Peer Discussions

The Project on Civil Discourse offers facilitated discussions on topics relevant to free speech, inclusion, intellectual diversity, tolerance, political difference, and more. See the topics and descriptions below.

To request a facilitated discussion for your course, club, program, or community event, contact PCD Director Lara Schwartz at lschwart@american.edu.

Browse the sessions that have already been requested for this semester below.

Honors-200-005, Pollution Solutions
Date: September 3, 2019
Module: I've Heard Enough
Professor: Jesse Meiller

Honors-200-03, Culture of Corruption
Date: September 12, 2019
Module: Patriotism, Dissent, and Power
Professor: Shawn Bates

Honors-200-004, Displaced Lives in the DMV
Date: October 2, 2019
Module: I've Heard Enough
Professor: David Pike

SPA-189, Introduction to CLEG
Date: October 1, 2019
Module: Evidence, Certainty, Productive Debate
Professor: Chris Utter

PPL, PPL Lab
Date: October 30, 2019
Module: TBD
Professor: Claire Griggs

SIS-205, Intercultural Communication
Date: October 31, 2019
Module: TBD
Professor: Wanda Wigfall-Williams

 


The Project on Civil Discourse offers facilitated discussions on topics relevant to free speech, inclusion, intellectual diversity, tolerance, political difference, and more. See the topics, descriptions, and schedules below. Spaces are limited. 
Register

Topics

September 30 | 8-9 p.m. | MGC 245
October 23 | 5-6 p.m. | SIS 260

I’m sorry if anyone might have offended by my choice of words . . . To the extent my actions caused pain to anyone, I regret it . . . What I did was wrong.

We see all kinds of apologies on social media, in the news, and in our lives. But what’s a real apology? Is the word “sorry” enough? Who decides?

This conversation will examine why people apologize, and what they hope to accomplish by doing so. It will also explore what constitutes a genuine apology and use several current examples from prominent figures in American culture to investigate the elements of authentic apologies.

Learning Objectives

  • Explore the different parts of an apology in a discourse;
  • Distinguish between examples of genuine and ingenuine apologies and the role that claiming responsibility plays; and
  • Discuss whether there is an affirmative obligation to apologize, even if it risks relationships with a person or institution;

September 26 | 7-8 p.m. | MGC 328
October 1 | 7-8 p.m. | SIS 300

You have just arrived on AU’s campus, ready to take on the world. You walk into your dorm, only to find that your roommate has plastered the walls with political memorabilia of the opposite party. For many of us, this has been not a hypothetical situation, but a real-life encounter. How would you approach this situation/how did you approach the situation? Does this even matter? Where do you draw the line? You will probably be friendly to someone who disagrees with you about whether to raise the minimum wage. But are there limits and what are they?

In this conversation, participants will examine how their own opinions and politics influence their social relationships, classroom discourse, and engagement on campus. We will explore where each of us draws the line between friendly disagreement and hostility.

Learning Objectives

  • Consider the role that opinion and politics play in interpersonal relationships;
  • Explore how politics influence campus life;
  • Consider the differences among political differences, and the role that our identities and perspectives can play;
  • Decipher what steps need to be taken in order to reach across ideological divides; and
  • Consider the relationship between free speech and social acceptance.

October 2 | 4-5 p.m. | SIS 260
October 29 | 4-5 p.m. | SIS 260

In very recent history, our society has seen a shift away from the traditional meaning of truth, based in objective fact, to an era where things like “fake news” and “alternative facts” are becoming the norm. How do we continue to have productive conversations when different participants have different definitions of what is true? Is the idea of truth truly evolving or is this just a temporary divergence?

In this module, students will engage with the idea of truth as it exists in today’s political climate and what this means when trying to have effective conversations.

Learning Objectives

  • Define and discuss the varying definitions of truth in discourse;
  • Consider examples of “post-truth” discourse, such as anti-vaccine activism, the flat-Earth movement, or holocaust denial;
  • Compare experiences with and reactions to post-truth discourse;
  • Identify factors that have contributed to the change in the perception of truth and whether these are positive, negative, or something else;
  • Work collaboratively examine the importance of evidence-based discourse and practices; and
  • Explore strategies that we can use have effective conversations in the post-truth era.

October 16 | 5-6 p.m. | SIS 260
November 10 | 3-4 p.m. | SIS 349

Politics, money, and religion: three things we are told never to speak about. The topic of religion acts as the third rail of discussions within our learning community. But why is talking about religion taboo? And how should we be discussing religion in the context of today’s political and social climate? While many of us try to steer clear of religious conversations, understanding each other’s spirituality, or lack thereof, may be an important path to greater interpersonal and even political understanding. Yet, religion is a deeply personal topic and it almost always creates awkward discussions.

In this facilitated conversation, students will explore their own experiences with religious issues and work together to understand how the often-untouched topic of how religion plays a world in the worldviews of their peers.

Learning Objectives

  • Explore why it is difficult to discuss religion with peers;
  • Consider the influence of religious ideas and values on issues that matter to them as students (for example, public policy and campaigns);
  • Acknowledge and address concerns about discussing religion;
  • Hear about the experiences of people of different faiths, or people who profess no traditional form of faith;
  • Examine examples of religious language and ideas in political discourse; and
  • Reflect on how their college experience has or has not shaped/altered their religious and ideological views and views of religion in general.

October 18 | 11-12 p.m. | SIS 348
October 20 | 5-6 p.m. | SIS 260

In political discourse, law, and media, some people argue that “color-blindness” is an aspiration worth pursuing. Comedian Stephen Colbert stated “I don’t see color” in a parody of this viewpoint, but recently a presidential aspirant stated the same as a fact. Conversely, some commentators and politicians call racial justice and diversity efforts “identity politics” and accuse others of “making it all about race.”

In this conversation, participants will consider how calls for color-blindness infuse social and political discourse. They will consider how terms like “identity politics” affect political candidates and movements.

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the concept of “color blindness” in political, social, and cultural discourse;
  • Consider how the aspiration to color blindness or calls to remove race from conversation affect various people, groups, and policies;
  • Analyze the reasons removing race from conversations might appeal to some;
  • Explore how a person’s perspective or identity can affect their belief in or preference for color-blindness;
  • Consider the impact of requesting that race be removed from conversations; and
  • Explore how their own perspectives or concerns affect their opinions of “identity politics” and race-conscious discourse.

November 6 | 4-5 p.m. | SIS 260
November 8 | 11-12 p.m. | SIS 348

When we think of “incivility” in discourse we generally think of words and acts of disrespect. Using profanity. Defying a commonly-accepted norm. Engaging in ad hominem attacks. But what about inaction and silence? Can failure to speak or act constitute an act of incivility? In this conversation, participants will consider hypothetical situations – such as when a relative or friend makes racist statements toward a third party or group – as a launching point for an inquiry into whether and when there is an obligation to speak out.

October 24 | 6-7 p.m. | SIS 260
November 4 | 8-9 p.m. | SIS 260

I have PTSD from that exam.
Of course, the shooter was mentall ill. All violence is a form of mental illness.
She is completely schizophrenic. Who she is depends on whether she wants to kiss up to you.

In the media, political sphere, and social conversation, speakers often describe hate, bigotry, violence, anger, and irrational behavior as mental illness. We sometimes also use mental health language and metaphors for emphasis. These choices are often unconscious, and very rarely accurate?

How does the choice to use mental health imagery affect the people and issues we care about? Can the choice to conflate violence and mental illness affect policy making, and how? Does “crazy talk” affect community members with mental health disabilities, and how? 

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and analyze mental illness imagery and metaphor in political and/or social discourse;
  • Consider the types of things (from violence to chaos) we use mental health imagery to express;
  • Explore the impact of “crazy talk” on a public policy or social issue, or upon community members with mental health disabilities;
  • Examine our own understanding of what mental illness means and its connection to or disconnection from its literal meaning;
  • If desired, consider and share the impact of inaccurate / punitive mental health discourse on our own lives and experiences; and
  • Generate strategies and solutions for education, self care, and effective communication.

November 5 | 12:30-1:30 p.m. | SIS 260
November 14 | 7-8 p.m. | SIS 300

In college, governing, and life, it’s important not to close our minds to important information that can help us make decisions. When do we know that we know enough to decide or act (or for that matter, write a paper)? When, if ever, should we close the door on new input, or be satisfied with what we know? If a (real, wild) tiger walks through our door, we don’t keep an open mind about whether we need to get away. Most questions are more difficult, though.

In this facilitated conversation, students will use more nuanced problems than the tiger in the room, working together to answer the question “how will I know when I really know?”

Learning Objectives

  • Work collaboratively to identify types of evidence and information that help answer questions;
  • Explore the lines between areas of certainty (gravity exists) and uncertainty;
  • Identify variables that will influence when we have heard enough to know – including context, identity, past experience, and purpose;
  • Compare, critique, and improve upon one another’s conclusions;
  • Consider how to weigh and evaluate types of evidence; and
  • Consider the question of when it is most productive to work with the information one has, and when to seek more.

 

September 17 | 3-4 p.m. | MGC 330N
October 15 | 6-7 p.m. | SIS 260
November 7 | 6-7 p.m. | SIS 260

What is patriotism? How do you express it? How do others express it? Should you be proud of your country? What if your country doesn’t represent you or your community? Politicians, sports leagues, and the media have all attempted to define what constitutes patriotism (and whether criticizing one’s country is patriotic).  

In this discussion, students will explore the meaning of patriotism and how it differs from nationalism. We will examine the practice of “taking a knee” during the National Anthem as a launching point for this conversation. We will consider who has the power to define patriotism (and label some forms of dissent unpatriotic) and why that matters.

Learning Objectives

  • Consider the varying meanings of patriotism in US society;
  • Examine multicultural patriotism and assimilation;
  • Using the example of Colin Kaepernick, explore whether and when criticism and dissent can be patriotic;
  • Examine students’ own understanding of patriotism and dissent;
  • Consider how power and identity shape public perceptions of individuals’ and groups’ expressions of dissent.

October 3 | 6-7 p.m. | SIS 260
October 13 | 3-4 p.m. | SIS 349

The elephant is a symbol of the GOP. And the elephant in the room is President Trump. People talk about accepting different points of view, but when it comes to Trump, all bets are off.

In this conversation, participants will explore whether and how to have a politically-engaged, intellectually-rigorous conversation about the Trump presidency. Why is it challenging? What do we lose if we fail to have reasoned policy conversations?

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the way AU students describe both President Trump and Trump supporters;
  • Attempt to separate personalities from policies;
  • Examine why dispassionate discourse about this president is challenging;
  • Express their experiences with the Trump presidency and the changes it has caused within their personal relationships.

November 14 | 3-4 p.m. | SIS 260
November 21 | 3-4 p.m. | SIS 260

The paradox of tolerance states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually destroyed by the intolerant. Is condemning, e.g., white supremacy an act of intolerance equivalent to espousing that view? If not, why not, and if so, does this argue in favor of some kinds of intolerance?

How should a society determine how to respond to the presence of intolerance among its citizenry? Does a society remain tolerant if it takes an intolerant stance against intolerance? How does a society -- including a learning community such as a university -- preserve tolerance?  

These questions require nuanced thinking about the concept of tolerance, and they challenge our understanding of what it means to live in a free society.

In this facilitated discussion, students will contemplate the concept of tolerance and confront complex questions about personal as well as institutional responses to intolerance.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the complexity of the paradox of tolerance and its implications on discussions of free speech;
  • Engage in line-drawing about the concept of tolerance, and how it applies to various ideologies, identities, and actions;
  • Distinguish between the implications of legislative responses (for example, suppressing speech) and social responses (for example, expressing condemnation) to intolerance in a free society.

October 6 | 1-2 p.m. | SIS 348
November 12 | 7-8 p.m. | MGC 328

Clashes over controversial campus speakers such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Charles Murray have made national headlines and caused many First Amendment advocates to sound the alarm that US college students (particularly liberal ones) are hostile to free speech. American University embraces free expression and does not censor campus speakers. Nonetheless, questions remain. What value do controversial speakers add, and where do you draw the line between controversy and attack? What are the strengths and limits of students’ using their speech rights to protest a speaker? Must students choose between being allies to those targeted by hostile speakers and supporting freedom of expression?

In this facilitated discussion, students will use real-world examples of campus clashes to explore how a learning community should deal with controversial campus speakers.

Learning Objectives

  • Learn about the history and purpose of free speech on college campuses;
  • Consider the merits of using one’s freedom of speech to bring controversial speakers, and where to draw the line (if at all);
  • Examine the legal concept of “threat” and the legal protections for hateful speech; and
  • Consider the tools that we have to ensure that inclusion and respect thrive alongside free expression.

October 8 | 6-7 p.m. | SIS 260
November 21 | 6-7 p.m. | SIS 260

Bias incidents on college campuses have been increasing for years. Some incidents- those involving true threats or harassment- are not protected speech under our First Amendment. But hateful, offensive speech- even the racism embodied by groups such as the KKK- might be protected speech, even when contrary to universities’ values. Does the legal line between “true threat” and merely offensive speech adequately protect students pursuing an education? How can students, administrators, and other community members respond to incidents of racism or other acts of bias on campus? In this discussion students will explore their rights and responsibilities and propose solutions.

Learning Objectives

  • Examine true and hypothetical examples of campus bias incidents and apply legal rules to determine whether there is a “true threat”;
  • Identify the strengths and limitations of these rules;
  • Explore the impact of bias incidents on the learning community; and
  • Generate ideas for individual, community, and institutional responses to bias.

November 10 | 1-2 p.m. | SIS 348

When you hear the term Latinx/People of Color, what comes to your mind? What are the physical characteristics of the people you imagine when the terms are brought up? Where do these terms originate? How are they helpful in facilitating discourse about these groups of people? Are there limits/drawbacks to using these terms?

In this module we aim to explore the complexity that comes with naming groups of people, especially minorities. Focusing on the terms of Latinx and People of Color, we want to explore the ways that the terms can facilitate discussions about certain issues, whilst also perpetuating certain stereotypes, and homogenizing a group of people that is actually heterogenous.

Learning Objectives

  • Consider the meanings and origins of the terms Latinx/People of Color.
  • Examine the benefits and limitations of these terms.
  • Note that People of Color assumes whiteness as not a color, and not present in groups who are assumed to be under the umbrella of this term (e.g. a white latin@).
  • Bring awareness to the fact that Latinx did not originate nor is it used in Latin American countries.

September 24 | 12:30-1:30 p.m. | SIS 300
November 13 | 5-6 p.m. | MGC 245

Freedom of speech includes the right to spread falsehoods, such as debunked scientific theories (vaccines cause autism, the Earth is flat), conspiracy theories, or misleading historical analysis. How do institutions dedicated to expanding knowledge deal with the junk in our marketplace of ideas?

Learning Objectives

  • Attempt to find the line between objective truth and subjective opinion, considering real examples of debunked or disfavored theories;
  • Develop principles for considering whether and when to be open to outrageous claims;
  • Consider the impact of junk on the marketplace of ideas, including in the university context; and
  • Generate solutions and approaches individuals and communities can use to combat the junk in the context of free speech and expression.

October 17 | 3-4 p.m. | SIS 260
November 17 | 5-6 p.m. | SIS 260

 

Students and professors bring their views into the classroom with them. But should they share them? This exercise uses an exchange of letters between a law professor and anonymous writer(s) claiming to be her students as a launching point to examine a variety of civil discourse issues including the role of political opinion in the classroom; the nature and purpose of higher education; professors’ and students’ responsibilities as members of learning communities; and how we assign meaning.

Students should read the exchange of letters in advance.

Learning Objectives

The letters can launch a variety of conversations, in any given session participants and facilitators might select from among the following:

  • Consider and problematize the “consumer model” of education, in which education is a commodity and students’ rights come from their buying power;
  • Examine the impact, if any, that a professor’s politics might have on students, and attempt to draw the line between acceptable political and personal expression by a professor (wearing a cross, having a political bumper sticker on their car) and unacceptable (saying Sanders voters are ignorant);
  • Compare personal and political expression in college classrooms to other contexts such as social settings, workplaces, and the public sphere;
  • Evaluate the professor’s theories about how we assign meanings to terms like Black Lives Matter or symbols like the Confederate Flag.