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Sample Syllabus

Professor Wendy Petersen-Boring –
Professor David Gutterman –
Teaching Assistant: Mira Karthik –

The Conversation Project – Tier I: Foundational Skills
Spring ‘23 – Mondays & Wednesday, 1:10-2:40 PM

Welcome to the Conversation Project! This is the first in a two course sequence, The Conversation Project: Tier 1. Together the courses provide training for participating in and leading transformative conversations across differences in community, professional, and educational settings. The broader aims of the program are to build conversational foundations for democratic communities and to promote principles of equality, inclusivity, and pluralism. This course, Tier 1, focuses on the interpersonal skills for effective participation and facilitation of conversations: listening, staying grounded, increasing our capacity for non-reactivity, and cultivating curiosity and compassion for self and others.

In this Tier, our focus will be on cultivating a self ready for conversation. Our learning outcomes will be focused on further developing these intrapersonal skills:

  • Staying grounded
  • Listening
  • Developing compassion for self and others
  • Cultivating curiosity
  • Staying passionate and non-reactive
  • Understanding dispositions required for democratic citizenship
  • “Sweetening” the Emotions

The course takes a process-oriented approach to learning, developing skills over time. It offers you the opportunity to engage not only in an intellectual and cognitive way, but also with the “whole” of you. We encourage you to see the course as an on-going conversation between the material, the unfolding community of the class, and your own experience, including experience with wider communities.

The course also utilizes what the discipline of Contemplative Studies calls “critical first-person learning.” First person learning means that it is about you and it has experiential components – in many ways, our lived experience could be viewed as the ‘primary text’ of the course. At the same time, it includes critical thinking – reflecting thoughtfully on your experience in conversation with others in the class. Finally, we should also be thinking about “critical first-person-learning” in the plural sense (and not just the singular). One of the primary aims of the course is to create a strong sense of community – a “we” – where we will both learn from one another and develop our shared wisdom and understanding. To that end, we will engage in activities to build trust, vulnerability, and resilience among us, including for storytelling and partner work.

Sample of Class Assignments:

  • Self-Assessment –Thinking about the goals of this course, and about conversations across difference: What do you do well? What do you want to get better at? What do you envision for yourself and why is this work important for your life? Completed at beginning and end of the course.
  • Case Study Exercise – Identify a movement or issue you care about that is contentious. You will be asked to reflect on your issue throughout the semester. Write a short summary of the issue, what is at stake, and where you imagine points of difficulty. Find a podcast or audio recording, or a description of a conversation in this arena. What are the conversations like? Where are the difficult spots and why? What work is not happening because people cannot talk with one another?
  • Paying Attention Exercise – Pick a spot on campus or in the community where you can watch what is happening carefully and record your observations. Assigned throughout the semester with varying things to focus on, for instance: values, bodies, stress, conflict, consensus, physical space, etc.
  • Interview Exercise – Interview a person who holds responsibility in the world (outside Willamette) in a potentially contentious space: How do they stay settled and grounded? Where/How have they learned to navigate difficult conversations? When have they made mistakes and what have they learned from them? Due after Spring Break.
Willamette University

The Conversation Project