Faculty Network interview: Leila Brammer, University of Chicago

October 20, 2020

We’re adding a new feature on our Newsdesk, in which we interview members of our Faculty Network to discuss their research, teaching, and advocacy on free expression at their institutions. This month, we interviewed Leila Brammer, director of the Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse at the University of Chicago. 

Interviews are conducted via email, and are lightly edited for length and clarity. They will run on FIRE’s Newsdesk about once a month.

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FIRE: First, I’d love for you to tell readers about the Parrhesia Program and how it incorporates the Chicago principles into the undergraduate curriculum. Can you talk a little about its overall philosophy and your mandate for bringing it to fruition? 

Leila Brammer: Rooted in the University of Chicago Principles of Free Expression, the Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse offers an innovative undergraduate curriculum in the theory and practice of public discourse. Parrhesia, to speak freely and openly, signifies the program’s commitment to foster the vigorous, inclusive, and productive discourse. The Parrhesia Program provides courses in the theory and practice of rhetoric, workshops to cultivate communicative competencies, symposia and lectures on free expression, and outreach to faculty and institutions to advance and embed the discursive practices necessary for free and open discourse in curricula, programming, and campus life. 

Reflecting this discursive approach, in the foundational public speaking course students learn to address contentious issues through employing the entire rhetorical process — understanding the situation and the tensions between different perspectives, constructing evidence-based arguments, and creating fitting responses for various audiences. Other courses examine and actively engage students in political discourse, public dialogue and deliberation, and the history and theory of rhetoric and free expression. We are developing a certificate and an interdisciplinary course cluster including courses in history, political science, and psychology.

Leila Brammer, director of the Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse at the University of Chicago. Leila Brammer, director of the Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse at the University of Chicago.

Could you walk us through the trajectory that brought you to the University of Chicago and to this program? I’m curious to hear how your prior training prepared you to take on a program as unique as this. 

For over 30 years, I have studied and taught courses in public discourse. I previously spent 13 years as a department chair, where I developed a nationally-recognized course in civic advocacy and a civic learning curriculum. I also established a public deliberation and dialogue program to support inclusive, evidence-based discourse on contentious campus and community issues. The opportunity at the University of Chicago to build a program at the nexus of free expression, rhetoric, and democracy was and is a compelling challenge and platform for advancing vigorous discourse as a critical academic and democratic practice. 

Perhaps you saw that the University of Chicago came in first overall in our recently released rankings assessing the climate for free expression at more than 50 major institutions. Chicago receives a “green light” speech code rating from FIRE, and it’s of course the home of the Chicago principles on free expression. What role do you think strong and clear policies have in setting expectations for free expression on campus, and what more do you think universities need to do to give those policies real weight?

Just as universities commit to preparing students to write well, the ability to effectively engage with others in a variety of communicative contexts is critical to academic, professional, personal, and civic life.

Universities must have strong declarations of the principles and policies that clearly establish freedom of expression as essential to the academic mission of testing and honing ideas and discovering knowledge. Beyond the principles and policies, academic free expression is a discursive practice requiring the individual and collective capacities to actively seek and engage differences and disagreements. The dearth of preparation, experience, and models hinders open and vigorous discourse and is often the source for controversies and divisions faced on campuses, in communities, and in families. Just as universities commit to preparing students to write well, the ability to effectively engage with others in a variety of communicative contexts is critical to academic, professional, personal, and civic life. In order to fully embrace and enact academic free expression, universities must embed the practice and productive models for talking about, with, and across differences in the curriculum, in student life, and throughout campus culture. Strong statements of principles and policies coupled with an integrated approach to the practice of vigorous, open, and inclusive public discourse would transform the educational environment and result in an enviably resilient campus culture, one better prepared to collectively face controversies and crises. 

COVID-19, of course, has turned the traditional classroom experience upside down. How has the Parrhesia program had to adapt and innovate in this new environment?

Similar to the experience of other programs and faculty, the rapid move to a remote environment influenced courses and significantly altered or delayed outreach and programming. COVID arrived just as we were launching a number of new initiatives and forced us to be more creative in our instruction and programming. Students seem particularly hungry for connection and conversation, and remote technology offers opportunities to extend the reach of the program through more presentations to larger and more diverse audiences. We have learned much during this time about the potential of well-utilized remote formats that can valuably inform how we approach our return to in-person courses and programming.

Lastly, is it too early to measure what kind of returns you might be getting on students’ engagement with the program, and has it given the university any thoughts on how it might continue developing the program?

Yes and yes. Despite the setbacks of COVID and not offering a major or a minor, students express a great deal of interest in the Parrhesia Program, and we are building capacity to reach more students with courses and programs related to their interests and areas of study. This fall, I am teaching a very lively course on political discourse and the presidential election. In addition, the Program seeks to collect and research curricular, campus, and community practices and be a resource for faculty, student life professionals, and institutions. This summer, in the first phase in a larger integrated outreach imitative, the Program will pilot high school and university faculty seminars on free expression, discourse, and curriculum development.