Encountering Controversial Ideas in Higher Education

Conversation Guide

Interested in using this conversation guide? Click here to tell us about it!
We’re happy to help!

Students attend college for many reasons, including to learn about the world, to develop critical thinking, and to hone employable skills. In recent years, colleges and universities have struggled to determine how to include or if they can include a variety of ideas that challenge students’ understanding of charged issues in their curriculum and in the academic environment. Students, faculty and administrators naturally bring their own experience and perspectives to the classroom. The purpose of this conversation is to share experiences that create greater understanding of what helps or hinders the free exchange of diverse ideas in the higher education learning environment.

Background Information:

This guide was created in partnership with the Heterodox Academy.

Let's Get Started!

Living Room Conversations offers a simple, sociable and structured way to practice communicating across differences while building understanding and relationships. Typically, 4-7 people meet in person or by video call for about 90 minutes to listen to and be heard by others on one of our nearly 100 topics. Rather than debating or convincing others, we take turns talking to share and learn. No preparation is required, though background links with balanced views are available on some topic pages online. Anyone can host using these italicized instructions. Hosts also participate. Some hosts may offer a Q & A after Closing.

Introductions:
Why We're Here (~10 min)

Each participant has 1 minute to introduce themselves.

Share your name, where you live, what drew you here, and if this is your first conversation.

Conversation Agreements:
How We'll Engage (~5 min)

These will set the tone of our conversation; participants may volunteer to take turns reading them aloud. (Click here for the full conversation agreements.)

  • Be curious and listen to understand.
  • Show respect and suspend judgment. 
  • Note any common ground as well as any differences. 
  • Be authentic and welcome that from others. 
  • Be purposeful and to the point. 
  • Own and guide the conversation. 

Question Rounds:
What We’ll Talk About

Optional: a participant can keep track of time and gently let people know when their time has elapsed.

Round 1:
Getting to Know Each Other (~10 min)

Each participant can take 1-2 minutes to answer one of these questions:

  • What are your hopes and concerns for your family, community and/or the country?
  • What would your best friend say about who you are?
  • What sense of purpose / mission / duty guides you in your life?

Round 2:

Encountering Controversial Ideas in Higher Education (~40 min)

One participant can volunteer to read the paragraph at the top of the web page.

Take ~2 minutes each to answer a question below without interruption or crosstalk. After everyone has answered, the group may take a few minutes for clarifying or follow up questions/responses. Continue exploring additional questions as time allows.

  • What is your expectation for students’ learning in higher education? What role, if any, has higher education had in exposing you to controversial ideas? How do you find and consider controversial ideas in other contexts?
  • Think about a higher education experience of encountering a stance, opinion or belief differing from your own. What about the learning environment was productive for you in this situation? What was not productive?
  • Has there been a time when you didn’t feel comfortable sharing your perspective or asking a question that was on your mind in a learning setting? What did you do?
  • What steps have you taken to maximize the benefits of encountering challenging/controversial ideas, while minimizing the risks of doing so?

Round 3:
Reflecting on the Conversation (~15 min)

Take 2 minutes to answer one of the following questions:

  • What was most meaningful / valuable to you in this Living Room Conversation?
  • What learning, new understanding or common ground was found on the topic?
  • How has this conversation changed your perception of anyone in this group?
  • Is there a next step you would like to take based upon the conversation?

Closing (~5 min)

  • Give us feedback! Find our feedback form here.
  • Donate! Make more of these possible; give here.
  • Join or host more conversations! With a) this group by exchanging your emails; b) others in person and/or by video call online. Get more involved or learn how to host here.

Thank You!