RADFORD — In August, a bubbling discourse stemming from identity politics in America took a deadly turn in Charlottesville — weeks before the fall semester began at public universities across the commonwealth.
Since that day, the fervor of public debate on college campuses relating to free speech has only intensified, saddling administrators and instructors with the task of facilitating productive political conversation among students, faculty and staff while avoiding censorship.
Next semester, a new joint-course commissioned by Radford and James Madison universities aims to shape that conversation among students across Virginia.
Thanks to a $4,000 grant from 4-VA — a statewide program created by former Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2011 allowing public colleges and universities to collaborate on research and other educational projects — the two schools will offer a class focusing on respectful disagreement amid the changing dynamics of public life.
The course, titled Political Protest and Civic Engagement, will be open to JMU justice studies students and general education 300-level students and Radford students as PEAC 300, for those interested in studying and or effecting political and social change through civic action.
The objective of the class, as stated in the course outline, will be to examine the sweep of civic and protest movements, both current and past, to better prepare students for further study in political and social science.
“The university has a role in teaching and presenting options,” said Terry Beitzel, associate professor of justice studies at JMU and director of the school’s Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence. “We are trying hard to have this be nonpartisan. This is not just some personal ideology we are going to discuss but study how movements work.”
The debate and discussion-heavy class will use video conferencing and other virtual technology to connect students with lectures and guest instructors.
The students, of which the schools hope there will be a total of around 15, will each pick a specific civic movement or social justice issue and research the topic.
At the end of the semester, students will be required to show significant individual initiative to pursue civic action outside the classroom as part of the semester-long project of their choosing.
“We certainly want to make it a place where every student feels they can express their ideas,” Beitzel said. “Healthy conflict is the engine that drives as democracy. We want to help the students understand what the healthy ways are to have a conflict.”
So-called safe spaces on college campuses aren’t helpful to facilitating the type of respectful debate the course is designed to encourage, explained Pat Shoemaker — one of the driving forces behind RU’s participation in the class.
“We are a microcosm of society as a whole on college campuses,” Shoemaker said. “What we want to do is teach the students to encourage viewpoints that are different than their own, step back emotionally and practice tolerance and appreciation.”
Though RU is not a member of 4-VA, the organization sees the joint course as another opportunity to expand its influence and do so in a relevant way.
“This is a very hot topic right now,” said Nick Swayne, head of the 4-VA program at JMU. “We’re piloting these courses and trying to figure out the best way we can add value and work together across the state.”