February 29, 2024

JMU Professor Lori Britt on Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

Photo of Professor Lori Britt
Lori Britt
James Madison University

Meet Dr. Lori L. Britt, professor and Director of the School of Communication Studies at James Madison University, and Co-Director of JMU’s Institute for Constructive Advocacy & Dialogue. She’s an Institute for Citizens & Scholars 2023 Faculty Institute Fellow, part of College Presidents for Civic Preparedness. Designed as a “community of practice,” the Faculty Institute brings together 30 multidisciplinary participants from 20 institutions. Faculty members gain the skills to redesign or create new courses that promote dialogue across difference and become campus champions for these goals.

In our interview below, Dr. Britt shares insights into her Faculty Institute experience and how it has impacted her classroom instruction, particularly in the course, “Facilitating Public and Organizational Engagement Processes” (SCOM 447).

C&S: How has the Faculty Institute helped shape your course design and pedagogy?

Dr. Britt: The Institute helped me see ways that I could adapt my existing course to highlight more civic topics. I have been teaching a course that helps students gain the skills and knowledge needed to design and facilitate productive conversations on campus and in the community. For many of our practice discussions in the class, I have used topics they all have knowledge of – campus parking, campus dining options, course enrollment – but this Institute encouraged me to push students a bit more. We engaged in discussions about inviting controversial speakers to campus, talking about the political divide, etc.

C&S: What is unique about this group and what have you been able to learn from the faculty of other institutions that are different from JMU?

Dr. Britt: I learned what this work can look like across a variety of disciplines and I learned how others navigate the tensions of helping students talk about challenging issues in ways that are invitational to those with a wide variety of perspectives. I just wish we had regular opportunities for face-to-face connection and continued discussion and growth.

C&S: What is the value of collaborating and sharing best practices?

Dr. Britt: It is always helpful to refresh your approach and to gain ideas from others who operate in schools with different climates and issues in their regions. One of the ideas I would love to explore is partnering with another Faculty Institute member to have cross-campus/course dialogues between students so that students can also gain from these different perspectives. This is especially useful for those of us who teach at PWIs with limited diversity.

C&S: Is there something about this work that has challenged or surprised you?

Dr. Britt: It continually amazes me how much confidence students can gain to lean into difficult conversations with a spirit of curiosity after experiencing what productive talk can look like.

C&S: In their reflections (see below), your students say they developed skills to facilitate difficult conversations, deepened their empathy and understanding, and expressed optimism in bridging divides following their experience in your class. What other ways are you seeing a difference in your classroom, and what do you hope students ultimately take away from your classes?

Dr. Britt: I always tell students that what they have gained is the ability to help shape any conversation they are a part of in more productive ways by modeling the habits, mindset, and skills they have gained. This is what I see them leave with. And I also see them leave with a better sense of how people must work together in communities to address public issues. I have been saying for years that this communication course also serves as a back-door approach to learning about local governmental and citizen advocacy processes.

C&S: Why are open dialogue and critical inquiry necessary for a thriving democracy?

Dr. Britt: If we continue to shape spaces where people can come together and talk across differences, we experience each other’s humanity and stop painting each other with broad generalizations and making assumptions about what drives others. When we engage in deep meaningful conversations, we learn others care about many of the same things we do, which can be a starting point to find mutually acceptable ways to address the real issues we are facing.

Below are student reflections on the final class day of Dr. Britt’s SCOM 447 class, answering the question, “How have your beliefs changed about the ability for people to talk and work together about challenging issues?”

  • “I believe people are more tolerant and willing to listen than I initially thought. I am hopeful that with competent facilitators, it is possible to get any group of people to have a productive discussion.”
  • “I am more hopeful. People are willing to talk and be open-minded when they are given the space to feel comfortable to do so. We want to pit one another against each other, but we are all very similar and realize that if we were willing to talk and connect.”
  • “Honestly, I hate discussing politics and even though it wasn’t the main focus of this class, SCOM 447 made me see different approaches to this kind of hard conversation. When you set group agreements and are intentional, it can be a safer conversation.”
  • “I have learned that good conversation is possible through thoughtful planning and hard work. This is not as hard as I initially thought it would be. Thank you! One of the most educational classes I have ever taken.”
  • “People are more willing/wanting to work together than I believed. After my facilitation on the political divide, I had more hope that we can work together civilly. Most people just don’t have the resources to do so.”
  • “I believe that making personal connections before the controversial conversation begins helps level the playing field and allows for people to be more respectful and open-minded.”