A difficult conversation about dirt

Last week I attended a session at the Annual Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at the Virginia Tech Inn,  called Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom. It was a big group discussion about how difficult conversations happen in our classes and how we can facilitate them better. One of the activities we did was called Listening Pairs, where a pair of people take turns talking for two minutes, without any interruption and the other listens. Well, my partner and I missed the signal to switch, so I got to hear about four minutes of worries, ideas, goals, successes and failures around having difficult conversations from my partner, but didn’t get a chance to share my thoughts. I’ve had several days to think through my ideas and write them into this blog post, which I think is fair considering I missed my turn.

What does a successful difficult conversation look like in soil science?

Let me tell you a story about a day in my classroom.

I came into my classroom and the students were already there, waiting for me, but the room was abuzz with their lively discussions, because by this time in the semester they are building relationships with each other. Maybe they’re talking about how they had a horrible weekend because they lost their keys and their dog ran away or maybe they’re asking each other clarifying questions about the assigned video for this class.  After I manage to get their attention, I share with them the goal for today’s class and recap the main points from the assigned video. We already have clear expectations for how our class community works and how we are going to have discussions. So, after a few logistical instructions, we start.

Forty is too many students to have a productive debate with everyone, so we move the old chair/desks around into smaller groups.  Within each group there are active conversations going on; with back and forth questions, responses and comments between the students.  Maybe not everyone contributes the same amount, but everyone has something to share. I walk around at first, to answer any questions or concerns, and then join one of the groups that is not as good at staying on task. While I participate a little bit, especially at the beginning, I don’t direct the conversation and wait to see if other students in the group can respond before I answer. Everyone is engaged and participate in a way that is comfortable to them; instead of a the few designated “talkers” in the class responding and the rest of the class remaining silent or apathetic.

The discussion we are having today is about a multifaceted, real-life, challenging and somewhat controversial issue happening right now in our field. Hidden or interwoven into the problem is an ethical aspect, that after students discover, will make then reassess their arguments and solutions. There are so many big problems to choose from, like climate change (human-caused or natural global cycles?), shrinking farming population and arable land, impact of international trade policies on food and agriculture, or balancing environmental concerns with agronomic production. The reason that these discussions have a place in my class, an upper level applied science course, is that the question and conversation is grounded in scientific concepts and align with my course objectives. When asking questions, making arguments and sharing comments, students are reminded to refer back to and base arguments on the scientific principals and facts that we learned in class. Maybe  they even did some of their own research to prepare for this discussion. In this way, the conversation serves as both a learning activity to explore the application and impacts of science as well as a demonstration of understanding concepts.

My class includes students from a variety of  fields–agronomy, environmental sciences, landscape architecture, horticulture and animal science–and with a different types of backgrounds–rural farms, other countries and suburban and urban neighborhoods–and this creates some tension about these controversial topics. It will be hard for all of us (me included) to really listen to other opinions from our own and not become defensive or shut down. Maybe being able to discuss the issue from a scientific perspective makes it a little bit easier to take out the overt emotions, but they’re still they even when we try.

What I hope is that these conversations will be a time when individuals begin to recognize and acknowledge how their own identities and biases influence their understanding and application of science.  By understanding that their little snapshot view of the subject could be different from someone else they will start to practice the skills of listening, mutual respect and dialogue. This might take one week, or two, an entire semester or I might only find out about it years later. But I hope to be hearing about these class discussions from students years from now because they were engaging, meaningful, they helped the students learn the content (because not all exams are going away) and were, to a degree, enjoyable. I hope that when you ask my students three days or five years later what they learned in college, these conversations will some of the first things that pop into their heads.

Back to reality

Sadly, most of this story is imaginary. I have tried having some small group discussions, but guided the discussion away from controversial aspect of the topics. And not all of the students are as engaged as the students in my story. It will take more work and practice for me to bring my real class closer to my imagined class discussion.

Before I invest time, effort and emotion into trying to cultivate this type of atmosphere in my class, we all have to agree that this is a worthwhile thing to do.  The often unspoken, but prevalent attitude in the my field and other STEM fields is that we need to focus on “giving” as much content as possible and these type of discussions are not our area; they’re the responsibility of someone else.  So, why should soil sciences classes have difficult conversations?

  • Because all lecture, no discussion classes are scaring students away from STEM fields, students who will be the scientists and a scientifically education public that we desperately need.
  • Because learning through engaging and difficult conversations is something that in-person faculty can still do better than technology.
  • Because being able to guide students through these difficult conversations will make us better teachers, communicators and listeners.
  • Because we are not challenging and equipping students to rise to the challenge of the interdisciplinary, innovative solutions that it will take to fix the big real-world problems by just telling them facts.

There are so many conversations we could be having in our classes, even if we don’t decide to tackle to difficult ones. For example, “Soil or dirt?” or “Is there soil on the moon and Mars?”.

If you’re interested in learning more about what we did in this session, you can read the written summary of our conversations together here.

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3 thoughts on “A difficult conversation about dirt”

  1. Bethany, I really appreciated this post and can totally relate to the struggles involved in getting students to engage and connect to content. I also related with the tendency most of us have of avoiding controversial topics. I think it is so important to embrace those difficult conversations. When we go into a situation with an open mind and actually listen to what people have to say, it turns out that we learn so much. This is true of not just what others have to say, but also of our own opinions. By allowing ourselves to truly listen, engage, debate and reconsider our own points of view, we open the possibility of learning in a more meaningful and lasting way. Thanks for the post and I’m glad that you were finally able to get your Listening Pairs turn.

  2. This post really sucked me in! I was so enthralled with the amazing conversations your class was having, and wanted to give you major props for facilitating the sharing of such diverse experiences….until I found out it was all imaginary! However you really showed the value of complex, ethical discussions in seemingly ordinary topics, and I started thinking about the own biases I bring into scientific research. Thank you for such an insightful post! And you’ve convinced me – discussions on controversial topics should definitely be in the classrooms!

  3. I love your ideas on the outcomes that could be approached by discussion in your STEM classroom. I have always liked the idea of facilitating useful discussion in higher ed classrooms, but your potential outcome of students ‘recognizing the way their biases influence their interpretation of science’ really stood out to me. I think one big problem scientists today are running into with public outreach are what I call “Fans of Science” who are enthusiastic about science but don’t really grasp that scientists are and thus research can often be biased. That concept is something I want all of my students to understand… so how do we get them to talk about these things.

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