Professor Conducts Summer Research Project: ‘Engaging Students Across Difference’


Shawna Shapiro, an associate professor of writing and linguistics, conducted a research project this summer about how students interact with each other regarding contentious subjects.

The project, called “Students Engaging Across Difference,” used an online survey and in-person interviews to explore how often, and in what contexts, students have conversations with other students whose background or opinions differ from their own. Shapiro worked with two student research assistants, Jed Sass ’18 and Abla Laallam ’20, and all three hope that the results of their project will shape the Middlebury community going forward.

Shapiro said her goal was to better understand students’ conversations with one another, in part to discover what kinds of initiatives, resources, and experiences the college could provide to promote these conversations taking place.

“I want our future actions as an institution to be informed by data, not just by our often unquestioned assumptions about what students want and need from this intellectual community,” Shapiro said.

Sass added that another goal of the research was to seek out how students themselves feel about how they interact with others on campus. He cited several recent events that helped inspire this research, including Charles Murray’s visit, the election and the ongoing conversation about cultural appropriation.

According to Shapiro, the results of her research both confirmed existing hunches and provided a new window into student life. She found, as she expected, that Middlebury students value conversations that involve difference of opinion over contentious subjects — 88 percent of participants marked the survey with a four or a five to indicate they found these conversations “extremely important.” The study also showed that 25 percent of students participate in these conversations on a monthly basis and 48 percent do so weekly, though they found that students tend to have these difficult dialogues within their existing friend groups.

“There were also a few findings that surprised me,” Shapiro said. “For example, the dining halls and residence halls are the top two locations in which students are most likely to engage in these dialogues. The classroom is number three on the list. Co-curricular talks or events were much further down.”

All in all, Shapiro’s research showed that lack of opportunity to engage is not the nature of the problem.

“Students feel that the conditions aren’t right for genuine, thoughtful engagement,” Shapiro said. “They worry about the social ramifications, for example. They feel that people aren’t truly listening to one another.”

Laallam agreed, saying that the failure of those on campus to listen inspired her to participate in this project as a researcher.

“Last year was my first year at Middlebury and I noticed that people do a lot of arguing and disagreeing without actually listening to each other,” she said. “I wanted to investigate what led these conversations to be unproductive and maybe find a way to make those conversations better.”

Laallam felt the most significant trend the research revealed was that students often want to engage with new perspectives, but that they nonetheless have trouble finding opportunities to do this.

Students “feel like those interactions are extremely important, but they all found their conversations across difference to be unproductive for the same reasons,” she said.

Among those reasons, one that keeps many students from speaking up is a fear of peer criticism.

“The most widely cited reasons by the students we interviewed were that students feared judgment or criticism from their peers for voicing an opinion or belief that may be seen as controversial,” Sass said, adding that many of the interviewed students described a growing unwillingness within the Middlebury community to listen to opposing perspectives.

Sass also pointed out that their research found two very different mindsets coxisting within the student body.

“We noticed a noteworthy dichotomy in students’ attitudes towards engaging across difference,” he said. “While many students stated their belief that engaging with different opinions has now become more important than ever, others mentioned they are less willing to tolerate opposing viewpoints.”

Shapiro felt the most significant result of the research was that most students, especially students of color, do not feel heard by their peers.

“We don’t just need more ‘speech’ — we need more listening,” she said. “We did an analysis of survey responses from students of color, and those students were three times as likely as white students to feel that they weren’t being heard in these conversations. A number of participants across groups admitted that they themselves sometimes tune out when they hear a perspective they find illogical or offensive.”

Shapiro suggested perhaps the college needs an explicit curriculum that teaches students to listen across their differences. “Some folks in Writing Studies use the term ‘rhetorical listening’ to talk about this skill set — I’d love to know whether that term resonates with students,” she said.

Moving forward, Shapiro would like to focus on how this problem is already being addressed.

“I’d love to know from people in our community: When, where, and how have you deepened your listening and empathy-building skills? Who and what has helped you do so? And how might we become a community that is committed not just to free speech but to deep listening?”

Laallam hopes the results of their research will help students bridge divides more often.

“People with different opinions than yours aren’t your enemies. They’re another source of knowledge and experiences that could contribute to your growth,” she said. “Listening, empathizing and understanding can help [us] have great conversations if people were willing to set biases aside and just talk things through.”

Sass added that students have power to make an impact on campus culture regarding difficult conversations.

“What stood out for us in doing this research is that students really do care about the Middlebury community and want to see it move forward in a positive direction,” he said. “No matter how hard the college works towards fostering healthier dialogue on campus, the onus truly lies on the students to instill the change we