On Thursday, February 23rd, University Librarian Tom Wall hosted a fireside chat in the O’Neill Reading Room on Maintaining Community Throughout Difficult Conversations. This conversation engaged panelists Tom Mogan, Associate Vice President/Dean of Students; Vincent Rougeau, Dean of the Law School; and Anthony Penna, Associate Vice President of Mission and Ministry. The four campus leaders discussed the state of civil discourse in today’s society and the role that educators here at Boston College can have in improving communication and preparing students to participate productively in difficult conversations throughout their lives.
Tom Wall initiated the session by asking panelists about their respective experience of community at Boston College and how they see it being challenged by the current political climate. Each of the speakers noted the strength of BC’s sense of community and the work undertaken to strengthen this through personal interaction. Fr. Penna commented on how much the school has changed in the last 25 years and emphasized that the faster pace of life has contributed to many students existing in narrow “orbits” that might prevent them from developing the deepest possible sense of community. He advocated for stepping outside the comfort zones saying that “sometimes it is good to disrupt your orbit” whether you are a member of the faculty, a student, or a staff member.
This led the discussion to a perceived loss of the “art of listening” and the impact of social media on how conversations happen. Dean Rougeau noted that most students have never known a world without social media, which contributes to a sense that there is no down time and no opportunity to step away from the flow of content and pressure to respond. He noted that “It takes away critical aspects of human interaction – the ability and the responsibility to understand non-verbal communication and contextualize comments. Thinking before you speak.” He sees a role for faculty in helping students to learn other ways of engaging in conversation and communication. Dean Mogan observed that it can be difficult to reach students beyond a specific core group that may not normally engage with these types of topics. Fr. Penna mentioned trying to pull students out of social media to connect with people in person, but also noted that students find value and community in online spaces as well.
Tom Wall next raised the issue of how to tackle complex issues, which are often over-simplified online or encounter an anti-intellectualist pushback. Dean Rougeau noted that the anti-intellectualist current has a long history in the U.S. and that educators must work to give students the tools to think about and discuss controversial topics logically and rationally. Boston College offers opportunities for just this sort of development not only in the classroom, but also in extracurricular life as Dean Mogan noted. This led naturally into a discussion of objective truth and “fake news”, which everyone agreed is a difficult and timely problem that demands educators model shared practices in both finding reliable information and coming to shared understandings on complex and controversial topics. Finally Tom Wall asked about whether Boston College’s focus on student formation offers an opportunity to improve civil discourse. Dean Rougeau felt that this and Boston College’s religious foundation provides a strong set up values that can serve as a crucial basis of future development and growth throughout life.
The conversation ended with an opportunity for members of the audience to ask questions, which led to further discussions of the way that some national characteristics of the United States, such as individualism and suspicion of intellectualism contribute to these issues, how these important topics can be integrated into the curriculum more effectively, and the role of student protest on campus. Afterwards, attendees had the opportunity to continue the discussion with the panelists during a reception.