my own personal opinions. As a community, we should focus more heavily on emphasizing open dialogues, but we need to accept that we are still learning how to perfect them. As we move forward, we must continue to modify our module based on input from students, faculty and staff. We need to have more discussions about discussions.