The college received an $800,000 grant this summer from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund a faculty training program with a focus on techniques to better engage students with controversial topics. The grant will also help fund a collaboration with the Vermont Humanities Council, including a monthly statewide speaker series.
The program will consist of a six-person faculty workshop each semester over three years, culminating in 36 trained faculty members. Outside consultants will lead these workshops beginning in the spring of 2019. Faculty will be invited to apply to participate in the workshops in mid-October.
The idea of respectful engagement with controversial ideas has been at the forefront of the college’s collective consciousness since the protests of Charles Murray’s visit to campus in 2017.
Political Science Professor Sarah Stroup, the faculty head of the training program and one of the professors who prepared the grant application, said the college has two fundamental questions to answer: what are we going to talk about and how will we engage in those discussions?
“The passionate divisions around these questions were most obviously evident in the spring of 2017, but this challenge goes well beyond any one speaker,” Stroup said.
Stroup believes that the faculty training workshops will contribute to such a sphere by giving faculty the training necessary to facilitate open, respectful and equitable conversations. In moments of controversy in the classroom, for example, these trainings will help professors to better manage the discussions.
“The ability to facilitate those conversations is an acquired skill, but most of us, faculty and students, have avoided the costs associated with developing those tools. The Mellon money alters that equation,” Stroup said.
Stroup emphasized, however, that the program will go beyond faculty.
“The faculty fellows program is faculty-led but student focused. The content of the workshops will be determined based on input from staff, students, and faculty, and I hope to engage resident experts as well as students in the January and August workshops,” she said.
President Laurie L. Patton supports this use of funds to support a focus on participation in difficult discourse.
“Building a robust and inclusive public sphere is one of the defining issues of our time, and is the first part of our new vision statement,” she said.
Stroup also noted that the Vermont Humanities Council series is a great way for the community to get involved. The “First Wednesdays” series hosts monthly talks in nine different cities in Vermont, including Middlebury.
“Anyone can volunteer to help with facilitating the new format or to have their visiting speaker try out a new approach to audience engagement,” she said.
The Mellon Foundation was established in 1969 and is dedicated to supporting institutions of higher education in their pursuit to do forward-thinking work in the humanities and arts.
More information on the grant can be found at go/deliberation. The site also includes a section where people may offer input on the project.