Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Open Conversations At Pepperdine Caruso Law School: Building Culture, Developing Discourse, Nurturing Democracy

Jeffrey R. Baker (Pepperdine; Google Scholar) & Tanya Asim Cooper (Pepperdine; Google Scholar), Open Conversations: Building Culture, Developing Discourse, Nurturing Democracy:

Caruso Logo (Two Lines) (Tight) (2020)[A]t our first Open Conversation, ... [o]ver fifty students attended, and we set out some simple guidance. This was not a teaching moment for the faculty, and it was not a debate. It was a conversation, discourse to share perspectives, an opportunity to speak and listen, to engage across difference, to give voice to pain and anger, to explore paths forward, all from the students’ perspectives and experiences. With general prompts and light moderation while breaking bread together, the conversation was rich, critical, vibrant, heartfelt, and serious. It did not fix all of the issues or resolve all the tension within our school, but it was a moment of genuine community struggling with itself but refusing to alienate each other. 

After that first Open Conversation, we continued to offer them when controversies erupted nationally or locally, refining the approach. ... The broad objective for Open Conversations is to build a healthy culture within our law school community. It is not to resolve every issue or to engage in antagonistic debate; there are plenty of other opportunities for that during law school. Rather, it is to enrich our discourse with care, respect, and dignity, even over the most contentious issues. Moderation and centrism are also not the aims; students advocate and argue in Open Conversations with conviction but within a framework that aims to hold our shared life at the heart of our discussions. In our current national season of extreme polarization, brutal partisanship, personal antagonism, and so-called “cancel culture” (all of which have been topics of our discussions), the Open Conversations are counter-cultural exercises in democratic engagement. 

To these ends, we developed a practice of lightly-moderated discussions over lunch around curated topics with important ground rules for the conversation. We typically have fifty to sixty students and another ten staff and faculty in the room. The ground rules are “conversational harnesses” to preserve the objectives of discourse and engagement, and we share them at the top of each open conversation:

  • Open Conversations are for discourse, not debate.
  • Listen; don’t try to win.
  • Share the airspace equitably; speak only when you have the mic.
  • Be respectful; address ideas, not people.
  • Speak from your own experience and perspective; do not question or attack others for theirs.
  • Do not broadcast, record, or disseminate anything from the conversation on social media.

We pass a microphone around the room to ensure that one person speaks at a time (like the conch rule in the first, happier part of Lord of the Flies) and to promote accessibility and clear communication. On very rare occasions, the moderator may intervene if a student transgresses a ground rule or if the conversation turns personally confrontational. Sometimes the moderators, faculty, or staff in attendance will participate in the conversation itself, but we try to keep our comments limited to asking follow up questions, providing factual or historical context, or identifying constructive threads running through the students’ contributions.

After everyone gets their food and we have explained the ground rules, we introduce the topic for the day with a few general prompts to get the conversation started. We take real care in selecting topics; the diversity council meets monthly, usually the week before the Open Conversation, to consider the hot topics of the day. We do not necessarily pick topics that are divisive on partisan lines, but we pick topics that are immediately controversial, critically interesting, or universal to the law student experience.  ...

People talking together over a meal is not novel or revolutionary, but it is ancient and radical. Of course, we’ve had mixed results. Some conversations are vibrant, energetic, critical, and creative. Some are chilled and reticent; some veer into personal confrontation. Our hope is that merely holding Open Conversations and attempting the exercise signals the values and aspirations of our community. We aim to contribute to a robust, generous, and vital culture of engagement within the law school, and we hope that this models the best kind of culture possible in our diverse communities. If our students can experience the work of hard conversations together with constructive advocacy and critical, benevolent disagreement, we hope it will equip them for this work as public citizens in their career.

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