AK CASC-sponsored trainings provide tools for challenging conversations

group discussion

The temperature that morning hadn’t yet risen from its overnight low of -32F, yet some of the faculty, students and staff assembled still stepped outside at 9am on February 28, 2020 into the frosty air of the Tanana Valley. Others opted to remain inside, gathering around the panoramic south-facing windows which adorn the Akasofu building’s 5th floor. All of this to follow the instructions of Ilarion Merculieff, an elder who began the second day of AK CASC-sponsored trainings with one instruction: take a moment to reconnect with your natural surroundings.

Over two days a small community of academics came together to address the challenge of difficult dialogues on our campus. Conversations involving politically divisive issues, addressing inequity in our communities, and confronting the challenging consequences of our own violent histories – these are the conversations which are simultaneously the most difficult to have constructively, and the most important to an informed democratic public. That’s the vision which leads Libby Roderick, Ilarion Merculieff and other academic professionals at the Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center.

The training began on Thursday February 27, 2020 with a half-day training led by Libby Roderick based on the book Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education, published by UA press as part of the Difficult Dialogues Initiative. The training provided participants with tools for engaging in more effective challenging conversations. Tools introduced included the use of listening pairs, ground rules for challenging discussions, the use of the “Five Minute Rule”, and modular debate models among others.

session leader
Day two of the trainings featured Libby and Ilarion co-leading the session, and began with a land acknowledgement. (Photo Credit: Jane Wolken)

The tools presented some novel ways of reframing conversations which often find themselves either silenced or derailed if not approached carefully. The introduction of listening pairs, for instance, allows participants in a conversation to express their own opinions (positive or otherwise) to a partner without taking up large amounts of time.

An alternative model for creating space for all voices is the “Five Minute Rule” where, for five minutes, a contrary position for the group is held up as valid and normal. The group is then invited to speak to the merits of the position, what the consequences of such a position would be, and consider the implications of the position on current states of affairs. The tool frames challenges with the current paradigm uniquely well, and allows space for dissenting opinions to be seriously proposed and considered.

Some new faces and some returning voices reconvened on Friday February 28, 2020 for a full-day training co-led by Libby Roderick and Ilarion Merculieff, an experienced and skilled advocate for Indigenous rights and wisdom across Alaska. This workshop was based on the book Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning, also published by UA press.

The Stop Talking training focused on introducing participants to Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning in the context of both education and research. Participants shared stories of significant issues which have arisen in the past in trying to include Alaska Native communities in research. These challenges were the result of both the failure of researchers to consider the needs and priorities of their potential collaborators, as well as the constraints of the broader research funding structure within which scientists operate. Others shared stories of the struggles and successes of Native communities that attempted to initiate research of their own accord. Not all of the narratives shared were negative though. Some in the room shared stories of current efforts to address issues at every stage of research, and to better integrate Indigenous wisdom and knowledge at a more foundational level.

The second day also involved the gracious participation of a number of UAF faculty in a panel discussion on the successes of Alaska Native inclusion and education on campus. The panel participants also identified areas for improving education and research activities at UAF. Indigenous voices in research and teaching on campus were discussed and the challenges facing Native voices in the context of research, teaching, and tenure were all highlighted.

Ultimately the AK CASC-sponsored Difficult Dialogues/Stop Talking trainings sought to emphasise, and support the goals of the Difficult Dialogues Initiative. The training comes as part of a long-running series of efforts to promote leadership, diversity and inclusivity in the work of the AK CASC and its partners. Much of this work has been the long-term passion of AK CASC Program Coordinator Jane Wolken and Post-Doctoral researcher Joanna Young, who co-organized a leadership workshop for early career women in science in 2017, and a leadership, diversity and inclusivity workshop the following year with colleague Jessie Young-Robertson. Last month Wolken organized an AK Casc/EPSCoR-sponsored workshop with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to develop science communication capacity among the organizations’ researchers and staff. The Alan Alda Training supplements a recent AK CASC-sponsored long-running project to advise rural communities on resilience tools that are critical for developing more robust community adaptation plans.

Pluralism, academic freedom, and democratic engagement are powerful and critical tools in academia which can only be achieved if all of those engaged in the community from researchers to staff to educators are willing to engage in challenging but productive discussions. With the aid of Libby and Ilarion it’s not difficult to argue that all those in attendance came away with more tools to do precisely that.