Institute hosts faculty seminar on viewpoint diversity

St. Olaf faculty members participate in discussion facilitated by Heterodox Academy Executive Director Debra Mashek during the first day of the Institute for Freedom & Community's seminar on "Viewpoint Diversity and General Education."
St. Olaf faculty members participate in discussion facilitated by Heterodox Academy Executive Director Debra Mashek during the first day of the Institute for Freedom & Community’s seminar on “Viewpoint Diversity and General Education.”

This summer, more than 20 St. Olaf College faculty and staff members gathered together in a crowded Old Main classroom to participate in the four-day summer faculty seminar on “Viewpoint Diversity and General Education” hosted by the Institute for Freedom and Community.

Professor of Religion and Philosophy Edmund Santurri, the Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community, convened participants hailing from a range of academic disciplines to explore the central question of the seminar: “In what sense should a commitment to viewpoint diversity be part of a liberal arts education, and how might such a commitment be embodied particularly in St. Olaf’s general education curriculum?”

To prepare for the week’s discussion, seminar participants received a reading syllabus, which covered a broad range of opinions on the subject, from How Civility Works by Keith J. Bybee to How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs. Faculty were eager to discuss — as Assistant Professor of Biology and Education Emily Mohl put it, “I think of the seminar as an opportunity for me, as a faculty member, to engage in the kind of liberal arts learning that our students participate in regularly.”

“I think of the seminar as an opportunity for me, as a faculty member, to engage in the kind of liberal arts learning that our students participate in regularly.” — Emily Mohl

The first day of the seminar was facilitated by Debra Mashek, Executive Director of the Heterodox Academy. Mashek left her position as a professor of psychology at Harvey Mudd College to lead the Heterodox Academy, which partners with professors, administrators, and students in an effort to increase viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement in college classrooms.

As facilitator, Mashek put forward a range of questions to spur discussion around viewpoint diversity: To what extent does it advance vs. undermine the goals of a liberal arts education? What are the risks and rewards for students, faculty, and administrators? How do we create those conditions in our classrooms and on our campuses? These questions, and others, encouraged participants to challenge their assumptions around viewpoint diversity and its place in higher education.

Associate Professor of Religion and Department Chair Jamie Schillinger, who also serves as the director of Middle Eastern Studies, makes a point during the discussion.

Over the course of the week, Santurri furthered these discussions by exploring such topics as academic freedom and freedom of speech; equity and inclusion; the relations and possible tensions among different forms of diversity (ethnic, gender, intellectual, political, racial); disagreements about microaggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings; and the benefits and potential risks of civility standards governing discourse in the classroom and larger society.

“This was my third time participating in an Institute seminar,” says Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein, “and, as always, I found it thought-provoking, informative, and energizing. It’s a rare pleasure to be able to spend significant time reflecting on scholarship and current events with my colleagues.”

While “many of us are engaged with debates concerning diversity, civility, free speech, and disagreement in our teaching and research,” Professor of Political Science Douglas Casson explains, “we do not often get the opportunity to speak with each other about these crucial issues in any detail.”

The summer seminar offers a chance for faculty to slow down and delve deeper into what theoretical conversations could look like in practice.

The reading list for the seminar included "How Civility Works" by Keith J. Bybee, "How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds" by Keith Jacobs, "Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education" by John Palfrey, and other works.
The reading list for the seminar included “How Civility Works” by Keith J. Bybee, “How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds” by Alan Jacobs, “Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education” by John Palfrey, and other works.

The seminar’s viewpoint diversity focus is closely tied to the Institute for Freedom and Community’s overall goals. Established at St. Olaf in 2014, the Institute promotes free inquiry and offers a distinctive opportunity to cultivate civil discourse within the context of the liberal arts. Its fall programming series will continue to foster constructive dialogue among those with differing values and perspectives as a means to explore the theme “Patriotism, Nationalism, and the Idea of America.”

As faculty approach another school year, Mohl explains that “one of the challenges going forward will be to think about how to generate this kind of discourse in my classes.” Leaving the seminar, one of her key ideas is that “classrooms need to be ‘brave spaces’ where students can put themselves in uncomfortable situations, take risks, and test out ideas. We talked about some strategies for ways to make that happen, including acknowledging that we are all learners who make mistakes and can acknowledge others’ experiences even if we disagree with their ideas.”

There are no simple answers around viewpoint diversity in the classroom, and the diversity of opinions was evident throughout the faculty seminar. “As you would hope in a room of 25 people, we didn’t always agree on the viewpoint-related problems facing higher education or St. Olaf, and we certainly didn’t agree on how to solve the problems that we identified,” Epstein says. “But we debated in good faith and with great collegiality, and I definitely left the seminar with new ideas and perspectives to mull over as I return to teaching.”

“Indeed, there was a lot of viewpoint diversity and disagreement in the room, as I anticipated there would be, and the conversations were vibrant and forthright, all the while that they were respectful and, dare I say, civil.” — Edmund Santurri

Santurri agrees, noting that he hopes these discussions continue long after the end of this seminar.

“Indeed, there was a lot of viewpoint diversity and disagreement in the room, as I anticipated there would be, and the conversations were vibrant and forthright, all the while that they were respectful and, dare I say, civil,” he says. “I think this week was an important moment in the life of the college, and I am hopeful that we have launched a new trajectory of deliberation over the character of general education at St. Olaf.”