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Open-minded campus dialogue needs to become part of the classroom, as well

Sept. 24, the University will hold its first-ever "Day of Dialogue" devoted to open and honest discourse about community responsibility and campus safety. University faculty, staff and students will join together for a day of spirited discussion about the University's strengths and weaknesses. "Day of Dialogue: Toward a Caring Community," initiated by President Theresa A. Sullivan, comes in the wake of the murder of Yeardley Love in Spring 2010. Although the Day of Dialogue represents an excellent opportunity to establish a community wide reflection about our University's strengths and weaknesses, this open and honest dialogue should move into our classrooms and lecture halls where it has previously been lacking. Classroom education must expand beyond course material to include more real world issues and discourse about University life.

In an address to the community earlier in the year, Sullivan emphasized the importance of open and honest dialogue to creating a more caring and active community. "It is my hope that a full day of open and vigorous discussion about violence, violence prevention and best practices for campus safety will bring us together in new ways so that each of us can feel safe to participate fully in the life of the University," Sullivan said.

Other initiatives, such as the "Let's Get Grounded Campaign," were launched to open dialogue about student and University issues. The "Let's Get Grounded Campaign" is described by Student Council as a "student-run initiative proposed to combat the social norm of bystander behavior ... to encourage and empower students, faculty and staff to recognize, react and respect." These initiatives are an excellent beginning to a more open and closer-knit university community. Despite these campaigns, the question still remains whether these initiatives will extend into the classroom, where the discourse is equally important.

During my four years at the University, I have found that classroom discourse has been consistently limited to class material and sometimes the occasional outside event that is somehow or another relevant to the subject matter being studied. I can honestly count on one hand the professors that have moved their class discussion beyond course material and opened up a dialogue about University issues and other social and cultural debates. Not surprisingly, the professors that did engage the class in real world issues are the ones that have stayed with me as I have pursued different studies at the University. Although it is important to instill a foundation in core English novels and international relations terminology, for example, it is equally important to engage students in discourse about social issues and University concerns.

Many of the professors I have encountered at the University tend to shy away from expressing their own political beliefs, social values and community concerns within their lecture halls or discussion classes. This, most likely, is due to the professors' fear that in expressing their own viewpoints, they will inevitably alienate certain students who possess different points of view. Or it is simply because there is not enough lecture time to devote to course material, so all other matters get put on the back-burner. Thus, most lectures seem to focus entirely on class material and more rarely on current events, pressing social issues or University-wide concerns.

For example, as a student of political science, I have often found myself guessing endlessly at the political orientation of my professors and their stands on a range of different political issues. Perhaps my professors' personal views do not matter. People's individual beliefs are their own. Yet, as I begin to reflect on my college experience in my fourth year, I wish my classroom experience at the University had been different. I wish I knew my professors' stand on universal health care, immigration policy, government spending, etc., even if in the end our views differed. As a student in English, I wish my professors had taken five minutes out of lecture to discuss an interesting novel they were reading or even encouraged student submissions to undergraduate writing contests. Even more so, I wish my professors had taken five or ten minutes out of lecture to discuss some aspect of University life such as campus safety, alcohol consumption or even student volunteer activity. This type of student-faculty engagement was on the most part lacking from my undergraduate experience where it should have been strong and thriving.

Although arguments can be made for creating an unbiased classroom setting or for protecting the privacy of personal beliefs, the arguments for open classroom debate and discussion are perhaps stronger. I would have welcomed more access to my professor's viewpoints as I attempt to develop my own standpoint on political and social issues. It is only in hearing opposing viewpoints that we can strengthen our own.

There is a need for greater classroom engagement between faculty and students. Dialogue must exist at all levels, encouraged inside the classroom and out. University professors should express their viewpoints on pressing issues and even more importantly, incorporate current events and community concerns into their lecture plans.

Lectures must expand beyond course material and incorporate vibrant discussion about relevant world and community affairs. Debate should be encouraged and opposing viewpoints welcomed. Yes, we attend class to learn a specific subject matter, but we also attend class to hear from those who have experienced more of life than we have. We attend college to learn more than what we can find in a book. Professors should make an effort to expand discussion into subject areas beyond their course syllabus. Together as a community- faculty and students - we should welcome a tenacious dialogue about community affairs, social issues and the larger world in the place we all meet: the classroom.

Ashley Chappo is an opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.ford@cavalierdaily.com.

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