Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 1, 2014

Talking about and across differences

Ratnesh Nagda: Fostering cultural understanding globally and locally

“We often think about how the classroom connects to the community. Maybe we shouldn’t think of these as so separate; maybe the way to bridge them is to think about the classroom as a community and the campus as a community. So, the way that students engage in the classroom, with the campus, with the community outside of the campus, those are layers that are interconnected. Rather than separate, they form concentric circles. The classroom is then an in vivo lab, a microcosm of our broader society.”

Ratnesh Nagda
UW Faculty Diversity Scholar; Director, Intergroup Dialogue, Education, and Action (IDEA) Center, and Professor and Director of the Bachelor of Arts in Social Welfare (BASW) program, School of Social Work, UW Seattle

In our increasingly interconnected world, UW graduates will need to navigate the complexities of working with multidisciplinary teams and engaging with communities other than their own.1 In this environment, effective communication and collaboration require more than tolerance or respect for difference; knowledge about the world and practice partnering across boundaries will serve our graduates well in their professional and civic roles in a globalizing society.2 UW professors such as Ratnesh Nagda are preparing their students to succeed and lead in this complex world, training students to talk about and across difficult differences.

Ratnesh Nagda not only leads difficult conversations, but also trains students to do so. He directs the Intergroup Dialogue, Education, and Action (IDEA) Center in the School of Social Work, which helps students and community members engage constructively with challenging issues, such as race, gender, nationality, religion, and sexuality. “We have a new set of ‘three Rs’ in education: relevance, relationships, and responsibility,” he says. “If we’re committed to a more just society, the work we do in the classroom has to be relevant to solving major and complex social problems. Talking about and across differences can help us build transformative relationships that cultivate and sustain our responsibilities to make a difference.” Here are some of Nagda’s principles for helping students address differences and create a more just future:

Engage issues of social justice: Nagda says, “We can talk about intercultural competence, but if we don’t address issues of social injustices, such as income stratification and histories of violence and power inequality, we are just skimming the surface.”

Build students’ listening skills for true dialogue: Through a series of developmental exercises, Nagda encourages students to talk with rather than past each other. He says, “It’s a huge eye-opener for students to see how little they usually listen, or are listened to, and that they can learn techniques to make them better listeners.”

  • Students pair up and share for two minutes each with their partners, then try to paraphrase back what they heard.
  • In their next discussion, which can be with a partner or in a small group, students try to listen for not just for the words explicitly spoken, but for underlying feelings, meanings, and values, and to ask questions for deeper understanding.
  • Students then practice “connected listening and speaking,” linking their comments to those of previous speakers. Nagda asks students to pass a ball of yarn from one speaker to the next to help them visualize connective dialogue.
  • Finally, students reflect on and have “a dialogue about the dialogue,” noting dynamics, and engaging new questions that have emerged for them.

Be attentive to who speaks, how, about what, and when: “People from marginalized groups are often silenced or seen as spokespersons, and people from privileged groups can dominate discussions or be hesitant to talk.” Nagda pushes students to critically reflect on these dynamics and participate more reciprocally.

  • On day one, ask students to create shared agreements for engagement: Nagda pushes students to move beyond basic civility in their agreements to a deeper respect and appreciation for what each person brings to the classroom.
  • Own your identity in the classroom and ask students to own theirs: Nagda asks students to consider how issues of identity can shape classroom interactions, learning processes, and understanding of course content. “For example, my identity as a transnational, first-generation immigrant man of color in a faculty role influences the way I see and experience the world, and who I am and how I am perceived in the classroom,” he says.
  • Use hard moments as learning opportunities: When conversations get tense, Nagda says, “We have students pause, reflect, and unpack the layers—from the personal to the political—that are manifest in the tension. It is not only to deconstruct the situation but to construct alternatives, to turn walls of separation into bridges of connectedness.”

Encourage students to apply their learning in new settings and as leaders: These skills can apply in student and community organizations, and at work. Says Nagda, “Students learn to ask, ‘How can we participate or organize more inclusively?’ and to reflect on ‘How can I empower members of a community by listening to them, by working with, and not just for, them?’ Not only do our students see the world in a different way, but they are in the world in a different way, a generative way.”



Resources:For detailed guidance for intergroup discussions: Patricia Gurin, Biren (Ratnesh) A. Nagda, and Ximena Zúñiga, Dialogue Across Difference: Practice, Theory and Research on Intergroup Dialogue (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2013).

1Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement. Strength through Global Leadership and Engagement: U.S. Higher Education in the 21st Century. Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement. Washington, DC: American Council for Higher Education, 2011.

2Luo, Jiali and David Jamieson-Drake. “Examining the Educational Benefits of Interacting with International Students.” Journal of International Students 3, no. 2 (2013): 85-101.

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