Hiram College

S. Brooke Vick, associate professor of psychology and co-chair of the Inclusion Diversity and Equity Council at Whitman College, presents Hiram workshop on facilitating difficult dialogues.

It isn’t always easy to talk about race and identity in the classroom. After all, classroom conversations typically are driven by academic content and not that of a personal/emotional nature.

“We can put it all on the table and see what we’re so freaked out about,” says S. Brooke Vick, associate professor of psychology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., who underscores the discomfort many of us experience during exchanges related to race and personal identity. Vick, who also co-chairs Whitman’s Inclusion Diversity and Equity Council, says teachers tend to table such discussions for fear they’ll spurt out ignorant comments that could hurt students. They worry about creating division over unity. They’re concerned their students won’t join the discussion.

Rather than avoid such difficult dialogue, Hiram is facing it head on. During Institute Week, Vick presented a workshop for faculty members to help them facilitate classroom discussions that align with Hiram’s 2016-2017 ethics theme Race, Identity and Community and common reading “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Vick addressed issues such as microaggression, or everyday “slights” not intended to harm, but indeed harmful because they invalidate another’s thoughts and experiences. Microaggression often snowballs into negative emotions, disengagement, lost trust and classroom underperformance among students.

Vick led workshop participants through exercises to help them navigate difficult discussions. Hiram faculty and staff members practiced deep listening, for instance, during which they focused on hearing others’ concerns, while muting their personal “inner chatter.” They also learned how to reflect upon, inquire about and support what others share.

“It’s about creating an environment where there is trust. Nice connections start to happen,” Vick says. “Facilitators have a lot of power to create good outcomes.”