Kenyon College student developing FIRE guidebook hopes to change campus culture around discussing tough topics

October 29, 2020

In an era of bitter disagreements on America’s college campuses — including about whether some topics are even up for debate — there’s no roadmap for students facing difficult discussions. 

Elizabeth Stanley wants to give them one.

Stanley, a Kenyon College senior and former FIRE intern, is working with FIRE’s Student Network to help produce a how-to guide for college students to have productive discussions about divisive topics.

“The change in thinking that needs to happen is that having these conversations is exciting. It’s not threatening. It’s exciting,” Stanley said. “It’s a chance for you to learn about other people’s opinions, but also about your own.”

FIRE’s student discourse guide includes step-by-step breakdowns on everything from recruiting a diverse array of participants to talk to each other, to choosing topics based on how controversial they are, to reframing students’ thinking about tough conversations as something positive.

“As we know, the environment on college campuses right now around free speech and free expression could be improved,” Stanley said. “The idea is to encourage open debate among students with different viewpoints. To give students a space specifically designed for this kind of discussion, and the techniques they need, to teach them that it’s safe and totally okay to have different viewpoints and that, in fact, they should. They’re on a university campus, and we should be encouraging that kind of discussion.”

Molly Nocheck, FIRE’s Vice President of Student Outreach, said students want to talk about fraught issues. They’re just not sure how to start.

“Time and time again, students were telling us that opportunities for candid, open conversations were scarce on campus,” Nochek said. “We’re creating this guide to give students a roadmap for creating space for productive dialogue on campus. We also hope the discourse guide can help students cultivate a culture of free speech at their schools.”

“Elizabeth’s leadership on the project allowed the guide to grow beyond its original form and encapsulate a plethora of different student experiences and pieces of advice,” Nocheck added.

Students discuss a topic at FIRE Student Network Conference.Discourse groups help students come together to discuss tough topics. FIRE's Student Network facilitates these kinds of conversations at its events.

Among the guide’s suggestions is topic selection based on how difficult a discussion is expected to be — what Stanley calls its “spice” or “heat” level. Students start at mild and work their way up to issues that are less palatable.

“The first level is a topic that causes minimal sensitivity but still provokes debate. ‘Was Brexit good or bad for the EU?’” Level two is more sensitive: “‘Is there a tension between personal freedoms and equality?’ or ‘How paternalistic should the US government be?’,” Stanley said. “And then level three would be something like ‘Should the American police system be abolished, or should it be reformed?’”

“Having these conversations is exciting. It’s not threatening. It’s exciting.”

Stanley’s own student experience has shown her that colleges and universities need more than good policies to protect free speech — they need a culture where students are committed to engaging with big ideas and learning to disagree productively. She thinks dedicated discourse groups, like the ones FIRE’s guide promotes, could upend the pervasive mindset of avoiding difficult conversations.

“The problem is in seeing difficult conversation topics, controversial conversation topics, as threatening to yourself. When we start thinking about them that way, we start running away from having really interesting, really deep, world-changing kinds of conversations,” she said. “You don’t change minds, you don’t achieve change, unless you’re able to really come to the table with people with whom you disagree. And honestly and authentically, try to have those conversations.”

Nochek said FIRE’s guide is slated for release in Summer 2021. 

“The discourse guide is a comprehensive resource not only for students looking to create new campus organizations, but also for students who would like to add components of the guide to their existing organizations,” she said. “FIRE needs courageous students to step up and make space for dialogue on campus. A campus culture that appreciates free expression will be better equipped to recognize the signs of censorship, and hold people in power accountable when censorship occurs.”

Stanley, who will graduate by the time the guide is finalized, hopes other students rise to the challenge of making discourse groups a reality.

“I think it would be amazing to have one of these on every college campus.”

For more on how you can help improve the free speech culture on your campus, find ways to promote debate and discussion, and more — check out all the resources available at the FIRE Student Network.

Schools:  Kenyon College