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Six Strategies for Conversing on Campus

Freshmen are beginning to arrive on campuses across the country, often far from home for the first time, and meeting classmates from diverse cultural communities. The dorm lounges will be full of arguments about big political, cultural, and social issues over late-night pizza. Learning about the different cultural communities and perspectives is central to the mission of a university and will help expand and shape the way you see the world for much of your life.

But some of these dynamics are rapidly changing: thoughtful give-and-take is replaced by virtue signaling, call-out culture, protests, counter-protests, and counter-counter-protests. It’s all very confusing and detrimental to a student’s growth.

Students today report that it’s hard to have honest and open conversations about difficult issues. In a May College Pulse survey of current undergraduates, 68% said “their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive.” And, last year, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that only 51% of students were “satisfied with their campus’ ability to provide an atmosphere” welcoming to political differences.

To navigate this environment, here are six strategies to help students sort fact from fiction and develop their own minds:

  1. Treat conversation like a skill to be learned. Your generation has had less practice at in-person conversations than your parents’ generation. Conversation, like calculus, is a skill to be cultivated. The best ideas usually spring from intimate conversations among a handful of people IRL. Seek those out.
  2. Have a strategy for when you feel put off or offended by someone. Instead of arguing, running away, or attacking that person, consider asking, “Help me understand where you’re coming from.” Listening to someone else’s opinion doesn’t mean you endorse it. The courtesy of allowing someone to complete their thought uninterrupted will decrease their resistance to giving your ideas a fair hearing.
  3. Consider what issue-area experts are saying. The issues facing our country—like immigration, gun control, climate change, and inequality—cannot be summed up in a tweet. Make a habit of seeking out serious sources of perspectives. Try to develop good research skills and consult your school’s academic journals. And take seriously the arguments of those with views that differ from your own. If you’re on the left, regularly read the National Review or George Will. If you’re on the right, consider reading The New Yorker or Paul Krugman. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”
  4. Find your voice. Before you speak up, ask yourself if you can offer two or three reasons, with evidence, to back your claims. When you’re ready, make your case with confidence. One tip: If you’re surprised to learn something, it means you’ve likely been making some assumptions. Tease those assumptions out and see if they hold up to scrutiny.
  5. Take general education courses. They are the ‘secret sauce’ of your intellectual life. While it’s tempting to learn Klingon or ballroom dancing, broad survey courses such as The American Novel to 1945, Introduction to Ethics, and History of East Asia will teach you how to analyze problems and give you the necessary knowledge to contextualize what you hear on campus and better understand the world. (BTW, there’s nothing wrong with Klingon or ballroom dancing as hobbies.)
  6. Join some clubs. Campus organizations and extra-curricular activities are guaranteed to keep you in contact with students whom you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and you’re sure to be challenged and engaged by differences in their views. You might try out several in your first year: a political club, a faith group, or an intervarsity sport. When Gallup asked college grads to reflect on their college years, being “extremely involved in extracurricular activities and organizations” was one of the top experiences that predicted wellness and workplace engagement.

As much as older generations miss their college years, they shouldn’t envy the challenging environment many of this generation’s students will face on college campuses these days, especially in the social media age. But with these strategies in hand, they’ll stand a better chance of developing as better thinkers, listeners, and advocates for the things they believe in.

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill is director of the Bipartisan Policy Center Campus Free Expression Project. Previously, Merrill was executive director of the Fund for Academic Renewal and served on the faculties of St. John’s College (Annapolis) and the College of William & Mary. She has taught at Duke University, the University of Calgary, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, and in the college program at Maryland’s only prison for women.

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