Students can build career and life skills in one-credit civil discourse skills classes

Students can build career and life skills in one-credit civil discourse skills classes

Engaging across the ideological divide

It's a polarized time for the nation. Many have experienced clashes in opinion between family, friends or colleagues — especially about controversial or political topics.

These situations can be uncomfortable and sometimes intimidating. But students at The Ohio State University are discovering they can bridge these polarizing divides by learning effective, real-life strategies for engaging in difficult conversations.

To help students gain these necessary career and life skills, Ohio State piloted its first one-credit civil discourse skills course in autumn 2022, Difficult Conversations in Polarized Times. Part of the university's Civil Discourse Project, the course provides both undergraduate and graduate students practical tools for effectively approaching fractious situations wherever they may occur.

And while the course is offered through the Moritz College of Law, it's designed to cross degree programs, career goals and life plans.

Student response has been tremendously positive.

"Taking LAW 4015 Difficult Conversations in Polarized Times was one of the best decisions I've made in undergrad," said Ayah Elsheikh, a fourth-year philosophy, politics, and economics major. "I was able to reevaluate how I've approached interpersonal conflicts and build a toolbox for problem solving in the future. It was a really rare opportunity to speak about disagreements and controversy in a comfortable, healthy environment. I loved it!"

Luca Garofoli, an undergraduate finance major in the Fisher College of Business, agrees that civil discourse offers tools everyone can use.

"Regardless of college major or career aspirations, the civility and reasoning skills stressed in this course are universally important in every aspect of human existence," said Garofoli.

"It was practical and beneficial to my professional and personal life," added Makda Gebremichael, Moritz College of Law, about her civil discourse class.

After a successful first-semester pilot, two additional courses, Facilitating Potentially Contentious Meetings and Engaging Polarized Groups, were added to the roster in spring 2023.

Nancy Rogers, professor and dean emeritus, Moritz College of Law, and Tom Gregoire, associate professor and dean emeritus, College of Social Work, co-teach Engaging Polarized Groups. They want students to learn about and practice skills they can use in their families, dorm floors or communities to promote mutual understanding and progress — even when disagreements between "factions" have turned bitter.

It's critically important for everyone to learn these skills, as polarized groups often will not agree to engage in a formal process such as mediation or facilitated discussions, noted Rogers and Gregoire. But, a single member of a small group or community could take the initiative to play a similar role "from the side."

Konner Kelly, a city and regional planning master's student in the Knowlton School of Architecture, enrolled in the spring class.

"Professors Rogers and Gregoire taught me valuable ways to assist groups with different ideologies in resolving conflicts and disputes," said Kelly. "What I've learned in the class has felt applicable to informal disagreements among family members and community members and more formal disputes that can develop within institutions. As a city planner, I will absolutely use what I've learned in the course to help me engage with all varieties of stakeholders, and I am extremely grateful that this course has been developed in what feels like increasingly polarized times. I would encourage all who feel unsure about engaging in these types of conflicts or disputes to take this course!"

"Enrolling in a class on civil discourse was one of the greatest decisions I made at Ohio State," said 2023 political science and French graduate Trey Hammond. "Not only was my professor absolutely excellent, but I had the unique opportunity to discuss many of the important issues that face Ohio State students with the university and government leaders who make those policy decisions."

Seats are limited for the next undergraduate session. Students should enroll early for the most course availability.

LAW 4015-20: Difficult Conversations in Polarized Times
Seven weeks, second session of Fall semester (beginning 10/19/23)
Thursdays, Noon-2 p.m.

Learn more about the Civil Discourse project and the growing number of Civil Discourse one-credit skills courses online at the Civil Discourse website.