Difficult conversations is theme for Graduate Education Summit

The annual Graduate Education Summit hosted by Western Carolina University’s Graduate School centered this year on “Having Difficult Conversations Face-to-Face and Online.”

Held Wednesday, Oct. 25, in the Multipurpose Room of A.K. Hinds University Center, panelists were Robin Phelps-Ward, an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Clemson University; Christine Promin-Stein, a research assistant with the Center for Teaching and Learning at University of North Carolina Charlotte; and Ricardo Nazario-Colon, WCU’s chief diversity officer. The annual summits are designed to be of interest to faculty members who teach graduate courses.

Robin Phelps-Ward

The panel discussed best practices in handling conversations involving “hot topic issues,” which are often based around issues of diversity, political or social beliefs, and stereotypical references. The panel also looked at how to encourage rigorous intellectual dialogue and maintain civility, even with challenging topics on campus and online.

“Why do these difficult conversations happen in the first place? And more importantly, how do we handle them,” Phelps-Ward asked. “Going in, we know that culture and context are going to play a significant role.” She then outlined how navigating difficult conversations requires preparation for such situations, knowing one’s conflict management style and being an active participant.

Christine Promin-Stein

Promin-Stein addressed how to hold a productive online discussion, as well as maintaining civil discourse in an online classroom. As a general guideline, she said. “It is important to put a person to a post,” connecting words to the person who created them to make students mindful that once communication is uploaded, “it’s out there,” and for instructors to make sure everyone is heard in an online classroom. Nazario-Colon addressed the topic “Speaking for Others,” with a creative look at the pitfalls of generalities, assigning identities and defining discussions by who is speaking and differing language that comes from an individual’s background, experience and values.

After the solutions-based presentations, there was a break-out session with four groups given real-world exercises dealing with common graduate education issues related to free speech and academic freedom.

Ricardo Nazario-Colon

For more information, contact Sharon McGee, associate dean of WCU’s Graduate School and professor of English, at sjmcgee@wcu.edu or 828-227-3173.