Semester in Dialogue
The Harris Centre is undertaking a feasibility study and implementation strategy for an undergraduate interdisciplinary program, the Semester in Dialogue. With the support of the Teaching and Learning Fund, Dr. Andrea Rose, Dr. Max Liboiron, and Dr. Janna Rosales will work with the Harris Centre staff to determine the best way to develop and integrate the Semester into current academic programming.
The Semester in Dialogue will be a full-time, collaborative, and dynamic learning program available to 20 students from a variety of faculties and schools. It will use methods of dialogue and experiential learning to address complex community-based and public policy issues. The Semester will culminate in holistic, integrative projects that contribute to civic engagement and community development. It will integrate teaching, research, and community involvement, right through the delivery team, consisting of multiple faculty members, Memorial University staff, and community connectors. The program will borrow from Simon Fraser University’s Semester in Dialogue offering.
As of now, the study team is undertaking questions relating to where the program’s home will be, how it will be delivered, how students will be chosen and given credit. We don’t have answers to these yet, but we’re happy to hear any recommendations!
Foundations of the Semester in Dialogue
In the program, students will learn critical thinking, deep listening and questioning, suspension of judgment, and collaboration as they begin to unpack their individual and collective responsibility to community development within an environment that encourages risk taking and creative action. Day-to-day dialogue will be blended with a broad range of learning activities, including site visits, mixed media publications, event hosting, group projects, and broad range of individual work such as research, projects, writing (opinion-editorials and contributions to the online platform) and formal presentations. The Semester will fill a noticeable gap in interdisciplinary and community-centric learning within the undergraduate programs at Memorial University.
The program will operate from three core principles which overlap extensively with the key components of the Teaching and Learning Framework [TLF]: dialogue, relationship, and community integration. Dialogue is more than just a method; it encompasses a set of beliefs around learning, conversation, and equitable participation.
At its foundation, the key belief of dialogue is that learning and change best take place when there is an open, inclusive, safe space that fosters mutual understanding and participation from all those around the table. Dialogues are concentrated conversations where deep listening and questioning are held in higher regard than delivering the ‘right’ answer. They are conversational spaces that explore personal and collective assumptions about how our society, organizations, and we as individuals work by investigating often-ignored underlying beliefs and second-order institutional information. Dialogues are inherently fluid, flexible, and dynamic, and are usually sparked by an open-ended question without knowing what the outcome might be. They hold complexity by facilitating many voices and perspectives and are thus highly democratic modes of conversation. In this way, they promote the formation of a group identity that is inclusive of all participants, developing shared languages, values, and logic. Dialogues foster reflection and self-reflexive learning and creation, so that what is learned from practicing dialogue is applied to the next session (6). Leadership is shifted from direction to facilitation and all participants are responsible for holding space for everyone else’s contributions. Learning modules will include sessions such as the Power of the Question, Thinking on Your Feet, (all forms of) Media Training, Public Speaking, and a volunteer/service learning component.
An integral part of dialogue involves accessing what Dewey calls ‘embodied intelligence’, that is, knowledge that sits within the self but is usually highly emotionally-saturated. Components of safe space are key to supporting a dialogic arena. Participants need to feel safe enough to access and share information that is emotionally-laden in order to bring their ‘whole selves’ into the conversational space. In addition, change that does not simply reify the beliefs of those with privilege requires an emotionally safe space where people can unpack their assumptions and examine their complicity in structural inequality.
There have been a number of critiques of safe space over the years, most of them focusing on the idea of comfort as a primary metric for the success of a safe space. However, there are multiple functions of safe space beyond support, which continues to be a critical function. The safe space we will be employing will focus on learning and creation. These spaces “foster poesis, exploration of play, and innovation” and lead to a more sustainably safe space that encourages risk taking and creative thinking.
Both dialogue and safe space embody some of the core principles within the Teaching and Learning Framework: they are inherently inclusive and foster relationships between those at the table; they encourage interdisciplinary thinking and inter-group synergies; they are flexible between formal and informal learning spaces; they encourage meaningful engagement with topics and challenge students to process information in different ways; they emphasize respect for all around the table and accountability for participation and holding space for others; and they hold a safe, transformative space that supports individual and collective discovery.
Another core principle within the Semester is relationship. The Semester will be driven largely by the relationships between teachers, students, and community, with the understanding that change at the individual, institutional, and societal level can only occur when supported by healthy relationships. As was made clear through the consultations for the TLF, personal connections serve as an essential component for meaningful engagement and learning.
The Semester will use a mentorship approach that will foster holistic relationships between teachers and students. This is a change from the more common model of authority-based relationships that can develop as a result of traditional structures of learning like the lecture format. The mentorship relationship with students allows for projects and evaluations to be tailored to student strengths, which encourages creative endeavours and increases the agency of the learners by shifting traditional power dynamics within the student-teacher relationship.
Students will also participate in activities that develop the cohort of learners within the Semester, another important feature mentioned in the TLF consultations. While there will be a number of individual assignments, there is a significant component of collaborative work within the Semester. Students will also be provided with opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, whether it is acting as a facilitator within the dialogic arena or sharing pieces of information to create a holistic picture of an issue that accounts for its complexity. All of these relationship-based components enable the Semester to be learner-focused and accommodating to the needs of teachers and students alike.
Relationships are also key when working with the community. Following SFU’s model, relationships with community members must be respectful and mutually beneficial. This is incredibly important when recognizing that there will have to be development on the community side the Semester so that they too are ready to work with the university, including faculty, staff, and students. Healthy relationships with community members will be used as a metric of engagement success and as the Semester develops, so too will its ability to be inclusive and accommodating of all persons, including marginalized groups.
The final principle upon which the Semester will be based is community integration. At Memorial University, we often speak of community engagement, the Harris Centre being one of the leading bodies in this field. Engagement often comes with implied notions relating to who holds information, acceptable ways of participation, and the specific delineated roles and function of the community. The Semester will take a step beyond engagement and begin addressing the power dynamics that exist between university and community that often prevent in-depth partnerships. This means that the community person on the delivery team will have just as much voice as faculty and staff and the team will be continuously mindful towards how the activities of the Semester contribute to integration within the community. In addition, each Semester will be individually tailored, in content and form, to address a relevant community issue, making this program more responsive than those using different models.
Students benefit from community integration as it ties together theory and practice outside of the university, another important component to engagement as the TLF consultations show. Community integration allows teaching, research, and community engagement to be blended into the delivery of the Semester, which is key in the production of high quality education.
Students also develop an awareness of community expectations and learn how to be inclusive and responsive to community members. The connection to real-world community issues ignites passion and accountability for each person’s individual and collective role in community change and an investment in learning also becomes an investment within the community. Recognition of different types of knowledge and the value of people from all backgrounds underpins the development of respect and contributes to a holistic learning experience.
The Semester in Dialogue embodies the principles, values, and expectations of the Teaching and Learning Framework through each of the three foundational principles of the Semester: dialogue, relationship, and community integration. The learning space that will be created through the Semester offers a shift from traditional models of teaching and presents a holistic, integrated, inclusive method that is not yet available to undergraduate students beyond the First Year Success Program (FYSP). Students from FYSP often ask, what’s next? The Semester in Dialogue exemplifies many of the principles underlying FYSP, another core component of the TLF. Memorial University, its faculty, staff, and students would benefit greatly from the Semester in Dialogue, as would the different sectors of the community that would be involved in the creation and delivery of this program.