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Elizabeth Cole



A Message from SPSSI's President

After the election of 2016, my own sense of political efficacy was pretty run down.  In the face of this historic outcome, honestly, what could I do? Students on my campus were distressed too.  Many of them were fearful about what the election meant for our collective ability to honor diversity, listen across difference, and maintain a peaceful, civil society.  Our dean called a town hall meeting for concerned faculty and students to gather and reflect. Although no one really knew what to expect, about 200 members of our community came together one evening for pizza and a lightly structured conversation in small groups.

In the report-out, an amazing thing happened. One student addressed the group, describing her sense that conservative students like herself had been silenced on campus. On my famously liberal campus you could feel the negative reaction to her comments in the room, and as another student raised her hand to respond, my stomach clenched in apprehension about how she might respond, and how the crowd would react.  But the second student didn’t call her out or criticize her.  Instead, she talked frankly about how her own experience as a member of a racial minority group made it painful to hear conservative perspectives framed as the marginalized ones.  And the first student replied in kind: responsively, calmly, and speaking from her own experience. Those two students ended up going off to the side to continue their conversation while a small group watched, and as I passed by later in the evening, it was clear they were listening to each other, and that the tone continued to be respectful, personal, and deeply engaged.  They were giving a master class about what dialogue looks like.  And those students revealed to me that the antidote to my own sense of helplessness was to use the tools I already had: my scholarship and teaching. 

The next day I reached out to the Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) to find out how I could learn to teach with dialogue.  For me, the classroom has always been an important place to act on my commitments to social justice.  Sharing the tools of social science with students allows them to understand and question their worlds in new and more sophisticated ways.  But dialogue offers another dimension: by helping students to grow their capacity to listen without judgment, while inviting others to share the diversity of experience and opinion, dialogue challenges our preconceptions and opens new avenues to work together across difference. The next year I had the opportunity to co-facilitate an IGR class.  I learned so much about pedagogy and dialogue, from both my co-facilitator and my smart and courageous students, but more importantly, it revitalized my sense of the importance of what we do, and my gratitude that I get to do it. 

As the end of the semester has wound down for many of us, it’s a perfect time to reflect on SPSSI as an organization of psychologists who are not only scholars but also teachers. This work makes social change, and it is central to our mission.  Our website offers a wealth of resources for teaching about social issues, and if you have a break over New Years, I hope you’ll take some time to explore them.  Our Teaching and Mentoring committee has done a great service in pulling together some of the innovative materials our members have designed and tested in their own classrooms.  This issue of the newsletter features contributions from psychologists who are doing creative work in their classrooms, including winners of our teaching awards, and their accounts will surprise and inspire you.  I know that’s the way I felt when I heard some of this issue’s contributors present at our convention in Pittsburgh last June.  Wherever this issue finds you, I hope you get to read this issue in a warm and comfy chair, and then, if you are a teacher, feel re-energized to meet the opportunities of another term.

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