Legal scholar: Fear pervades classroom discussions, but a sense of community can be built

Legal scholar: Fear pervades classroom discussions, but a sense of community can be built

Legal scholar: Fear pervades classroom discussions, but a sense of community can be built

(Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Creative Commons.)

Amelia J. Uelmen is a professor in the law school at Georgetown University and a major leader with the Focolare movement. She spoke to Crux about her new book, "5 Steps to Healing Polarization in the Classroom: Insights and Examples."

[Editor’s Note: Amelia J. Uelmen is a professor in the law school at Georgetown University and a major leader with the Focolare movement, a lay association founded in 1943 by Italian laywoman Chiara Lubich. Uelmen’s new book – co-written with Michael Kessler – is 5 Steps to Healing Polarization in the Classroom: Insights and Examples. The book is a practical guide that helps teachers and students to foster a learning environment where even the most difficult and divisive issues can be discussed. She spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: What is your sense of “how we’re doing” with polarization and difference in the classroom at the moment?

Uelmen: I think it is a particularly difficult moment for many teachers and students who hope to create space to discuss controversial questions. Current social and political tensions have heightened fears, making many reluctant to wade into deeper waters.

We are especially anxious to avoid inadvertently offending those who hold a different perspective. When this kind of fear pervades a classroom discussion, it is difficult to take the kinds of risks that can lead to deeper insight and growth. But the silver lining is that precisely these challenges and these stakes lead us to dig a little bit deeper, to search for more creative solutions.

Is it fair to say this is a particular instance of something else that is going on in the culture?

Yes, I think tensions in the classroom mirror the broader challenges in the culture. The constant avalanche of information and stimulus make it difficult to reflect enough to gather our own thoughts. As one of my students reflecting on a controversial question put it: “I realized that I don’t even know what I think.” Further, in so many aspects of our cultural life – all forms of media, how we interact in community spaces, recreation – we experience a growing divide that makes it difficult to even meet each other across different political, social, cultural or ideological perspectives. And even when we do try to connect across serious divides, we seem to have a very difficult time understanding each other. But here too, the silver lining is the increasing awareness that we need to be deliberate in our efforts to bridge the gaps.

I know the people who live the Focolare spirituality are particularly interested in trying to address this aspect of the culture. Can you say more about that?

The Focolare Movement hopes to be at the service of building unity in the Church and in the world, inspired by the prayer of Jesus to the Father, “That all may be one.” (John 17:21)

Reflecting on this commitment with the communities here in the United States, as early as 2005 we realized that notwithstanding our efforts to live the spirituality of unity, we too were finding it difficult to bridge the gap when it came to discussions about politics. For this reason, we began hosting a series of community workshops on citizenship in light of the spirituality.

We focused especially on learning how to be more attentive in listening to each other as we work through our political differences. We continue to struggle, but we are trying. For myself, I was able to bring much of what I learned through these community efforts into my work in the classroom.

Back to the classroom. Can you highlight some things readers will likely take away from your new book? Perhaps especially if they are teachers or administrators trying to foster and manage disagreement and dialogue?

For me the highlight of the book is the voices of our students who tested out the “five steps” that we propose. I hope one big takeaway from reflection on the steps is to welcome the invitation to explore the interplay between personal accompaniment and the creation of a sense of community in a classroom.

In my experience, when in the various encounters with their professor – in class, in office hours conversation, or in how their writing is received – students sense that a teacher is truly listening in a way that opens the door to sharing their deeper questions and even struggles – they often “pay it forward” to their classmates, learning how to welcome and listen to their seminar colleagues, even those who come from a very different perspective.

A second suggestion is grounded in an appreciation for how students in the millennial generation find connections with each other in their shared questions – even when they may not agree on the answers. The book offers a few tips on how to make those shared questions transparent prior to stepping into a conversation, in order to foster greater openness and trust from the beginning of the classroom discussion.

I’m guessing the spirituality of unity – both in terms of overall ethos and specific strategies – looms large in this project?

For me it does. The Focolare spirituality encourages people to make an effort to enter as deeply as possible into another person’s reality – to “make ourselves one,” or as St. Paul put it, “I have become all things to all people.” (1 Cor. 9:22) Perhaps for this reason I love the tenderness and reverence that Pope Francis conveys when he uses an image that is frequently invoked to indicate the presence of God — the burning bush — to encourage us to learn how to “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” (cf. Ex 3:5) (Evangelii Gaudium, 169)

As I enter into a conversation with a person with whom I may encounter strong differences of opinion, this image helps me to assume a posture of respect for the dignity of the other and for the sacredness of their story — and to place that respect above the eagerness to get my point across. Before we have small group discussions in our seminar, we use this image to challenge students to “take off their shoes” so as to assume a similar posture of respect.

Especially for law students who are intensely focused on honing the skill and craft of argument, these kinds of exercises can help to heal an otherwise myopic focus on whether they agree or disagree with others. Several of our students have shared the impact these suggestions have had not only on their conversations in school, but also in relationships with their friends and family.

A second element of the Focolare spirituality that I hold especially dear is the effort to recognize the face of Christ when teaching brings me into contact with suffering. In the midst of these difficult conversations I can find his face in the struggles of the people we encounter as we discuss the issues; in the challenges and limitations of the students; and also in how they might surface my own limitations as a person and as a teacher.

I remember one class last fall where I really stumbled precisely into the pitfalls of over-simplified binary thinking that I was trying to help the students to avoid. My team teacher, and even some of the students, gently and graciously steered us back on course.

By some measures that class would have been a personal disaster. But because of the trust that we had built, the following week I was able to publicly admit my mistakes thank my team teacher and the students for helping to create the kind of atmosphere where we could truly learn from each other.

For me a God who takes the tremendous risk of exposing himself to human fragility and violence – even to the point of crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – is the model for taking the risk of stepping into the gap of polarization, to expose ourselves to potential tensions and misunderstandings. From there, we can entrust ourselves into God’s own hands, so that Love can work the miracle of helping us find connections we may not have anticipated. Every class is a risk, and whenever the group comes together as a community, I experience it as a miracle of God’s own work in each person and in our relationships.

Important Note from John L. Allen Jr.:

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