By Matt Michaloski ’14
The Wabash Rhetoric Department hosted the Brigance Colloquy on Civic Engagement and Public Discourse from February 10-12. The colloquy kicked off with the annual Brigance Forum Lecture on Monday evening, Feb. 10th. It was given by Dr. Martin Carcasson of Colorado State University on the topic, “Changing the Conversation: The Role of Colleges and Universities in Supporting Community Problem-Solving.” On the next evening of February 11, Dr. Carcasson and visiting students and faculty from other schools gathered in Detchon Hall to participate in a civic engagement workshop. The colleges and universities represented were Allegheny College, Colby College, Colorado State University, Kalamazoo College, and Providence College. Members of the Wabash community had the opportunity to select three sessions and learn about civic engagement efforts being conducted at the visiting schools. The workshop’s goal was to explore the “best practices” for pursuing civic engagement in higher education with an emphasis on applying these ideas to Wabash.
I first attended a workshop presentation given by a professor and student of Providence College which sought to explain their global studies program and its attempts to “localize” global issues. They shared the story of a former student who had been distressed by the large amount of wasted food that he had seen his college throwing out. Being a student in a Community Organizing class, he decided to apply his learning towards a useful goal and created a program which effectively partnered the campus dining service with local organizations for the homeless. His program successfully distributed thousands of pounds of food that would have ended up in the garbage. After its proven success, his program collaborated with a national non-profit to provide education and training on the donation and distribution of spare food. In this way, a college student found an effective way to communicate with his community and organize their efforts to attack a local problem which provided useful information for a larger, national organization and therefore managed to attack the problem on a grand scale though beginning the fight locally. The presenters passed out literature detailing other successful collaborations between the campus and community.
Next, I attended a presentation given by Dr. Carcasson on CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation. This center is partnered with a specialized course on deliberative democracy, and it relies on trained students to facilitate workshops which deliberate on democratic issues. Dr. Carcasson emphasized that the university provided a particularly good forum for community discussions because students happen to be ideal arbitrators: they are somewhat removed from the community issues being discussed but not indifferent; they are good at note-taking and communication; and they tend to be eagerly curious. He mentioned the recent example of community discussions involving the proposal for a new stadium on the CSU campus. The Center gathered information on the arguments about construction by polling and holding public gatherings. It presented this information to the University President, believing that it would enhance his understanding of what things the community most desired.
The last presentation I attended was also given by Dr. Carcasson and concerned the theory behind the work done at the Center for Public Deliberation, which he termed “polarity management.” Organization management is a fairly pragmatic field of study developed by corporate America to better understand the optimal techniques for management. It involves finding the optimum balance between opposite attitudes towards management (between impractical rigidity and aimlessness, for instance). He pointed out both the value of such an understanding for other issues outside of business management and the tendency for political opponents (at all levels from school boards to national politics) to accuse each other of supporting absurd goals. Dr. Carcasson argued that this is typically untrue and that it is wiser to understand that our opponents typically seek a different balance than we do. He used the example of increased TSA restrictions and argued that no one hates liberty and that no one hates safety but that there are many who would prefer one balance of the two to someone else’s. It is his belief that the ideal balance can best be found by coming together to identify the key tensions of an issue, to identify the positives of each possible extreme, and to imagine how they might be balanced.
This evening presented a good opportunity for students of rhetoric to consider several useful applications of their skills, all of which depended on the efforts of undergraduates.