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Difficult Dialogues: Asking the tough questions

Sept. 12, 2007
By Alison Wayner | Photo by Geoffrey Hauschild

(First in a two-day series)

Religion has long been considered a taboo topic of conversation, but a new initiative at Ohio University seeks to change that norm.

The Difficult Dialogues Project, funded by a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in cooperation with the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, is taking more than 200 of Ohio University's most academically promising freshmen and engaging them in conversations about religion. If, in the end, the students have come to a deeper understanding of one another's faiths (or lack thereof), the project's primary objective will have been achieved.

Ohio University freshmen taking part in the Difficult Dialogues Project gather in the Walter Hall Rotunda.Difficult Dialogues is spearheaded by Steve Hays with help from Elizabeth Collins (both are associate professors of classics and world religions) and Patricia Gunn (an associate professor of African-American studies). For the past two years, the three have been developing and testing three new courses designed specifically for the project: "Difficult Dialogues Concerning Religious Beliefs," taught by Hays; "Difficult Dialogues Concerning Gender and Sexuality," taught by Collins; and "Race, U.S. Law and Religion," taught by Gunn. 

The classes are offered throughout the school year, and Difficult Dialogues participants are required to take two of the three. Beyond the classroom, they will keep an electronic portfolio documenting their personal journey through this project and noting if and how they change as a result. What Hays is really hoping to see from students, however, is the emergence of a grassroots inquiry.

"I'm hoping the students will begin to come up with their own ideas based on our discussions," he said. "I would like to see them want to get the community and university involved in discussions and forums that help to develop greater understanding among individuals of various ages, genders, beliefs and backgrounds." 

Letters were mailed last spring inviting the top academic quarter of incoming freshmen to participate in Difficult Dialogues. More than 200 chose to be involved, and about 75 opted to live in Bush Hall, designated as the project's residence hall. To facilitate conversations during the summer and keep the students informed about required readings, Hays set up a Google group. 

"In seeing some of these online conversations, it's obvious that these students chose to participate in the program because they want to make sure they have more than just the cookie cutter freshman experience -- they're hungry for ideas, they want to make a difference in the world," Hays said. 

Megan Casebolt said she joined the program because her generation will have to deal with world problems caused in part by ignorance of religions. 

"I'm hoping that this group will help me better understand the positions of others on important issues, such as religion," she said. "I also hope that by knowing such a large group of people with varied backgrounds and beliefs, I will be able to expand my own knowledge and boundaries by learning from them." 

Randy Pasion said he wants to learn more about religions and belief systems and the people who follow them. 

"As soon as I saw the invitation, I was on board," he said. "Difficult Dialogues sounded like a fantastic opportunity to meet open-minded people and discuss many of the things that trouble our world and make life less enjoyable for people of all races and beliefs." 

Hays, Collins and Gunn have been careful to structure the classes in no ordinary way.  For instance, Hays resisted the traditional class syllabus, and the classes he and Collins are teaching seek more active engagement from students. These classes, consisting of 100 to 200 students, meet in two-hour blocks. The first hour involves a presentation of the day's material. During the second, students divide into groups of 20 for discussion. A faculty member works with each group as a partner in the educational experience.

"The faculty member's only responsibility is to do the readings for that day; no grading is required," Hays said. "The benefit is that these students get to really know a faculty member and hopefully get to see that a 50-year-old with a doctorate wrestles with the same issues as an 18-year-old college freshman. I think that in this setting, faculty members will enjoy interacting with students in a way they don't normally get to." 

Hays hopes students will begin to understand that forming coherent beliefs is difficult because of the complexity of human experience. 

"If these students can realize how problematic and tentative their own beliefs are, they are likely to look at the other guy's competing beliefs with a lot more sympathy," Hays said. "The big, overt reason for this program is that the world is at one another's throats over religion. The government, both domestically and internationally, is involved in wars that could go on for years and might possibly threaten civilization. The citizenry are polarized. We at the university have an obligation to bring healing wisdom in situations like these."

Tomorrow: The students hear from Robert O'Neil, national director of the Difficult Dialogues Project.

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