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As a University of
Delaware senior with a double major in biochemistry and statistics,
Sabrina Barr doesn’t have a lot of classes that allow for the discussion
of current events, political controversies and social issues — she’s
too busy focusing on science.
So when, as a favor to her roommate, she signed up for a new initiative encouraging such conversations among students, the experience was eye-opening.
“There were so many different perspectives in the [discussion] group I
was part of, not just race and gender differences, but different
lifestyles, different backgrounds,” Barr said. “We all agreed to be
respectful, so it was a really easy way to talk about challenging things
but in a setting that’s comfortable.”
That experience is exactly the kind of encounter that the initiative
is aiming for as it prepares to hold more such events this semester,
according to Lindsay Hoffman, associate professor of communication and
associate director of the Center for Political Communication
(CPC) at UD. Hoffman, who has been encouraging students to engage in
civil discourse through many different courses and programs at the
University, sees this new project as a way to provide students with
training and opportunities to have open discussions about today’s
In addition, she plans to use her social science expertise not only
to give students skills that foster civil discourse but also to
objectively assess the effectiveness of those strategies. Her plans are
to conduct ongoing research to measure what types of interventions help
students become more open to new ideas and different viewpoints.
“Students tell me they don’t know how to talk to people who disagree
with them,” Hoffman said. “I’m looking to provide structured
conversations in small groups, guided by a trained facilitator, that
will equip our students with the tools they can use in other
discussions. That’s how real change happens—in small settings, with
people talking and listening respectfully.”
To learn more about the UDelEngage project, visit the program's website.
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Lindsay Hoffman will research what types of interventions help students become more open to new ideas and different views.
The small-group discussions, among
other initiatives that Hoffman is calling “UDelEngage,” are similar to
efforts by the national organization, Living Room Conversations, which works to heal society by connecting people across divides.
The UDelEngage project, which is supported by a grant from the
Heterodox Academy, was partially inspired by Hoffman’s leadership of the
CPC’s National Agenda series, which brings prominent speakers to campus
each fall to discuss varied points of view on a range of topics.
National Agenda is also an academic class in which students host and
interact with the speakers.
“I wanted to take what I’ve been doing with National Agenda and other
civil-discourse initiatives and scale it up for students who aren’t
political science or communication majors,” Hoffman said. “These are not
conversations that only take place in a classroom. This generation of
students wants to be involved, they want to speak up and make a
difference. It’s incumbent on us to help them do that at a time in their
lives when they’re learning how to be effective and responsible
In addition to leading National Agenda, Hoffman has worked with
students to offer a less structured opportunity to engage in respectful
discussions with others, joining with the national Free Intelligent Conversation
project that encourages random passers-by to stop and chat about issues
of their choice. She also helped lead students in voter registration
and engagement efforts; UD has been recognized nationally in recent
years for its success in those efforts.
“Although our campus was once largely apolitical, our initiatives
have demonstrated that real change can happen on this campus,” Hoffman
wrote in her grant application. “Students can be motivated to become
effective citizens while they are in a formative time in their lives.”
Two pilot UDelEngage sessions were held during fall semester, with
four more planned this spring, in addition to an upcoming symposium and
residence life programming. Participants are provided with resources,
suggested topics for discussion and a facilitator to guide the group in
ways to express ideas and listen and respond to others. Refreshments
will also be on hand.
“I don't recall a time when anyone got loud with each other or
disrespected one another,” said senior Trey Deputy, a member of the Blue
Hen Veterans student group who took part in one of the UDelEngage
sessions in the fall and described the experience of sharing opinions as
enjoyable. “[Hoffman] always emphasized having a respectful dialogue
with each other and also branching out from your comfort zone or social
Hoffman hopes that kind of student experience will become common.
“I’d like to change the narrative around civil discourse,” she said.
“I’d like students to look back and say: UD was a place where I could
express my views and I was also exposed to different views.”
Article by Ann Manser, illustration by Christian Derr, photo by Evan Krape
Originally published February 18, 2022