When LaRessa Wood, 19, of El Reno enrolled in Marcia Shottenkirk’s English Composition II class at Redlands Community College, she wasn’t expecting to have to address hot, divisive topics with a wide range of students and beliefs.
She got into the class by pure chance, but after enrolling, other students raved about how good of a teacher Shottenkirk was. Wood, new to the idea that hot-button topics would be researched and then discussed in an English Comp class, was wary of the idea at first.
“At first, I thought ‘Oh this isn’t going to end well’ since I didn’t know everyone in the class. I wasn’t sure how each would react to the dialogues that we would end up doing,” Wood said.
“The most challenging thing was picking a topic that wasn’t too much of a hot topic and could easily derail the class without proper care. The enjoyable thing was getting to listen to the other students’ personal opinions with their own research and getting to hear their side of the story instead of hearing only my side.”
Marcia Shottenkirk, a University of Central Oklahoma alum and head of Redlands’ Liberal Arts department, received the college’s Innovation in Teaching Award for a project that helps students understand the importance of research and how to have a respectful dialogue on a hot topic.
Called “Class Dialogues,” students in English Composition II are asked to submit a societal topic that concerns them. As the instructor, Shottenkirk compiles these topics into a list and determines which ones garner the most interest among the class.
For instance, in the fall 2019 semester, the topic that drew the most inquiries was Immigration, followed by Racism. This spring, however, the topic most students wanted information about was Climate Change.
What the new Class Dialogue program does is teach students how to research and validate their own information, but also learn to listen and understand opposing viewpoints as well.
“This dialoguing impacts those involved because it has the power to develop a greater understanding of the individual who might come from a different race, generation, income level or background; it also has the power to change perceptions,” said Shottenkirk. “If a student can verbally articulate a thought substantiated by research and anticipate the oppositional viewpoint, he/she has begun to master this communicative art.”
This method may actually have the power to change the world.
A BIG IDEA
While many still consider English Composition II to be a basic writing class, Shottenkirk recognized that it could be so much more. After years of teaching the development of argumentative research papers in this course and years of reading those research papers that are often stale, generic, void of any imagination, and often plagued with plagiarism, she came across a new learning strategy that literally takes the work off the page.
During multiple Oklahoma Campus Compact meetings in 2018 and 2019, Shottenkirk heard from Dr. Dave Lassen, former coordinator for Global and Community Engagement/College of Human Sciences at Oklahoma State University, and his colleagues about the concept of the “Dialogue” project.
At Oklahoma State University, various groups facilitate Campus Dialogues once per semester in an effort to bring diverse students, faculty and staff together to learn how to effectively talk with one another about difficult societal topics, including Racism, Politics, Climate Change, and more.
“(Lassen) was so amazed at how it was helping students and faculty and staff all come together to have really difficult conversations, and I thought that would be a great opportunity to put that in a classroom space,” Shottenkirk said.
“Our students have all of these amazing resources at their disposal literally at their fingertips. And they don't choose to use it and they don't know how to decipher what information is solid. They're getting their news feeds from social media and from memes.”
Shottenkirk wanted to find a way to teach her students about reliable sources, but in a way that wasn’t just her lecturing at them.
“I thought if I keep bringing them together to learn how to do the research in real-time and have conversations that are difficult, to figure out how to phrase their words effectively and clearly, then we can start a civil discourse. And if we can teach that at the college level, then they can go out and have these difficult conversations with family, with friends and with coworkers.”
English Comp II is designed to enhance student learning as it relates to communication and rhetorical persuasion techniques, but it also addresses the role quality research and critical thinking plays in well-articulated communication.
“By practicing this in a group setting, it becomes much more real than constructing a written paper ever could be. However, I believe that through this verbal communication practice, students can translate these abilities into the written word as well,” Shottenkirk said.
At least one week prior to the Class Dialogue, students are given the topic and asked to research it using not just the Redlands Library Databases, but also Google. In the “real world,” these students will not have access to information that has been vetted for them. This exercise gives them experience in deciphering if the article content is factual and valid, in turn, helping them to become better-informed citizens and better communicators.
“On the day of the Class Dialogue, the students aid in constructing the classroom to form a circle of chairs. We first view a TED talk or other short video to help them get into the frame of mind to discuss the topic. Each time I have facilitated these Class Dialogues, students are engaged the entire time, whether they choose to speak or not,” Shottenkirk said.
“I have been astounded to see how well students do with this innovation. It makes research and argument part of their everyday lives in a way writing an academic research paper simply cannot. It also gives them an opportunity to talk about subjects that have been deemed off-limits for being too controversial. If we do not allow them a safe space to practice these discussions, how do they learn to create their own viewpoints and communicate them? I fear that without the liberal arts college setting, future generations could simply cease having these challenging conversations.”
OPENING THE DIALOGUE
After launching the new program last year, Shottenkirk faced a big challenge as the COVID-19 pandemic caused college classes to go strictly online. She was nervous about how that would happen and if the Class Dialogues could still happen.
“I will say the discourse was good. I'm not sure that the research was as solid as I would've liked to see,” she said. “This summer was a 100% online class over an eight-week semester. It came together strikingly better. There were a lot of different personalities with different backgrounds and it was kind of interesting to see how it all coalesced.”
For LaRessa Wood, learning how to argue and listen was invaluable.
“I learned that the best way to get someone to at least think about your side of the story is to add in their opinion in yours and to make them feel heard,” Wood said. “Not only does this help harden your story but it can also help you know what is and isn’t made up since you would understand both sides of the same coin.”
Since participating in Class Dialogues at Redlands Community College, Wood has discovered that she can have a friendly discussion about what she’s passionate about without getting into a heated argument over who is right and who is wrong.
“Making the person feel heard never would have come to mind if it wasn’t for Mrs. Shottenkirk,” she said. “Not only did she change the way I discuss things, she changed the way I feel when discussing said things.”
After seeing the results of Class Dialogues on her students, Shottenkirk wants to see the program grow even more.
“If I'm able to train some students in my classes, then maybe we can have a ballooning effect where we have a class or a campus dialogue each semester on an issue that's important to students,” she said. “And I think it's also important to the faculty and staff involved. I would like to get all of my faculty in the liberal arts area to consider doing some type of innovation like this.