Chatham's Most Life-Changing Course?
“The class is rewarding enough that you don’t want to skip it. I got my wisdom teeth out and two days later, I was there, with ice packed onto my face,” says first-year student Elena Boyle.
It’s called Intergroup Dialogues (IGD), and this was the first year it was offered at Chatham. There’s a fall term component and a spring term component, and they’re different but complementary. Students—both undergraduate and graduate—can sign up for either, or, perhaps, both.
The goal is to allow students to examine an aspect of their own identity (such as race, gender, ability, etc), how they’ve been socialized around it, and how to have productive dialogues about it. Sound easy? It’s not. Sound worthwhile? Read on.
In the fall course–co-taught by Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology Jennifer Morse and Director of Multicultural Affairs Randi Congleton, PhD.–students discussed theories of social identities and social identity construction in the United States, as well as their own experiences of their own social identities. They also learned how to facilitate a dialogue among their peers. Not a discussion, not a debate—a dialogue. Here’s how Congleton explains the difference: “A debate is about making a point. In a discussion, we might say ‘Let’s agree to disagree’. A dialogue is something else. It’s about listening with a sincere desire to learn more.”
By the end of the term, students had developed not only a deeper understanding of social identities in America and advanced dialogue skills, they were also prepared to facilitate the spring course, and to provide custom-designed 1.5-3-hour workshops around dialogue and social identity to classes, student groups, and other organizations on campus. (And off-campus, too: course participants Diarra Clarke ’18 and Patricia Donohue, MSCP ’18 had a proposal accepted and presented at Pittsburgh’s 20th Annual Summit Against Racism.)
“Spring is really when the magic happens,” says Congleton. “Because students commit to spending 14 weeks parsing out one aspect of their identity.” This spring, the focus was on race/ethnicity, facilitated by Hali Santiago, MAP ’18 and Johnnie Tonsor, MSCP ’18, and overseen by Congleton. The spring course fulfills a general education requirement.
“You know a lot less than you think you do,” says Boyle. “Coming into this class, I think that everybody, especially—I guess I can’t speak for all the people of color, but I think in general the people of color were thinking ‘oh, we know this, we understand this.’ And that’s not how it is. With any topic that has a lot of intersectionality or that’s multi-faceted, you know so much less than you think you do. There’s so much you can learn, and you need to be open.”
Students completed readings that included social and political constructions of race in the United States as well as first-person accounts. In class, they engaged in dialogue and in activities that furthered their understanding, though not always in the most comfortable way. That’s because IGD is based on a model that sets forth three zones of learning, says Tonsor.
“When you’re in your comfort zone, things are familiar, so you’re not really that engaged. The next zone is what’s called the learning edge—that’s when there’s some conflict and some discomfort, and you’re attuned to your environment and to others. Then there’s the danger zone, which is too stressful, so you’re out of the space of being able to learn and process.”
“As facilitators, our job is to encourage and challenge them to stay on their learning edge, stay with discomfort, be self-critical, which is difficult,” Tonsor continues. “It involves asking people to do things where their gut reaction is ‘no, I don’t want to do that; that doesn’t feel good.’”
But the class came up with agreements to help them feel more safe. “We had a rule that instead of calling out you call in,” says Maria Positanka ’19. “You say ‘Hey, I heard you say this; I interpreted it this way; is this what you meant?’ And you ask them about their personal experience, and how they came to that opinion.”
“It’s called ‘listening to understand,’” says Boyle. “A lot of times, somebody will be telling you something, and from the first five words of what they say, you already have your response ready to go. That’s one I took to a lot of my relationships – like I would tell my friends, ‘You’re listening to respond!’”
“’Never assume negative intentions’ is another one,” adds Positanka. “At first, there was a lot of jumping to conclusions, or people responding in ways that did not represent what had actually been said. Or automatically assuming that someone is speaking from a position of being willing to be ignorant, or wanting to offend you. But it might just be confusion or miscommunication.”
Boyle cites the “Privilege Walk” as an activity that many of them found meaningful. “Everybody lines up horizontally, and then a number of statements were read out loud,” she says. “Like: ‘If your parents have college degrees, take a step forward. If you cannot easily find hair products for your hair type in a store, take a step backward.’ It was a bunch of statements like that and the statements spread everybody out. At the end, they said ‘Take a look at where you are,’ and it was very polarizing. You had all the white people at the front and all the black people in the back, and most of the multi-racial people in the middle. To see it laid out like that was kind of difficult for everybody and very eye-opening. I cried.”
“I would tell anyone to take the class,” says Justine Barry ’19. “It is one of the most rewarding feelings to go through so much with people –I feel like the people in this class are more than just my classmates. I feel like if I ever needed anything, or I needed someone to go with me to a function, we talk about standing in solidarity with one another, and I know that if that were ever asked of me, or if I ever asked that of anyone else in the class, we would do it. And not just like “oh, I’ll do this to be a good person.” – they’d do it because we’ve been through an experience with one another.”
“This class, even though sometimes you might leave really annoyed, you want to come back,” says Boyle, “because of the change that you see in yourself and in people and in the interactions you have in class. It’s one of those things that you forget that it’s a curriculum. You’re just here to learn.”
Intergroup Dialogues is based on a model developed by the University of Michigan in the late 1980s. At Chatham, it’s run as a joint partnership between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. Future versions of the course may focus on gender, religion, sexual orientation, citizenship, ability, or other aspects of identity.