Podcast Episode 8 Transcript

From the Office of the Provost

Episode 8: Extending the Year of Discourse and Dialogue at the University of Pittsburgh


Joe McCarthy: Hello and welcome to "From the Office of the Provost,” a podcast that highlights exciting activities and initiatives in the Office of the Provost or University-wide that bolster and enhance our collective vision for growth and transformation. I'm your host, Provost Joe McCarthy, and today I'm joined by the co-chairs for the Year of Discourse and Dialogue, Carissa Slotterback, Dean of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and Clyde Pickett, Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

A little bit of background before we get started: Each year the Office of the Provost identifies a theme that unifies the University community and the theme for the academic year 23-24 was designated as the Year of Discourse and Dialogue. The Year of Discourse and Dialogue proved to be a timely theme, especially as higher education stands at the forefront of engagement around respecting divergent viewpoints.

This past academic year was host to a wide variety of important conversations, but there's still room to continue to advance our efforts. As such, in consultation with the Chancellor, Chancellor John Gabel, we have decided to extend the "Year of" in a first effort, so we have a second Year of Discourse and Dialogue in the academic year 24-25.

To lead this initiative, Dean Slotterback was named co-chair in April 2023 alongside former Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kenyon Bonner. With Kenyon's departure from Pitt, we announced that Clyde Pickett would be stepping in as co-chair this past January.

Thankfully, Carissa and Clyde have not only led a lot of important efforts thus far, I'm pleased to report that they both agreed to continue their leadership in the upcoming academic year. So, with that, I'd like to welcome Carissa and Clyde.

Carissa Slotterback: Thank you so much, Provost McCarthy.

Clyde Wilson Pickett: Yeah, happy to be here. Look forward to our conversation this afternoon.

McCarthy: All right. Well, let's get started with Carissa first. Could you explain a bit more about what this theme is really touching upon?

Slotterback: Sure. Happy to jump in. Thank you. The Year of Discourse and Dialogue theme, as you noted, is exceptionally timely, and I think what it's done for University of Pittsburgh is to give us an opportunity to lean in and reflect again on the long-term purpose and mission of this University and especially as a public university.

And I think most of us here at the University and in higher ed more broadly believe that what we can and should be doing in universities is to continue to be spaces or space that welcomes multiple viewpoints, an institution that supports civil discourse, and for our University to be an active participant in society.

We produce knowledge, of course, but we're also a really crucial part of supporting the free exchange of ideas. And I think what this means is that through this Year of Discourse and Dialogue and what we focused on, especially in the first year, is figuring out how to continue to grow our capacity to be able to live up to this purpose.

The world's changing around us. The pressures, the questions, the expectations that universities like ours face are ever changing, and that means our capacities need to change and we need to be adapting and be prepared to be able to continue living up to this mission.

And especially in this first year, we've spent a lot of time identifying the capacities that we need at Pitt. What do we have? What assets can we draw on? But what are the new things that we actually need to develop in order to advance discourse and dialogue, and especially to do it well?

So, things we've been looking at this year are ways that we can support our faculty to gain skills, to facilitate discourse and dialogue in their classrooms. How do we connect researchers who have expertise to explore opportunities to build new knowledge, to bring their expertise to questions of discourse and dialogue to really understand the impacts of how to use these tools, how we can deploy them in our University as well as more broadly in society.

Also looking at ways to create new practices and ways of working with each other across different groups at the University. And then especially preparing students for discourse and dialogue, giving them skills that they can use while they're here, but also being able to take them out into the world as they graduate from Pitt and hopefully move into the workforce.

So again, I think all of this has been a wonderful opportunity to dig in and engage a lot of folks across the University on some really important conversations.

McCarthy: Excellent. Thanks for that context. So, for our audience, each year, what we do with the "Year of" themes is we invite Pitt students, faculty, and staff to submit applications to support efforts that advance learning, research, engagement or practice that's connected to that theme. This past academic year, we saw a variety of programming tied to this initiative. So, Carissa, I'd like you to, to dive in a little bit and give us some specifics on how many funded projects there were, for example, and, and what some are that stood out to you.

Slotterback: Sure. Yeah. It's been absolutely wonderful to see a really high level of interest in the Year of Discourse and Dialogue generally and certainly reflected in the call for proposals.

We launched two calls this year. [We] had applications from well over 60 different groups, organizations, units at the University of Pittsburgh. We were able to fund 35 projects, and again, many more exciting things proposed and I know a lot of this work continued even without funding.

And I think it's especially notable as we looked across these projects and who was involved in them, that they came from so many different parts of the University. We had many of the schools represented, many different units. We had regional campuses represented and projects that were led by students, staff, faculty, and especially combinations of those, and really quite a number of them actually in partnership with other organizations outside of Pitt that were crucial to moving the work forward.

A couple that stand out—and there were so many as I was going through the list preparing for this and just reminding myself of all the great work—but one comes from the Global Studies Center at Pitt, which is part of UCIS, University Center for International Studies. They've been partnering really broadly across campus, but in particular with Pitt’s World History Center, School of Public and International Affairs, and also colleagues at West Virginia University.

Their project is called "Global Appalachia: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on a Region in Motion." And this was an intent to facilitate discussion, new scholarship conversation about the Appalachian region, the global context for it, the diversity of it, and really to challenge some of the stereotypes and assumptions about this region in which we're located. So initial efforts this year are going to build on some future research symposia, engagement to community colleges, and minority-serving institutions in the Appalachian region, and also some broader community partners.

So key in this is sustainability. How do you build on what's been done this year?

And then just one other one is an effort that was organized out of Office of Inclusion and Belonging in Student Affairs. This was called the tunnel of oppression. This was actually a one-day event in March and it replicated a model that's been used at other universities and here, focusing on creating an interactive and reflective experience that introduces the folks participating to forms of oppression that have been experienced on an ongoing basis by various marginalized communities.

So the tunnel took the form of physical spaces or rooms. Each one was designed and sort of supported by different student groups like the Black Action Society, Fraternity and Sorority Life, and others. There were actually interactive scenarios where participants experienced microaggressions. They experienced, on the further side of the spectrum, more intense, aggressive behaviors that folks from underrepresented groups experience, you know, in their day-to-day lives. They use a really unique combination of immersion, reflection, dialogue as a means to facilitate learning, and also to help participants identify ways that they can support others who are experiencing this kind of discrimination.

Again, lots of opportunities for sustainability and they hope to be able to do this every year, which would be really great.

McCarthy: That's fantastic. Thank you. Dean Slotterback. I think that those sound really engaging, and I love how broad the themes were and and how they touch on on a lot of different aspects of of this issue.

Changing gears a little bit, Clyde, higher education has historically been at the center of engagement around diverse viewpoints. As a public university, we must and do uphold the principles of protected speech and expression. Why do you think this work is particularly important now in 2024?

Pickett: Yes, I appreciate that question. I think as you look at the contemporary context of society, we have to create spaces and places to have intellectual dialogue, free places of exchange where we can talk about free speech and expression. And I think as a center of academic learning, we provide fertile ground for that understanding and exploration of how we have context for that environment as well as the tools to move that forward.

Much like my colleague points out, us providing understanding for how to grow tools, how to develop tools, and more specifically to, to put those into context for our students and to allow our faculty to grow those things for broader society is important.

As you point out, historically we have always been the place—higher education that is—for the free exchange of ideas and, more importantly, the place where knowledge is built. And so as you look at that environment, as you look at the responsibility, I think now it's more important than ever for us to create the context to have fertile ground for that exchange and for us to continue to move that forward.

And so I think having a dedicated initiative that both builds context and creates an environment for that exchange is beneficial, certainly for our University, but broader society and, more importantly, the information that we will generate and impact society abroad.

McCarthy: Thanks, Clyde. And speaking of moving forward, reflecting on this past year, we've held a lot of productive and important conversations and programs and coordination with this year of theme. How can folks build upon some of the work we saw that was done this year?

Pickett: Well, I think that's a great opportunity for us, especially given that we now have a second year to put it into action in some of the environments that are on our campus. Certainly, the classroom and—and having exchange in the classroom and in academic curriculum as a part of that conversation—in our residence halls and exchange in the relationships that individuals have coming to campus, but beyond that on places for which we gather.

I think having an opportunity to talk about the ways in which discourse and dialogue make us a better society, have an opportunity for us to exchange ideas, and to create that environment and context is important for us.

One of the places where we see that exchange happening is through social media. And so, I would encourage individuals, of course, to go to our website and of course to exchange information in those forums. But in any contextual environment, to have the the skills and to build further muscle, if you will, for exchange is beneficial for our community. And so look forward for our community members to grow that in the forms that we'll put forward next year, which we're excited to share that information in the time ahead, but certainly in our classroom and in other places for which people will gather at the University of Pittsburgh.

McCarthy: As I mentioned earlier, Chancellor Joan Gabel is really committed to this theme. In fact, she brought a relationship with the Citizens and Scholars Initiative to Pitt with her when she joined us last summer. And so, she was integral in deciding, along with me, to extend this "Year of" to continue through the 24-25 academic year.

Carissa, as you know, one of my favorite parts of the "Year of" theme project is really the lasting impact that it tends to have on the institution. So, can you just outline what opportunities you see for this next chapter of discourse and dialogue in the upcoming year?

Slotterback: Sure. Thanks for that question. I think the opportunity to do this work on campus, but also knit it into a broader set of conversations in higher ed is a really important opportunity and I think we'll benefit as we move into this next year from Pitt’s commitment to the campus call for free expression, which you mentioned, facilitated through the Institute for Citizens and Scholars. Chancellor Gabel has been a really crucial leader in these efforts at the national level and our ability to plug into some efforts that are coming out of the institute is really going to create a great framework as we move into the next year.

So, one of those commitments that they're actually working on is for the member universities to create campus-wide immersion plans and those plans are opportunities for universities to outline ways that students can gain skills in discourse and dialogue, and especially to gain practice. This isn't something that you pick up by watching a video or going to a single training, reading a book, reading an article, listening to a podcast. This is something that we all can practice and getting more opportunities for practice is a key part of it.

One of the things that we'll be doing this summer as we're preparing for the launch of the academic year is to craft that campus-wide immersion plan. So within that, outlining again existing assets that we have on campus and also new programming that we can offer to students and especially in places where they are.

So how can we create modules that can be brought into a wide range of classes, whether it's general education classes, core classes, and key degree programs, new credentials that we might create and implement overtime that weave in principles of strong focus on discourse and dialogue? Are there trainings for faculty? They want to learn how to use these tools and in many cases don't have the training to do so. How can we build that up? And also just new programming to connect with students again where they are, through new student orientation that happens for freshmen as well as graduate students in schools like mine. In residence life, in employment opportunities, places where students are coming together.

We see partnerships with student government both at the undergraduate and graduate level to be really key in implementing this campus-wide immersion plan. Also, other student organizations, we saw a really strong representation of student orgs and the funded projects. So, we see them as important partners as we move ahead.

So again, all of these efforts related to the campus-wide immersion plugging into broader efforts at Pitt to institutionalize some of the things that we worked.

McCarthy: So, Clyde, you mentioned earlier staying in touch and and keeping abreast of these things, and Carissa outlined lots of different ways that we're reaching out to others. How can people reach out to us? How can people stay in touch with this "Year of" programming?

Pickett: Sure. I'm glad you asked. Of course, individuals can go to our website for more information. So yearofpitt.edu, which is the central place to get information and to be informed. Certainly, to participate in the initiatives and activities that were highlighted. So, we look forward for expanded participation and exchange as we continue to grow and to realize that communication isn't a one-way street.

Obviously championing discourse and dialogue, we want to hear from individuals so we can always be reached out to via e-mail, yearof@pitt.edu. Individually, individuals can reach out to Dean Slotterback or I to offer suggestions and/or feedback. And so look forward to those opportunities for exchange. And, of course, on social media. And so, they can find us on Instagram at @yearofpitt.

And so, excited about sharing information in that format as well and the opportunity just to promote greater publicity on the "Year of." So, excited about that.

McCarthy: Well, excellent. I've had a lot of fun. I want to thank both of you, Carissa and Clyde, for joining me today and sharing the great work that the steering committee, under your leadership, has been able to do this year. And what your vision for this upcoming year looks like.

So, thank you also to listeners for tuning in. You may not learn how to engage in discourse and dialogue, but you can learn what the resources are. So, we appreciate you and I will close with this. I'm Provost Joe McCarthy and this has been “From the Office of the Provost.”