Can Liberal Arts Colleges Aid Local Problem Solving?

Back to Fall 2019: Volume 108, Number 3

By Rachel Rains Winslow and Deborah Dunn

With dwindling enrollment, campus closures, and tensions between town and gown, small colleges face increasing scrutiny from national and local critics alike, leading one headline to question, “Can Small Liberal Arts Colleges Survive the Next Decade?”1 Dramatic media reports notwithstanding, these critiques offer an opportunity to reassess the value of a liberal arts education. How might liberal arts colleges become better neighbors, increase the transferrable skills of their students, and give students more meaningful opportunities to engage in their communities? Although historically land-grant institutions have led the charge for community accessibility to higher education, what unique resources can private universities provide to towns and cities grappling with complex problems?

As faculty members in two separate departments at a small, liberal arts college in Southern California, we sought to address these questions by training 28 students to facilitate a deliberative forum in the local community in Fall 2018. Using the National Issues Forum guide “Coming to America: Who should we welcome, what should we do?,” we hosted a civic discussion about the state of immigration in our region. We chose to feature immigration due to its current political resonance and because our region hosts a significant Latin American immigrant population. Sixty people participated in the November 1st deliberation, hosted at a public, non-partisan meeting space in downtown Santa Barbara.

Deliberation and the Classroom

Deliberation is a method of discussion that encourages ordinary citizens to consider multiple perspectives and weigh the trade-offs when discussing “wicked problems”—problems that are multi-layered with no right or easy answers. By design, issue guides have three-to-four options or approaches for participants to evaluate, which deemphasizes partisanship and stresses community problem solving. Meant to include a diverse sample of citizens, the deliberative process validates feelings, personal stakes, and “things held valuable” as meaningful data for those discussing an issue. While we had directly invited a range of community stakeholders and advocates, this was also an event open to the public and we were unsure who would come.

Because our primary goal was to discern the impact on students in facilitating public deliberation in the community, students served as facilitators and notetakers at eight-person tables. To prepare the students for these roles, we formed an interdisciplinary collaboration between two upper-division courses: Group Communication and Leadership (in the Communication Studies Department) and Transnational America (in the History Department). Communication students learned facilitation skills through in-class lectures, discussions, and practice hosting their own forums. They then trained Transnational America students in facilitation. Likewise, Transnational America students provided a training session on American immigration history for communication students. Assignments in both courses—including practice deliberations, pre-deliberation write-ups, and post-deliberation reflections—reinforced the training exercises. We structured the assignments so that students were assessed on criteria that research has shown demonstrates competence in deliberation skills, such as collaboration, synthesis of ideas and information, and an understanding of tensions and trade-offs.

Finally, in their roles as facilitators and notetakers, students cemented their classroom learning through a key experience that increased their stake. By creating space for citizens and neighbors to reflect diverse perspectives, to rank things they held valuable differently, and to forge some common ground out of political shrapnel, students put what they learned into practice.

Putting Theory into Practice

To be sure, the community conversation wasn’t easy. One student sagely observed:

“No matter how book-prepared and experienced we were with practice runs, being with real people who have real stakes in the issue was a completely different experience.”

The challenge of bridging divides between discrete values systems was immediately apparent, even as the purpose: “was not to solve the wicked problem of immigration, but to hear one another,” in the words of one student facilitator.

The subject matter added intensity; we expected that the vast majority of our participants would bring a pre-existing opinion of some sort to the conversation. As expected, many of the tables hosted people with entrenched political views and alliances, some who students described as “enter[ing] the conversation prepared to fight.” Others came with vivid personal stories that informed their sense of the best way forward.

For those who immigrated legally decades ago, and from European countries, they contended that border protection and strict lines ensured fairness. For those recent immigrants in the room, a few without the proper paperwork or who had been brought to the U.S. as young children, they determined that laws should support more flexible resident paths, reflecting the geopolitical realities of migration and global economic priorities.

Table assignments were randomized so that participants couldn’t self-select into groups that were comfortable, and this approach seemed to achieve the diversity we desired. For instance, one table included left-leaning higher-ed employees, a self-professed Trump supporter and leader of a local Republican club, and an undocumented high school student.

Such ideological diversity was initially jarring for our student facilitators. As participants arrived, one senior history major observed the visibility of emotions. Whether defensive, aggressive, insecure, or nervous, community members had little idea what to expect from a deliberation, especially because they are “used to coming into spaces where they have to defend themselves and…fight.” This student appreciated how the up-front introduction, translation services, and structured table discussions set a non-partisan tone that “created a space for [participants] to sit down together and be heard…a gesture that is foreign in our current culture.” A participant built on this theme when surveying the issues guide. He exclaimed,

“We all know that there are two options [to solving this problem], but who knew there was a third option? I had no idea that a third option even existed.”

Even the ability to consider three options, instead of two, reinvigorates civic dialogue and compels participants to engage with one another, instead of defaulting to entrenched partisan positions.

A Communication Studies major captured her peers’ sentiments when she expressed, “I see now why these conversations don’t happen more—they’re HARD.” In their reflections, students echoed this observation, repeatedly describing the community deliberation as difficult, exhausting, frustrating, tense, and uncomfortable. In the debrief following the deliberative session, one student remarked, “I have never sweat so much in my life!” Studies show that some challenges in learning are a good thing. Psychologists Elizabeth and Robert Bjork argued in a 1992 article that “desirable difficulties in learning,” which lead to short-term set-backs, can result in more effective retention.2

Even with the challenges of the conversation, most student reflections balanced the hardships with the impact. Indeed, students frequently noted that they felt more tensions at the beginning of the evening, and had more positive impressions nearer the end of the deliberation. In their summary evaluations, students characterized the experience on the whole as empowering, valuable, eye-opening, effective, and hopeful. One student concluded, “it definitely felt like the group of us were a team that had just done something great,” reflecting a sense that students had achieved something worthwhile and had contributed meaningfully to the community as well as to their own skill sets. Months later, students reported that they’d highlighted their experiences when interviewing for jobs.

But did this learning last beyond November 2018? We were curious and followed up with the student moderators ten months later, asking them what they remembered about their facilitation training and whether they’d had opportunities to practice their deliberative skills, either formally or informally. The results were heartening. Respondents recalled specific terminology and techniques from their training (e.g. wicked problems, note taking rules, trade-offs, approaches to ensure that every participant is heard) and shared stories about how they continued to apply deliberative strategies during study abroad trips, at work, and with family and friends. Most frequently, former students reported that deliberation fundamentally changed the way they listen. Rather than looking for opportunities to talk or correct, the majority of respondents mentioned that they now listen to understand, rather than respond, and don’t shy away from people who believe differently from them.

What Students Learned

By practicing deliberation in the classroom and on campus, students had become familiar not just with the skills they needed to succeed, but also with what was at stake in these types of conversations. As one communication studies student summarized,

“The facilitation opened my eyes to the magnitude and depth of wicked problems and the necessity of conversations to bridge the gap between perspectives, ideals, and beliefs.”

One fourth-year student noticed herself responding to people around her differently knowing the context and goals of our event.

While she normally would have been nervous about welcoming ardent Trump supporters into an event centered on immigration, she reported feeling confident, even hopeful, in encouraging their presence. Another student contrasted deliberation with debate. He reflected, “In debate you are never heard if you listen, you have to fight back. But in deliberation, you have to actually listen. You can’t just say that you’re listening. You have to listen to hear truth in what [participants] are saying.” Participants echoed these sentiments. One local resident enjoyed discussing immigration with a different group of people than he normally would have and, thus, reported feeling more knowledgeable about the issue as well as more connected to his community.

Through active listening, students gained valuable practice navigating a politically charged conversation in a reasonable and careful way. As our students approach difficult issues in the classroom, wherein they more typically shy away from confrontation and tension. Part of this habit extends from a healthy understanding of respect and compassion, but our academic conversations often fall short of producing new ideas because disagreement prompts fear and vulnerability. One senior expressed, “It was freeing to see people share their opinions really candidly.”

A student facilitator felt a sense of accomplishment that a strident proponent of immigration restrictions at the beginning of the conversation could “sense the messiness of the topic” by the end. Another student reported that even though some participants came in with strong positions, as the conversation progressed and everyone had to identify the values of choices they didn’t agree with, people became better listeners and even those with minority views expressed “feeling heard.” The reason for this, according to one student, is that “deliberation allows you to be wrong and change your mind.”

While students grapple in the classroom with the consequences of ideologies and with the effects of polarization, they learn to translate their intellectual curiosity into the work of civic leadership when facilitating a deliberation with community members. Sometimes this involves listening well and showing respect to people with ideas that are abhorrent to them personally. But sometimes they have to push past their own biases in a different way. After an influential community leader labeled the option to build a border wall as both “stupid and evil,” the student facilitator had an internal struggle—how could she get them to engage seriously with a different point of view—even if she agreed with them; especially since they were all educated, older, and wiser. She said she decided to “lean into” the deliberative practice she’d been taught, and she wouldn’t let the table move past that option until they could identify the values inherent in that perspective.

This was such an effective tactic that, by the end, they had named more strengths about that option than any other option. Although they still disagreed with building a wall as a best option, they had a robust conversation about the nature of citizenship and its particular privileges and responsibilities. The student walked her Santa Barbara neighbors through a difficult set of questions and careful dialectics, pushing like-minded individuals to engage with ideas they would normally reject. The student reflected, “Even though I didn’t feel like I was the most educated at the table, I still could press the group to consider the values embedded in approaches that did not appeal to them.”

Yet, this event gave students more than an opportunity to practice their skills as conversational guides. The feeling of excitement and tangible passion for the work of deliberation spilled over into the hours of cleanup and well into the next week of classes. As a senior kinesiology major explained, deliberation

“taught me to be really thoughtful about my own value system and, then, to recognize the humanity in someone else’s value system.”

A political science major reflected, “I’ve gotten a lot better about listening without thinking about what I’m going to say.” Another student, who mentioned in her final reflection how intellectually exhausting the deliberation felt, concluded “I think there is power in dialogue, and the more we can access the power, the stronger our communities will be.” Our student-participants understood what it looked like to help revitalize civil discourse; they saw that it was difficult, yet achievable.

What We Learned

Embedding facilitation training in existing courses has several advantages. First, it requires minimal additional resources and reaches an already committed group of students. Students had course-based incentives to show up to the evening immigration forum, for instance, and this meant that we had full participation—a feat much harder to achieve when students view participation as an “extra.” Next, adding real-world application to classes heightens students’ commitment to the material. Knowing that they would need to apply the information in the reading and course assignments to a community context ensured that they did the work. Finally, this structure enhanced course content.

Through in-class deliberations, both groups had to wrestle through complex social problems and reflect on the trade-offs and tensions in each solution. In preparation for the immigration forum, Group Communication and Leadership students deliberated the opioid crisis and Transnational America students deliberated historical decisions, specifically the U.S./Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century and the European refugee crisis after World War II. Rather than learning about the material through lectures and discussions, students grappled with their own personal stakes in the issues and learned to identify what different stakeholders held valuable in each context.

And unlike political soundbites, deliberation stresses the complexity of issues, which helped students to prepare for the community forum. One student reflected on how important it was for her to take every option seriously as a table facilitator. “Even though I agreed with what the women [at my table] were saying, I kept [internally] yelling at myself to think deeper. I was pressing myself to understand how people ranked things they held valuable differently. We know good people who believe [differently than we do]. What are their values?”

Nevertheless, this method also has its limitations. The students taking the communication course had significantly more facilitation and note-taking exposure and practice than the students enrolled in Transnational America simply because of course content and focus. Group Communication and Leadership students had the advantage of facilitating their own campus dialogue as part of their course credit, giving them external practice ahead of the community event. This built confidence and reinforced facilitation strategies—such as parking lots and stacking—that are useful in tricky conversations.

Transnational America students did participate in two deliberations in class, but they only had one session in which they practiced facilitation with peers before the community forum, leaving them at a disadvantage when it came to moderating a table in the community. As one table facilitator aired during a group debrief session, it “felt like you were trying to wrangle a conversation with your family at Thanksgiving dinner except they were strangers and they weren’t drinking. People would get on soapboxes and then distract from main issue. I didn’t always know my place in the conversation…and the hardest part was not knowing where to step in.” Reflections from the communication students suggested that they had a better sense of what to do in these “Thanksgiving dinner” situations than the Transnational America students because they had more reinforcement of key ideas.

Rather than allowing students to dwell in defeat, however, we used such training imperfections as debrief opportunities. Researchers have shown that while dissonance can be a positive learning tool, it must be accompanied by self-reflection and dialogue so that students can productively confront discomfort, which otherwise might lead to withdrawal.3 Immediately after the event, we gave students the opportunity to vent about the rough moments and celebrate the highlights as a group. We then structured class time and assignments around reflections for the next week. It was important to us that students had forums to express how they would have done things differently in the future. Current educational theory has proven that errors in learning are what lead to mastery.4 When given ample space and time to process failures, students take deeper ownership over their learning, which we hope leads to longer-term investment practicing these skills in their local communities.

Implications for Communities

Equipping students to facilitate community deliberations bridges chasms between higher education and local neighborhoods, offering students an access point into community development in a more robust way than most service learning opportunities. It also reinforces the value of small liberal arts colleges, since they have the capacity to train small groups of students to do this work. As one senior English major noted, “I think these conversations are hard, but they also stretch you. This is what we can give to the community as liberal arts thinkers; this is good work to do and a valuable use of our time.” Since we embedded the work into existing classes, the model can be used as a resource for those without stand-alone centers devoted to civic engagement or deliberation. It engages faculty to use their disciplinary training to frame local concerns while prioritizing the contributions of local citizens.

As we move forward, we want to chart the local impact of this work in a more systematic way. From the scant anecdotal evidence that we collected, this method seems promising. Several participants, for instance, approached facilitators at the end of the night to express their gratitude for organizing such a community-focused event. One participant effused about how significant it was for her, as a long-time college donor and supporter, that the institution demonstrated an interest in key issues affecting Santa Barbara County.

That said, such comments must be contextualized within broader and clearer research goals to be valid. As we continue to host forums using student facilitators, we are optimistic that we can begin to measure the impact of this work on the larger community. And in so doing, perhaps our neighbors will no longer see liberal arts colleges as obsolete, but as partners in the essential work of civic problem solving.

Rachel Rains Winslow is associate professor of history at Westmont College and author of ‘The Best Possible Immigrants: International Adoption and the American Family’. She also serves as a fellow with the Kettering Foundation, directs the Center for Social Entrepreneurship and co-directs the Westmont Initiative for Public Dialogue and Deliberation.

Deborah Dunn is a professor of communication studies at Westmont College. Her research and teaching focuses on grassroots peacemaking organizations, dialogue, and transforming conflict. She also co-directs the Westmont Initiative for Public Dialogue and Deliberation.

1 Eoin O’Carroll, Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2019, accessed August 30, 2019,

2 R.A. and E.L. Bjork, “A New Theory of Disuse and an Old Theory of Stimulus Fluctuation,” in From Learning Processes to Cognitive Processes, eds. A.F. Healy, S.M. Kosslyn, and R.M. Shiffrin (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1992), 35-67.

3 Kari B. Taylor and Amanda R. Baker, “Examining the Role of Discomfort in Collegiate Learning and Development,” Journal of College Student Development 60, no. 2 (2019): 173–88.

4 Peter C. Brown, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard, 2018), ch. 4.

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