Dickinson College to Launch Leading-Edge Program in Civil Dialogue

Dickinson arch

Innovative program poised to serve as national model

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

Note: After this article was published the name of the program was changed from "Civil Dialogue Across the Curriculum, Campus & Community" to "Dialogues Across Differences."

Dickinson will soon launch a groundbreaking program aimed at helping students to develop and practice crucial skills for a diverse and globalized world. 

Rolling out in fall 2023 and funded by a three-year, $276,296 grant awarded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Civil Dialogue Across the Curriculum, Campus & Community program will take a multipronged approach to teaching and promoting civil dialogue methods and techniques. In addition to faculty development and classroom learning, this unique program includes opportunities for students to collaborate with community and campus partners around challenging or even divisive issues.

And it's poised to serve as a national model for educating tomorrow’s citizens and leaders.

Why it’s needed

Through hands-on practice and personalized feedback, faculty and student participants will learn techniques for setting ground rules, ensuring that all voices are heard. They'll also learn how to recenter conversations, ask clarifying questions, build trust, exercise humility and contain challenging moments.  

Acknowledging that civil dialogue is a fraught concept that must mean more than just performative politeness, this initiative responds to the urgent need on campuses, in communities and in our democratic society for educated citizens who can listen with an empathetic and ethical mindset to perspectives other than their own to achieve mutual understanding.

The goals of the program are to teach faculty to facilitate civil dialogue in their courses and to train students to engage in and help others engage in dialogue constructively across differences.

The program aims to do this by:

  • deepening understanding of what “civil dialogue” means
  • evaluating current models of public conversation
  • preparing faculty and students to facilitate civil dialogue for mutual understanding at Dickinson and in the wider world.

First step: Faculty development

Noreen Lape, associate provost and writing program director; Amy McKiernan, director of Dickinson’s Ethics Across Campus & the Curriculum program; and Katie Heard, assistant professor of political science are project leaders for the civil dialogue working group. The team also includes Kirk Anderson (educational studies), Yvette Davis (Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity), Gary Kirk (Center for Civic Learning & Action), John Katunich (writing program), Amaury Sosa (Spanish & Portuguese) and Rui Zhang (psychology). Each brings experience in teaching, faculty development and/or program evaluation to the work.

The first step: The civil dialogue working group will facilitate a series of faculty-development workshops on civil dialogue pedagogy. Beginning in September, these workshops will provide resources for a cohort of faculty members as they develop assignments, civil dialogue activities and, possibly, entire classes devoted to using civil dialogue to promote mutual understanding of challenging topics.

In this way, civil dialogue learning will be infused across the curriculum.

From learning to action

Starting in fall 2023, students may learn a variety of civil dialogue models by enrolling in a new course, Civil Dialogue: Speaking and Writing Across Difference. They’ll also have opportunities to partner with campus groups and community organizations to facilitate civil dialogues on urgent issues.

Working hand-in-hand with faculty and administrators on the civil dialogue team, students who choose to be part of Dickinson’s civil dialogue initiative will choose guests for a lecture series that will bring nationally recognized speakers to Carlisle.

And beginning in spring 2023, students who successfully complete a three-day training program will serve as civic dialogue facilitators, working under the mentorship of Dickinson’s Center for Civic Learning & Action. These student leaders will work in small teams, and in partnership with one or more campus or community groups, to plan and facilitate group dialogues. They’ll also work with a Dickinson psychology professor to assess participation in the civil dialogue program.

What’s old is new 

This robust programming will be designed to equip Dickinsonians to build community, understanding and respect through successful communication in potentially challenging contexts—and to help them build relationships and understanding as they effect the changes they wish to see in the world. That’s a powerful affirmation of Dickinson’s overarching mission—declared by our founders roughly 240 years ago—to provide a useful education for the common good.  

And there’s no better time than the present for this work, notes Lape, as incidents of uncivil discourse, which prevent communities and individuals from reaching their fullest potentials and threaten harmony within individuals and communities, have risen exponentially in the current age. 

“Our multifaceted plan involves faculty, students and the community in creating culture change,” Lape affirms. “By preparing faculty to shape how hundreds of students practice civil dialogue and by developing student leaders who serve as role models and facilitators, we seek to establish a culture of true civil dialogue in action.” 


Published July 19, 2022