By Kate Arenchild | Contributing Writer

In an attempt to help craft a better Seminar classroom, the Intercultural Center (IC) hosted a series of workshops entitled “Tools for Difficult Dialogues.” The IC offered two introductory workshops on Tuesday, Sept. 12 and Wednesday, Sept. 13. An advanced workshop was also scheduled for the following day,  Sept. 14, but was cancelled.

Desiree Anderson, the Director of the IC, organized these workshops in collaboration with Joseph Zeccardi, Rashaan Meneses, Frank Murray, and David Arndt of the Seminar Program and Corliss Watkins from Student Engagement and Success (SEAS). Anderson did not clarify the Seminar Department’s level of involvement in the creation of the program.

“[The purpose of these workshops] is to ‘help students engage in conversation more effectively—to not shut down ideas or attack people, but to be able to further the conversation,” said Anderson during the Sept. 12 workshop.

Anderson, who facilitated the workshop, said she does not have personal experience as a student or professor in the program, but she has “many of the materials offered in the various Seminars.” Three Seminar faculty members were in attendance, none of whom were involved with the creation of the program.  From a show of hands, it appeared that the majority of students in attendance were required to attend for their classes.

Anderson spoke of identities that are “seen” such as age, gender, and race as well as those “unseen” such as political ideologies, religion, and sexual orientation.

She emphasized that identities that are “seen” are not grounds to make a judgement. For example, someone could be “white passing” but identify as Argentinian, or look female, but identify as a male. These identities must be accounted for in the classroom, as they will affect the way one interprets the text.

“[Your identities] are a part of you, [they] inform how you see the world, how you interact with people, and how you read and analyze text,” Anderson clarified in a separate interview with the Collegian. “For me, it is about the recognition that identity plays a role in everything we do.”

“It doesn’t mean I need to know everything about a person’s identity to be able to understand them, but I should be aware that my perspective is just that: my perspective. And it is my responsibility to recognize that others will not see things [in the text] the way I do,” she said.

To illustrate this point, she showed the workshop a few optical illusions, like 

a sketch that could be either a duck or a rabbit, depending on the way one looks at the picture. Anderson used these pictures to speak about the texts we approach in Seminar. “Depending on your social location, gender identity, and personal background, you will see different things in the text,” she argued. “My understanding of the world is shaped by my identities, my cultural background, etc., so when I am talking about text in such a way that is dismissive of other people’s lived experiences, that can be alienating and damaging,” said Anderson.

She spoke of “The Hunger Games” and its casting decisions. Some readers were outraged that Rue, described in the books as “dark haired, dark skinned, with golden eyes,” was portrayed by a black actress. According to them, she should’ve been white. Readers’ social location led to an incorrect interpretation of the text. Anderson emphasized the text’s meaning: Rue is clearly black.

Saundra Alassio and Colin Chan Redemer, two seminar professors, were also in attendance on Sept. 12. Both professors voiced concerns about the event.

Redemer was particularly concerned about the use of the optical illusions. “We do not pick Seminar texts to torment our students. The optical illusions are designed to have two or more obviously contradictory meanings. Seminar texts are chosen to be understood and learned from. They are much more specific, and they exist in historical conversation with one another,” he said. “If we need an image to symbolize the texts, I’d have preferred an image of the sedimentary layers on a canyon wall.”

“There is a range of interpretations of what is going on in a text but that range is bounded. There are wrong answers,” said Redemer. “Anderson [in her presentation] showed that there were clear right and wrong interpretations of the text. Rue is black. To think she is ethnically Scandinavian is a wrong interpretation of the text,” he said.

“The most challenging moment of Seminar is when students are wrong. I fear this training will not help with that moment,” Redemer said. “There are wrong ways to interpret the text. But students understand this, and in my class, when it happens, they show great resilience!”

In a separate interview, Anderson responded to Redemer saying, “Our social identities and social location influence how we read and interpret text. This doesn’t mean that interpretation may not be wrong.”

Alassio attended the program in hope of finding ways to engage her class, and she too left with some misgivings.

She explained that this training may encourage a student to have an opinion about the text and back it up using their personal experience without understanding the text. “Your opinion must be earned. If my students cannot spell Freud’s name, let alone interpret his argument, they cannot come in and tell me his writing isn’t worth reading,” she said. “This is arrogant and offensive and shuts down the conversation. You do not go to college for an opinion. Understanding and evaluating the text are two different things.”

Speaking about Anderson’s recommended approach of focusing on the identities of the room, she said, “People deciding to make it a personal thing, we are getting totally away from what the task is. The task and the challenge. We’re here for the material. It should be the material.”

She was quick to explain that her opinions were in no way a reflection on the merit of Anderson’s goals to promote inclusivity and diversity on campus, but rather that there are two issues in the room: discussing Seminar texts and dealing with social issues. “I am not trying to condemn what she is doing. [But if] you criticize the choice of reading Freud, that doesn’t tell me you know what Freud said, or that you read it,” said Alassio. “It is for you, the student, to be interested in what Freud is saying, why he is saying it, and the relevancy in the period it was written and known. But opinion and criticism do not substitute for analysis.”

Anderson responded to these concerns, saying, “I would love, in the future, for Seminar faculty to develop a workshop that could be facilitated for their students that could bring more specific Seminar text or analysis practice. That was the intention behind the advanced workshop that I did not get to facilitate due to illness.”

This article has 4 comments

  1. I think what is most interesting, and by interesting, I mean frustrating, is that the writer of this article did not obtain any comments from the students who attended this program. Frankly, the disagreement between the Seminar faculty and Anderson, is not something I care about. Some of the most problematic experiences that stem from Seminar, come from the professor itself (or at least this has been my experience when discussing with students). If a student who was at that program, walked away feeling as if they could now hold a fruitful dialogue with a student who they completely disagree with (something that is often provoked when reading such texts) then it seems to me that Anderson did her job and did it well. As for the comment coming from the Seminar professor about our opinions not being warranted in the classroom, I have simply one statement: if you believe that I will not bring my entire lived experience with me in a social and an educational settings, you are quite misguided. Students bring a great deal into the classroom and even when they “stick to the text” these experiences influence their interpretation of the reading. It is with this in mind, that I come tot he conclusion that Anderson was simply trying to address this problem and provide tools for students AND faculty to address the more difficult conversations that originate from these texts.

  2. You failed to get multiple points of view. Of course your biased opinions critiques Desirée and sides with the professors. Even in the way you wrote this, it proves the need for this program. Where do the students come into play? How did they feel about these workshops? What were the positives of such a workshop? It completely lacks student’s opinions and readily attacks Desirée and the IC.

    The purpose of this program was to understand that we all see the world with our experiences and therefore have a certain lens. It is very important to look at the historical context and understand the authors opinion, but where does the author come from? Where do the facilitators, or professors, come from? What do they value? Obviously Alassio believes her students’ opinions must be earned, but why does she get to instill and place value on what content students can bring to the table if the students, of which the course serves, cannot? As students, what have we experienced and how can we relate or counter the arguments made within the text?

    We must acknowledge who is in the room so all voices are included if not, how can we ever learn about and understand others persepectives??

  3. I, too, would love to see someone like Colin Redemer develop and implement a workshop he believes would be beneficial to students understanding of both the seminar texts as well as promoting cross cultural communication and understanding. When the responsibility falls solely on the IC to plan these programs, it is certainly difficult to make everyone happy and to address all concerns being brought to the table. Perhaps some faculty from the seminar department could collaborate and bring their ideas to the table, expressing their concerns with workshop creators ahead of time, and potentially participating in the workshop themselves before sending their students. That way, any critiques may be ironed out and we can avoid back-and-forth critiques through the school newspaper and criticizing those who are putting these programs together on very short notice with limited resources.

  4. Would any of you like to write a Letter to the Editor further explaining your problems with the article and/or seminar program and workshop? If so, let us know, and we would gladly publish it.

    –Dean Boerner, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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