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What should I expect in a civil discourse session?

Are these sessions graded?
Peer-facilitated sessions are never graded. If you are attending a session to fulfil a course requirement, your attendance (or failure to attend) could affect your course grade. Some instructors might ask you to write a reflection on your experience, and that might be graded. But what you say (or decline to say) in a peer-facilitated discussion isn’t for anyone else to evaluate. You are the architect of your voice-- and your time in PCD sessions.

Are these sessions confidential?
Peer facilitators take attendance, which will be shared with your course instructor if you are attending to fulfil a course requirement. Professors may ask facilitators how the session went generally, and facilitators are free to respond. They will not, however, evaluate individual students’ participation. Facilitators meet with the program director and with each other to reflect on their sessions and build their facilitation skills. Like students in your courses, students in your peer discussions might share their thoughts and reactions with friends, professors, and family. We will not publish names or quotations from individual students without permission. All of American University’s rules of conduct- including the Guidelines for Freedom of Expression and Dissent, Academic Integrity Code, and Student Conduct Code , apply to peer-facilitated discussions.

What kinds of questions might the facilitator ask?
The role of a discussion facilitator is to provoke thoughtful discussion and, where possible, to get students to think critically about the ideas they brought into the space. Like other students, teachers, and peer leaders, PCD facilitators each bring their own style and methods into the room. However, common questions you might hear include:

  • Line-drawing questions. For example, if a participant says that “professors shouldn’t shut down students’ ideas,” a facilitator might ask “where would you draw the line?” The facilitator might pose a hypothetical: “If a student says that the Earth is flat, what should the professor say?”
  • Requests for definitions. For example, if a student says that “conservatives prefer free markets,” the facilitator might ask how the student defines either conservative or free market.
  • Research-generating questions (“what would we need to know?”). If a participant makes a claim, the facilitator might ask the group to consider what research would be needed to prove the claim. For example, if a student says “polarization harms our democracy,” the facilitator might ask the students what they would need to know in order to determine whether the claim is true.
  • Challenging hypotheticals.

Do the facilitators’ views represent AU or the Project on Civil Discourse?
Peer facilitators are students who are interested in fostering productive discourse on campus and beyond. Like all AU students, they bring varied perspectives and values to their work. Some facilitators might choose to play devil’s advocate, taking a position that is not otherwise represented in the group. Like other students, they might choose to disclose their own opinion about an issue (ex: the free market yields better results than government regulations, or the minimum wage should be higher) or about productive discourse (ex: cancel culture is a problem, or private universities shouldn’t host racist guest speakers). Their views are their own. The Project on Civil Discourse does not take policy positions nor ask students to adopt the director’s or facilitators’ opinions about how productive discourse should work. Students are welcomed and encouraged to push back on facilitators’ statements in the interest of robust intellectual inquiry.

What if I want to do a civil discourse conversation about a topic not listed on the site?
Contact the project director to organize an event or discussion.