The Colgate Scene
The discourse of democracy
|By Rebecca Costello and Caroline Jenkins|
At a practice of the Harry C. Behler Debate Society, Luke Champlin '08 emphatically states his team's position as teammmates and opponents (front to back) Michael Sheflin '08, Kale Nandula '08, Josh Dempster '07, Marty Pinnes '08, Dan Streim '08, and Lindsey Thomas '08 react. For more about ways that students are engaging in civil discourse at Colgate, see page 1. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Pinnes, though, was struck by the fifth-round debate.
The motion on the floor, he said, was more topical than most: outsourcing is good for both developing and developed nations. Pinnes and his partner, Luke Champlin '08, had to argue against the idea; an opposing team of Indian students had to make the case for it.
"With all of the heated discussions about American companies outsourcing IT operations in India, it was cool that we got the opportunity to debate a topic that impacted both sides directly," he explained.
Miranda Weigler, debate coach and organizer of the Harry C. Behler Debate Society's trip to "Worlds," saw the experience as something more.
"We tend to have homogeneous views of things in the United States, and because of that we don't necessarily understand the different goals or priorities of other cultures," she said. "When students like Marty hear different and opposing perspectives firsthand, it challenges their long-held beliefs. That's the beginning of productive dialogue -- questioning your own assumptions."
While intellectual engagement has historically been a principle at institutions of higher learning, true civil discourse has too often been absent from the halls of academia in more recent years, said Adam Weinberg, dean of the college.
"Students aren't in the habit of communicating with people who hold different views from them, who are different from them," he explained. "They're not used to negotiating conflict. They're not used to confronting people and being confronted."
A host of initiatives -- in academics, in student affairs, and in combination -- aims to change that. With a renewed commitment to fostering communication skills in students, the university is helping undergraduates express their opinions and explore alternative viewpoints in myriad ways. In the process, said Weinberg, Colgate is preparing them for the workplace and life after college by providing them with "the skills of democracy."
Reviving the sport of debate
From all accounts, Worlds, where students traded verbal jabs with the best-of-the-best, has been the most eye-opening event for members of the team so far. Their competitors included barristers-in-training from Australia, graduate students from Japan, members of the Manchester Debating Union, and fellow American undergraduates from Yale and Harvard, among others.
"Americans have so many presuppositions -- that a written constitution or democracies, for example, are good things," explained Pinnes. "But there's no common ground when you're debating with people overseas. There are no set assumptions, so you have to think on your feet and sell your argument."
Those skills, as well as listening and retaining information, were what helped Sam Abady '77 excel in his law career. The champion Colgate debater -- he and partner Matt Morley '78 won the Trans-Atlantic University Speech Association tournament, the World Series of debate of its time -- now makes headlines defending such high-profile clients as Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense and presidential policy adviser; Imad Hage, Lebanese-American businessman and Iraq-U.S. intermediary; and the late diet guru, Dr. Robert Atkins.
"In the heat of a trial, I'll use the same listening and note-taking techniques I used in college debate to formulate and interpose appropriate objections," said Abady. "But in almost any field, you have to make oral presentations, compelling arguments, or just get your point across. Anyone can benefit from the skills you learn in debate."
Harry C. Behler '44, professor of political science emeritus, who is the namesake of and was adviser to the debate society from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, agreed, saying that there is always a place for healthy questioning -- no matter the discipline.
"I always told my students not to be afraid to challenge their professors, as long as they do so with deference and respect," he said. "Most professors love that give-and-take. But I also told them to always be prepared, to have substance behind their arguments."
Lynn Schwarzer, director of the film and media studies program [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Developing media literacy
"The program is intended to give students the skills to enter into a discourse," said Lynn Schwarzer, associate professor of art and art history and director of the program.
John Knecht, professor of art and art history, elaborates: "We have to give students tools to interface with the real world. I say to them all the time, `How do we know what we know?' Film and media studies provides a way of decoding the complicated sea of moving images and sound they're surrounded with in TV, film, and the Internet. We're teaching them media literacy."
At many schools, programs are split into separate tracks for film studies and media studies; however, Colgate's program combines the two, "raising the level of discourse," said Luca Caminati, who teaches Introduction to Film and Media Studies.
In the introductory course, students gain an understanding of the power of images by learning to apply a series of methodological approaches: feminism and gender studies, psychology, Marxism, cultural studies, and postmodernism, in examining everything from underwear advertisements to Italian art films.
"For example, I started the class with a publicity picture from the White House website of President Bush wearing a hat, driving a truck on his ranch," said Caminati. "We did a semiotic analysis [functions of signs and symbols] of the picture that lasted two class periods. At first, students can't believe you can talk for so long about one picture. But with this forceful beginning, I can show that a single image can have the same power as an entire text."
Caminati later put the Bush photograph alongside two similarly constructed images, a scantily clad woman in a hat from a Maxim calendar, and a Renaissance painting of a courtesan wearing a turban. "We talked about what hats signify," said Caminati. "What is the meaning, and why would a hat be there, and how can a hat be viewed, and looking at different hats in history."
Considering the concept that those images were each constructed by someone for a particular purpose, said Schwarzer, "then, when you're in a studio class like video art, you're deciding what the construction is because you are the artist, but you need to articulate that to the class and to your professor -- why you chose this setting, that camera angle, these particular props? That discourse on form and content can take place for work produced by students, by culture, or by artists."
The way the minor is structured, therefore, the theoretical and practical experiences reinforce each other. During film production class, a student excitedly made a connection with a postmodernist book he had read in Caminati's course.
Because these skills are so essential, Knecht and other faculty members have aspirations to introduce a required media literacy course for all students, as a next step for Colgate.
Television producers Chris White '91, Sarah Karlson '93, and Matt Gould '92 showed clips of their work and discussed the world of nonfiction TV with students as part of the Documentary Colgate series last fall. Students commented on the willingness of all the alumni participants to engage in spirited and challenging discussions about their field of work. [Photo by Aubrey Graham '06]
"I wanted my film students to have a dialogue with people who came from the same place," said Knecht, "and who are now doing things that have a national impact, as well as dealing with the nuts and bolts of going to work every day, whether for NBC, or the Discovery Channel, or for themselves trying to get money and make a film."
Take Sarah Karlson '93, for instance. She has interviewed Michael Jackson in New York. She was chased by a goat on assignment in a Mississippi trailer park. And one 3 a.m. in December 2003, her phone rang. Saddam Hussein had been captured, and NBC needed a report right away. Par for the course for Karlson, a producer for the network's TV news program Dateline.
As part of a panel discussion in the Colgate series, Karlson showed a portion of her Saddam capture report, as well as other Dateline story clips she had produced. She was joined by producers of two other very different types of TV documentary, Chris White '91 of PBS's P.O.V. and Matt Gould '93, who makes reality shows for The Discovery Channel/TLC.
Karlson, who had studied with Knecht, was happy to participate. "His classes led me directly to what I'm doing today," she said, explaining that the students asked her tough questions when she visited their class. "What impressed me was they were actually thinking about how to effect change. We got into a really healthy discussion about the responsibilities of network TV in terms of its programming."
Of her Colgate education, Karlson said, "My professors facilitated dialogue without trying to frame our views. I learned to think clearly, distill facts, and formulate an argument. I have to do that every day in my work -- research a story, analyze the information, and explain what is interesting about it in a one-page pitch. In writing a script, I may have to tell the story of a three-year-long event in what ends up being 37 minutes of television."
Bob Connelly '84, who works for National Geographic Television and Film and presented his film Silver Cities of Yucatan: The Mason-Spinden Expedition, noted that "documentary film has the ability to create a variety of discourse. On the surface, the topic being presented inspires discussion, but beneath that is the method used to present the topic: Does the film feign objectivity? Can any film really be objective?" Over dinner with students, Connelly said, a discussion of documentary film realism evolved into a lively consideration of reality television. He noted that the students he met "had real opinions about the world beyond campus. I was impressed by the passion of their own views, and by their willingness to consider others." He said he learned at Colgate "how to ask questions, interpret information, and apply it to other situations."
Christine Naclerio, a senior who hopes to go into television, attended every Documentary Colgate session and said the formula worked for creating discourse on several levels.
"You got to meet the person at dinner to get background about what they do," she said. "After the screening, they would say, 'Ask me questions. Challenge me.' Some of the people who came did controversial things, so it was interesting to ask, `Why are you doing this?' Afterward we would go down to the inn, where you could just talk." At the television panel, Naclerio enjoyed hearing comparisons between different types of documentary TV and said, "We had a good dialogue about where TV media is going."
Senior Fletcher Simer credited the series with gelling his interest in becoming a filmmaker. Beyond the visits themselves, Simer said that several alumni, including Connelly, were extremely helpful in providing career advice and contacts.
Audience members chat before the Student Lecture Forum, a competition where students learn how to distill ideas into concise points and practice public speaking by giving a formal 10-minute presentation on a paper they wrote for class. [Photo by Aubrey Graham '06]
One instance showing the program's early success occurred in a first-year residence hall: students were forgetting to pick up their clothes from the laundry room, and others became frustrated by continually finding the machines full. The community council met to brainstorm, centering their conversation on the challenges of communication and the fact that the residents didn't all know each other. Their self-devised solution: a large whiteboard mounted near the machines as a signup and reservation chart, complete with name, room number, and phone number. A thankful student later commented: "It solved the laundry issue by working on the larger issue of community. We also learned that we could solve a common problem."
The members of the Broad Street Community Council, representing all residences on Broad Street including Greek-letter organizations, college-owned houses, and theme houses, spent countless hours in weekly discourse this year, determining how they wanted to govern themselves.
"For some, it became the first place where they sit in a circle with 30 people who all have completely different reasons for being there," said Jennifer Adams, associate dean of the college. "We kept emphasizing that their governance structure has to come from what their issues, goals, and strategies become. Some controversial debates and really good discussions have come out of that. There were good examples of people who disagreed, but at the next meeting recognized that they still respected each other and could move on to the next conversation."
By mid-February, the council had written a mission statement, established an executive board structure, and held committee chair elections. "They have come a long way," she said.
During meetings, Adams and other professional staff members serve as observers and mentors. They report that investing time to provide one-on-one feedback is the most effective way to teach students how to engage in productive conversation in an adult manner.
"If we see someone who had a great idea but wasn't able to articulate it, we'll grab them afterward for lunch or a meeting and say, `Hey, I just want to talk to you about the meeting last night. Do you think you got your point across? Why not?' and give them some observations on how they could better articulate their ideas," said Adams. "We have seen a really positive difference in quite a few students."
Residence halls can serve as sites for a rich "politics of the everyday,'" as Weinberg calls these encounters, demonstrating the residential education program's power to contribute to the democratic principles of civic discourse.
Up from here
"Today, we are taught not to argue, not to ruffle feathers," she said. "That's not productive, because people will always disagree. What we're doing at Colgate is showing students the best way to express their opinions and challenge others without being threatening. I think we're going to be pushing the envelope in that area more and more."
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