April 1, 2024

Overcoming Polarization: Building Bridges in the College Classroom

Photo of Janett Cordoves
Janett I. Cordovés
Institute for Citizens & Scholars
Photo from the Faculty Development Institute at Duke University

Photo: Faculty Institute at Duke University

Embarking on my professional journey, I’ve keenly observed pervasive cues and norms – particularly the avoidance of discussing religion and politics – that are symptomatic of the broader issues of polarization, tribalism, and divisiveness entrenched in American life and higher education.

This is in stark contrast to my upbringing in a household that valued free speech and religious freedom, grounded in the principles of the First Amendment. My parents’ experiences, imprisoned and exiled for advocating the right to read and express dissent, instilled in me a deep commitment to these foundational values. Yet in PACE’s 2024 Civic Language Perceptions Project, words like “patriotism,” “freedom” and  “diversity” have been corrupted to equal your political affiliation.

There’s also research from FIRE and the Polarization Research Lab that underscores the increasing polarization and politicization of personal beliefs. Over half of respondents said their community should not allow a public speech that espouses beliefs they find offensive. What’s more, 69% said their local college should not allow a professor who espoused that belief to teach classes. This stifles conversations and learning about politics and religion and leads to individuals being dismissed based on their affiliations. We are left with little to no room to engage, ask meaningful questions, and simply be curious.

In my years working in higher education, and in my current role at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, these findings align with my observations of the conflation and weaponization of religion and politics happening on college campuses around the country, exacerbated recently by the Israel-Hamas War. But there’s reason for optimism, as Citizens & Scholars is tackling this derailed train.

The College Presidents for Civic Preparedness consortium is designing interventions with ideologically diverse college presidents, faculty, partners, and funders to find solutions. By joining unlikely alliances, we’re working together and creating innovations for this uniquely polarized time. One of those initiatives is the Faculty Institute, which brings together interdisciplinary junior and tenured faculty to focus on the following:

  • Increase faculty members’ capacity, commitment, and comfort level in engaging across lines of political difference in meetings, classrooms, and communities.
  • Strengthen the ability to teach skills for dissent in the classroom by incorporating methods into an existing course or developing a new one.
  • Expand and establish a network of faculty committed to this area of teaching.
  • Launch the development process for a new course or revise and teach an existing course to address and practice dialogue across differences within three semesters of completing the institute.
  • Explore and test ways of scaling new approaches to discourse on campus with colleagues across disciplines and academic leadership.

The Faculty Institute is having a positive impact on creating a network of faculty, as well as pedagogical and practical changes to classroom design and the field of higher education in general. We had over 30 faculty members and 18 institutions participate in the 2023-2024 cohort. Our survey of their experience found that 77% understand how to structure courses to encourage dialogue across difference with 94% giving positive responses on the usefulness of the Institute. Professor Lori Britt at James Madison University is one example, who redesigned her course “Facilitating Public and Organizational Engagement Processes” (SCOM 447). Her students submitted encouraging reflections on their ability to deepen empathy and understanding and expressed optimism in bridging divides after taking her class.

As the developer of the Faculty Institute and as a Christian grappling with faith and politics in this current landscape, I also think about Michael Wear’s book, The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life, which asks “What kind of person would I like to be? What kind of politics would I like to contribute to building?” In the Faculty Institute, we grapple with questions like these. We practice grace and gratitude, seek to understand, and create genuine opportunities for robust intellectual engagement first with one another and then amongst our students. During our in-person convenings and in our classrooms, we create spaces for individuals of all faiths and backgrounds to focus on engagement and collective problem-solving.

In our upcoming 2024 Faculty Institute, which has garnered heightened interest, we will continue to equip faculty and educational leaders with the tools to navigate and counteract the broader societal trends highlighted by the data. The Faculty Institute curriculum, alongside the community of purpose, will empower more educators from diverse disciplines to engage students across differences and help them become effective citizens. Despite the formidable challenges presented by the current state of affairs, these efforts align with the imperative to address polarization and contribute to building a more resilient and inclusive democracy.