Diversity and Democracy

Democratizing Teaching and Learning through Real Dialogue across Differences

Now in its twelfth year, the Teaching–Learning Academy (TLA) at Western Washington University (WWU) is a dialogue forum bringing together students, staff, faculty, and community members around a shared question about learning. The TLA began in 2001 as part of WWU's participation in the Carnegie Campus Conversation program, sponsored by the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. It has since evolved into a hub for dialogue aimed at studying and enhancing the learning culture at WWU and sustaining student voices in co-inquiry about their own learning. The TLA sponsors campus forums and other alliances, but at its heart are the dialogues that convene mixed groups of faculty, staff, administrators, community members, and students.

Structured Informality

Approximately 3,500 participants have joined in TLA dialogue, with an average of ninety and as many as 150 participants each quarter. During the academic year, four dialogue groups meet every other week for eighty-minute sessions that include a mix of participants. After receiving a conversation prompt, participants from each dialogue group break into smaller dialogue clusters before reconvening to compare notes. Some students earn one communication practicum credit for participating, but many simply volunteer for multiple quarters because they appreciate the chance to be heard and to connect with others across campus. Faculty, staff, and community participation is voluntary and is often prompted by a desire to hear what students (and others) really think.

Together, fall quarter participants craft a question to explore and answer in the winter and spring quarters. For example, the 2007–08 TLA question asked, "What keeps us from genuine dialogue across differences?" Conversations over subsequent quarters revealed one potential answer: leading the conversation with the word "diversity" can foreclose conversation in some contexts. The co-inquiry suggested that rather than making diversity the topic of dialogue, it may be more effective within WWU's campus culture to focus on shared questions and create an environment where all voices matter.

To cultivate such an environment, the TLA practices "structured informality"—which some participants have termed "parlor talk" (Werder et al. 2010)—to describe a space where co-inquiry happens in conversation. Participants avoid mentioning their titles as they chomp on pretzels and respond to conversation starters linked to that year's big question. Work–study students on the TLA staff transcribe dialogue group notes and comments, which then become part of the "highlights" that staff compile and distribute across groups so participants can see emerging findings.

Action-Oriented Dialogue

Conceptually and operationally, the TLA model is based on a continuum of conversation that privileges dialogue (geared toward exploring multiple views and achieving deeper understanding) over discussion (aimed at discovering a best answer) or debate (focused on persuading others) (Ellinor and Gerard 1998). Using a campus sculpture titled Rock Rings as its logo, the TLA creates a common space that participants can enter through their own portals/perspectives.

While TLA participants are eager to move toward institutional change initiatives, the agenda calls for conversations to emphasize the slow process of building deeper individual and collective understanding before proposing change. This "slow talk" approach is counter (American) culture and can be troubling to some participants (particularly students) who want to solve problems, not just talk about them. The fall quarter's emphasis on framing the question and the winter and spring quarters' focus on answering it make use of this tension.

TLA dialogues have resulted in measurable action. In response to the 2007–08 question about dialogue across differences, the group proposed and partnered with the WWU library to create an online dialogue forum now called Viking Village. (See table 1 for additional examples.) Another TLA contribution has been a cultural shift: the TLA has modeled a way for people with contrasting views to hear each other. TLA participants report that they often apply the dialogic approach in their own department and faculty governance meetings (with a former provost even calling for "a TLA-like dialogue").

Circuitry for Change

How does the TLA forum work as a transformative partnership, and why has it endured? In a written dialogue about the importance of balancing a sense of agency (individual self-efficacy) with a sense of communion (collective good), Marcia Baxter Magolda and Pamela Crosby intimate a possible explanation. In advocating for service learning, Crosby notes that its value comes from a "continuous interchange of ideas and conversations that cut across perceived differences that occur during the time of experience as well as the reflection afterward" (2011, 8). Thus the ongoing exchange of ideas, coupled with invitations to reflect during and afterward, provides the opportunity to balance regard for self and regard for others.

The TLA functions similarly. In fact, participants from WWU's Center for Service-Learning liken the TLA to a service-learning initiative where the informal TLA structure serves needs of the formal university community. The TLA also fosters a sense of inclusion across campus by bringing diverse people together around shared questions about learning. If focusing directly on diversity and difference stifles conversation, it may be better to support diversity indirectly by creating a climate where all voices contribute to making the learning environment better for everyone.

According to one TLA participant, a staff member who also led our HANDS (Helping Admit Nontraditional and Diverse Students) program, "TLA led me to dream, to hope for the future, and to expand my limits of problem-solving (a mental exercise I have since become addicted to)." That mental exercise, that habit of mind of seeking shared meaning, is the TLA's focus. By deliberately promoting civil listening—listening as if we could be wrong—the TLA creates a democratizing forum where participants' differences and similarities work collectively for the individual and the common good. The TLA's success lies in its circuitry—its structure for ongoing, real dialogue where participants tell their own truths in the pursuit of shared truths.

For more information about the TLA, visit http://library.wwu.edu/tla or read Daniel Espinoza-Gonzalez's article in this issue of Diversity & Democracy.

TABLE 1. Teaching–Learning Academy Questions and Action Items

Each fall, WWU's Teaching–Learning Academy develops a new question to prompt dialogue and action over subsequent quarters of that academic year. Past questions and their resulting action items have included:


Action Item

What do we count as the features of an optimal learning environment? (2003–04)

Created a document on "Interactive Learning Spaces" that was incorporated into university facilities planning.

What role, if any, should the university play in the development of ethical reasoning or civic engagement? (2004–05)

Partnered with the Center for Service-Learning in proposing a learning commons on local waterfront property (under consideration).

What do we mean by a sustainable, reflective learning culture? (2009–10)

Proposed and secured external funding for a reflective garden on campus (under construction).

How do we engage multiple voices to strengthen WWU as a twenty-first-century liberal arts university? (2011–12)

Through a series of focus groups, developed suggestions to enhance the general education program (under consideration).


Baxter Magolda, Marcia, and Pamela C. Crosby. 2011. "Preparing Students and Graduates to Navigate Life's Challenges: A Dialogue on Self-Authorship and the Quest for Balance of Agency and Communion." Journal of College and Character 12 (3): 1–11. http://journals.naspa.org/jcc/.

Ellinor, Linda, and Glenna Gerard. 1998. Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation. New York: Wiley.

Werder, Carmen, Cora Thomas, Luke Ware, and Erik Skogsberg. 2010. "Students in Parlor Talk on Teaching and Learning: Conversational Scholarship." In Engaging Student Voices in the Study of Teaching and Learning, edited by Carmen Werder and Megan Otis, 16-31. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Carmen Werder is director of the Teaching–Learning Academy at Western Washington University.

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