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May 15, 2008

Civil talk key, diversity expert says

“Diversity’s not an airborne virus. You don’t catch it because you walk across campus and you see somebody who looks different from you. … It’s about some kind of capacity to actually talk about contentious issues in a civil manner that’s crucial,” a diversity researcher and founder of the University of Michigan’s program on intergroup relations told Pitt faculty diversity seminar fellows.

“Coexistence is not enough. Guided interactions are critical,” said Patricia Gurin, professor emerita of psychology and women’s studies at Michigan, as she discussed how faculty can make beneficial use of diversity in the classroom.

Gurin outlined Michigan’s intergroup relations program and her research on the impact of intergroup dialogue programs at nine institutions May 6 as the Provost’s faculty diversity seminar luncheon keynote speaker.

She stressed that the pedagogy rather than the programs themselves are what matters. “It’s how to use diversity in the classroom and in the campus-wide experiences of the whole so there is some educational benefit.

“It isn’t about people being in the same place. It’s about leveraging the opportunity to get under the skin, under the thoughts, under the perspectives of multiple people. And so, our task in higher education is to figure out how to do that. It isn’t a simple thing.”

Gurin, who was the University of Michigan’s expert witness on the value of diversity in the Supreme Court cases Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, which focused on the use of race as a factor in admissions, added, “Even if we have diverse students at the graduate and undergraduate levels, it won’t matter very much unless we find ways to actually use that demographic resource as something education-beneficial.”

Gurin noted that in addition to the social psychology argument for diversity that shows intergroup contact increases understanding and reduces prejudice, there’s another reason that such interactions in the classroom are beneficial. Novelty, unfamiliarity and discrepancy in experience foster the active, engaged thinking that is desirable in the classroom, she said.

Michigan’s intergroup relations program offers some 12-14 two- or three-credit courses each semester on a range of social divides including sexual orientation, social class or rural-urban differences. Among the goals of the program, she said, is to teach the students how to have meaningful conversations that will enable them to learn the varying perspectives within and between groups. “It capitalizes on difference but a whole lot of the time is spent on students perceiving commonality,” she said.

“We want them to grasp the life experiences of people from various groups. We want them to learn how to negotiate conflict,” she said. “We want them to learn to collaborate across differences. … And we also want them to understand something about how power and inequality affect the likelihood of collaboration across the groups.”

Students learn how people’s backgrounds influence the way they think and are taught how to dialogue — which is different from debate or discussion in that it focuses on asking questions, listening and trying to probe to understand others’ perspectives and the reasons for their viewpoints. In a dialogue, she said, “The goal is not to get agreement. The goal is to get understanding about different perspectives.”

Small-group projects with members from multiple identity groups round out the semester.

Gurin is principal investigator of a national study on the impact of intergroup dialogue programs at Michigan and eight other institutions.

The research is important, she noted, because there is little data on the effects of higher education and little on prejudice beyond what’s been done on how to decrease it. “It’s important to test the contact theory beyond the reduction of unconscious prejudice,” she said. In addition, given the potential for future legal action on issues of diversity, Gurin said high-quality research is needed.

Based on 20 race and 18 gender experiments, researchers are finding differences in the dialogue groups compared with students in control groups.

“At the end of the semester, the dialogue group is showing greater awareness and understanding of some of the institutional bases of some of these racial inequalities that exist in our society. You see the same kind of picture with respect to gender inequality,” she said, adding that there likewise is a better understanding among the dialogue group of poverty and its roots.

Other outcomes are increased empathy, higher motivation to bridge differences and better skills in dealing with conflict and group interactions.

“We’re trying to help the students understand something about other people’s experiences even if they don’t agree with them,” she said.

In closing, Gurin told the faculty members they must be connected with what is happening in the rest of their students’ lives.

“What we’re trying to do is to leverage something positive coming out of what would otherwise be bare toleration of each other and not any true engagement. It’s not about this program, it is about faculty learning how to deal with conflict in the classroom, how to deal with emotions. … How it is they make use of diversity so it’s more than just the politically correct ‘we all should be diverse,’” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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