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WriteCast Episode 36: Social Change and Difficult Conversations

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© Walden University Writing Center 2017

 

BRITTANY: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson,

 

BETH: and I’m Beth Nastachowski.

 

BRITTANY: In today’s episode, we’re reflecting on the challenging political conversations we’ve been having in our families and communities lately and what we can learn from academic writing about how to have more productive conversations. So Beth, I’m eager to talk about today’s topic and I’m also a little bit apprehensive because I think it’s maybe slightly outside of the norm for us on this podcast, and just to kind of give our listeners a sense of what we’re thinking, we aren’t really planning to give you any advice today or any guidance which is what we’ve sort of become accustomed to in previous episodes. Instead, we are more interested in having a conversation about how Walden’s social change mission can help us understand and explore some of the things that are happening in the United States and the world today. And, so Beth, that’s one of the reasons why I’m apprehensive but also why I’m excited to talk about this topic because I think social change is something that, even if that’s not the term that gets attached to it, is getting talked about a lot in our country right now and is creating conflict in our country I think because different people have different views of how things should be changing and what that social change should look like that’s creating some tensions between different groups of people and families and groups of friends and communities. And, so I’m eager to talk today a little bit about how we can try and explore and understand some of what’s been happening when it comes to the sort of differing visions for our country that we’re seeing coming out on Facebook and in the news and in people’s conversations with one another over the last weeks and months.

 

BETH: I totally agree, Brittany. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is we do have this mission of social change at Walden and students think a lot about social change in their coursework, in their writing, and in their different classes and of course that social change and the things that people are passionate about aren’t left in the classroom—those are things that people are thinking about and working on and talking about in their work lives, in their personal lives, and all those other contacts that you mentioned in their community. So, I think it’s really interesting to think more about how that vision for social change that you might have manifests itself in the quote un quote real world and not necessarily just in the Walden classroom because they’re both connected, and I think that’s a really important part of why I love working with Walden students but not always something we talk about since we are so focused on writing in the classroom. So, I wondering if we could just start this conversation in talking about social change, our vision for social change—I don’t know Brittany, for me, one of the biggest things that I’ve been really struggling with is how to really understand where people are coming from when I’m talking about topics in politics and the things that are going on and making sure that I’m really clearly expressing the place that I’m coming from and how to connect those viewpoints right?

 

BRITTANY: Yeah.

 

BETH: 'Cause people are coming from different places and with different experiences and trying to sort of meet in the middle somewhere where what I’m saying isn’t getting lost and what their saying isn’t getting lost and kind of understanding where we’re both coming from.

 

BRITTANY: Yeah, I have had those experiences too and I image many of our listeners have as well, and I think, you know one of the things that is really interesting to me, I mean as painful as it can be, about the kinds of difficult conversations that we’re having in our communities right now in the United States is that it’s sort of highlighting this fact that point-of-view is really, really important and can really color the way that people interpret their world and it kind of makes me think about the way that we talk about social change at Walden and just even the way that we talk about academic writing overall as writing teachers. You know a lot of time we talk about keeping the subjective, detached voice and not trying to use emotional appeals or really sticking to the facts and those kinds of things as being beneficial to you as a scholar in terms of your ability to persuade your reader, and I stand by that as the, you know, a tool for academic writing, certainly, but I think what we’re discovering is that in order for that to be effective, there has to be a community of people that agree that that’s the way they’re going to communicate and that that’s the way that they’re going to make arguments and because it seems like right now in our wider public discourse we don’t have that agreed upon set of rules we have to kind of go back to the drawing board when it comes to what we do with our emotions, what we do with our real world point-of-view and it has king of made me back up when I think about the way that I talk with Walden students about social change and wonder, and I’m not making any kind of definitive statement here, this is just my own kind of exploring in my mind about the way that we talk about this, but it makes me wonder about how practical it really is to ask people to detach emotionally from their particular chosen social mission because that is gonna color, as we’ve seen in these conversations, it really, your point-of-view, where you grew up, the kind of life that you’ve had, the kind of people that you know, the thinks that you’ve seen and experienced, all those things impact the way that you view the world and the sort of vision that you have for what it means to have a good world and that makes these conversations really tough when we can’t all have that agreed upon premise to start from.

 

BETH: Yeah, I mean I think that’s what makes these sorts of conversations so different than academic writing. When we’re talking about social change in academic writing, the audience and the purpose are sort of set, right?

 

BRITTANY: Right, they’re very narrow.

 

BETH: Yeah. Yeah, and they’re removed as well, so you’re audience and your purpose are sort of removed, their set, their narrow, and when we’re talking about that sort of same vision, or that same idea of social change, or your political ideas, or your view points, when you take that into the real world you’re talking with people who you know and you love and they’re bringing their own sort of background to those discussions and so it makes it much harder, I think. I think those conversations are harder—

 

BRITTANY: Yeah.

 

BETH: —because everyone’s brining more with them to those conversations, if that makes sense.

 

BRITTANY: Mmm.

 

BETH: When we think about academic writing, I almost feel like, I like to say that, as the author, you’re sort of supposed to check your biases and leave them at the door when you enter that writer role and, conceivably, a reader should do that too—they should kind of check those biases at the door and kind of come to that—you’re kind of meeting at this place where you’re focusing on the evidence objective but that doesn’t happen in other conversations, right? Because you’re bringing everything with you,

 

BRITTANY: Mmm.

 

BETH: and that I feel like sort of brings a richness to those conversations, 'cause you can pull from more to have those conversations than you can in academic writing, but it makes it a lot tougher, that’s what I’ve found—they’re hard.

 

BRITTANY: Yeah—they’re really hard, and they’re exhausting. I think, to your point though about the sort of narrowness of academic discourse versus the broadness of the public political discourse that we’re seeing right now, that’s a really good point, and I wonder, I mean I know we already said we weren’t going to learn any lessons from academic writing in this episode, but I think I just discovered one because there is something to be said for narrowing down your topic. I mean we give students that advice all the time—we say “woah,” you taking on a lot for one paper, part of that is just for practical purposes you know, there’s just not enough time to do good research on a huge, broad topic for one course or even for one dissertation or doctoral study. You know there’s a lot of research out there on a lot of different things, and in order for a researcher to do their due diligence and really immerse themselves in a topic, that topic does have to be pretty narrow. And, so, I do think there’s something to be learned from that when it comes to the kinds of conversations that we’re having with our friends and loved ones and community members right now which is that a lot of times these conversations it feels like we’re trying to solve all the world’s problems in one conversation which is impossible. I say that out loud and it’s obvious, and I think everybody would agree with me that it’s obvious, but we don’t maybe have the same tools as academics build over the course of a degree program—we don’t have those same tools in those kinds of conversations that are less grounded in a sort of set of standards or rules to say “hold on, the scope is too broad here, let’s narrow down, let’s pick one thing, you know, let’s do our research, let’s come back”— there’s no process, and you know that process and those standards and guidelines that we have to guide us for academic writing are really helpful in preventing us from becoming overwhelmed, and so I wonder, I mean I don’t know what that would look like, to invent something like that for community conversations or conversations around the Thanksgiving dinner table or all these places where we’re coming into conflict with one another, but I think there’s something to be said for that.

 

BETH: I think your point too is that we can find more common ground that way, right? So, if you do find that someone disagrees with you on a political issue or on how you’d like to, you know, create social change—something that you’re passionate about—you may find that overall you have ten different things that you’re talking about and maybe you could find some common ground in one or two of them and then make some progress that way and have more of a productive conversation cause I think that’s the thing that I’ve been struggling with is making sure that when I’m talking with people who disagree for various reasons making sure that that’s a productive conversation and not a conversation that sort of just saps both sides from their emotional energy or ability to continue to talk about these things cause that’s not the answer either.

 

BRITTANY: Yeah, that’s a great point and that actually makes me think of something else in academic writing that we could maybe learn from or use in these conversations which is a sort of built in openness to critique or peer review that’s something we talk a lot about in scholarly writing and when we talk about making sure that our sources are peer-reviewed, or our sources are scholarly, that what we’re basing our argument on has already been under intense scrutiny by other scholars and that that scrutiny is welcome for researchers and particularly in the fields I think that Walden students are working in, or really in any academic field, we welcome that criticism, we want people to take a look at our work and poke holes in it and help us make it stronger. And again, that only works because we have this ability to detach ourselves from it emotionally, at least we hope we do, and I think scholars struggle with that too, but that’s kind of built into that process and into that system whereas, when we have these other conversations, we don’t have anything like that built in and so any attack on logic also becomes a personal attack and then we get emotions involved and then it’s really difficult to de-escalate that to a point where we can have a conversation that, like you said, is productive and not just, you know, energy sapping.

 

BETH: Yeah, I, that point about focusing on the ideas and trying to avoid getting defensive is really important cause I know that that’s where I tend to go sometimes. I mean, in my academic writing, but especially, you know, in conversations, I tend to start out with my guard up, I think

 

BRITTANY: Yeah.

 

BETH: Because what we’re talking about means so much to me, and I think that a lot of our students are in the same place, right?

 

BRITTANY: Uh-huh, yeah.

 

BETH: They’re focused on things that really have an impact on their work, on the people that they live with, on their communities, so that it means that it means a lot to them when they’re thinking about these different issues—political issues, social change issues—what have you, and so it’s hard to come at that without those defenses up right away, and I think we all struggle with that.

 

BRITTANY: Yeah, for sure, for sure. So, how do we stop doing that? [Laughs] Oh wise one, I’m sure you have all the answers.

 

BETH: [Laughs] Well, I mean, I think it has been something that I’ve had to think about consciously, recognizing in myself that these issues are really personal and I have strongly held beliefs and that, you know, we all come from a place of wanting to do better

 

BRITTANY: Yeah.

 

BETH: and that someone else has their own strongly held beliefs and it’s not, it’s not helpful to come at that with defensiveness

 

BRITTANY: Yeah, uh-huh.

 

BETH: So, I don’t know, what have you found, Brittany? Have you found anything that has been helpful?

 

BRITTANY: Well, I think that the thing that has been most helpful for me, and it’s not easy, has been to try really actively to cultivate empathy, which basically means seeing something from the other person’s point-of-view, right?

 

BETH: Right, right.

 

BRITTANY: And, being able to put myself in that person’s shoes and look at things from their perspective and understand their context and where they’re coming from, and I believe the more we can do of that, the more likely we are to have productive conversations and to make progress because otherwise, like you said before, we just end up resorting to personal attacks or feeling hurt and wounded and having to retreat and not being able to engage.

 

BETH: Or, talking past each other.

 

BRITTANY: Yes, right, without really engaging in one another’s ideas; instead, just kind of spouting our own monologue.

 

BETH: Yeah, I mean that make me think of another thing, Brittiany, that I feel like I’ve also seen be helpful. You go on social media and you can see the conversations other people are having and sometimes, so even if you’re not part of those conversations actively, can see, you know, the way that other people are talking with one another, and one thing that I’ve seen that’s been really effective is also that openness that you mentioned and specifically showing that openness by asking questions but not in like a accusatory where you’re so or so, or why do you think that, kind of a way, but asking like truly, like true questions—being really inquisitive and, again you know, we didn’t intend this to be, you know, let’s make connections between this and all of our academic writing, but that’s exactly what we want to do

 

BRITTANY: Yes.

 

BETH: when we’re thinking about our research projects and saying coming to something with true questions and saying I want to learn more about the research on this and really coming to it with an openness and asking those questions that are sincere questions. I think that we can take that same approach in these discussions, right, like ok, you know, you disagree with me on this point, what makes you—what have you experienced that has brought you to that? What has influenced that? And you know, really asking people, which helps cultivate empathy, but

 

BRITTANY: Yeah.

 

BETH: can help get to that point of finding some common ground or finding some understanding.

 

BRITTANY: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right, and yeah, it’s ironic, but I think we are just discovering that there are a lot of things to be learned from academic writing that can inform these conversations. But, I think you’re totally right about the sort of open attitude and sense of curiosity that we encourage in students; I think that also applies to the advice we often give students not to come into, this is particularly doing a larger scale study, but to not come into a study like that with a sort of preconceived notion of what you want to prove, or what you want to discover, because you don’t know until you really dig into the research and learn, you’re not going to do as good of a job of evaluating that research if you do go into it expecting to draw a certain conclusion from the get go, and so I think that kind of taking a step back and taking a real genuine attitude of curiosity can make you a better scholar, and I think it can also make you a better citizen and better at engaging those whose ideas are different from you in conversation.

 

BETH: So, Brittany has there been any other sort of challenges or things that you’ve found that work really well when having these conversations?

 

BRITTANY: One of my biggest challenges is just feeling overwhelmed, and I think, I’m a real, and I know you’re like this too, I love to solve problems; I find it exhilarating and so that’s great, but in a climate like today’s political and social climate, there are so many problems to be solved and to dig into, you know, it feels like I have twenty research papers that are all due yesterday and of course that’s the sort of self-imposed deadline but it’s easy to feel, for me anyway, like that deadline is real, like there are some pretty serious consequences if I don’t meet that deadline and solve all the world’s problems, and I think one of the things that I have to remember is that, just like we advise students who are working on a dissertation or doctoral study or any paper really, any, especially any longer piece of writing, we have to look at this as something that’s going to take time and that’s gonna require us to take breaks and live our lives and see our families and, you know, make art or go for a run, or do whatever it is that we do to find joy and to relax and, so that’s really the biggest struggle and the biggest thing that I’ve learned over the last few weeks is that as important as it is to engage in these discussions, and certainly I feel like I’ve learned some skills for how to do that over the course of this conversation, I also think we should take our own advice that we give to students who are working on solving their own problems in their writing and be willing to take a break and step away and trust that those problems are gonna continue to be solved subconsciously, and I think one difference between this and writing an academic paper is that this is something that we’re doing collectively, you know, we’re all working on these problems together even if it might not feel collaborative, you know, I think a lot of our national culture right now feels antagonistic or like we’re fighting each other, bit I think ultimately what we’re doing is we’re working to solve problems together and so, if you step away from whatever it is that you’re working on, whatever piece of the puzzle you’re working to solve, there are others who will take your place and run that lap for you and then you can come back and pick up the baton again later. That’s a big one for me, I think, is just pacing myself and taking breaks.

 

BETH: Yeah, I like your idea of making sure that we give ourselves breaks and acknowledge the hard work that that is. Well, I think that’s all for our conversation today, everyone, thanks so much for listening and we really hope that this conversation was helpful; I know we ended up giving a couple of tips and discovering a few things through the conversation. I hope that even just listening to us think about this out loud and reflecting on it was useful for you, and do let us know if you have any feedback on the conversation, on this new sort of approach that we took in this new episode, or what we talked about. And, we’d also love to hear if you have any feedback on our previous couple of episodes about mindful writing as well. We also wanted to let you know that we’re working on a page that focuses on social change and the different conversations and resources that we’re having around social change at the Writing Center and that will live on the Writing Center’s website so keep on the lookout for that new page that will be coming soon.  

 

[Music]

 

BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and