Friday, January 8, 2021

The inaugural episode of the University of Iowa College of Education Office Hours podcast features Sherry Watt, professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs, speaking about her research in difficult dialogues and their outcomes. Her "Theory of Being" informs the college's Anti-Racism Collaborative (ARC)which was formed last summer after the global awakening following George Floyd's murder.

Listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Read the podcast transcript below.

Podcast Transcript

Dan Clay: Hello, welcome to the University of Iowa college of education's Office Hours, a spotlight on our faculty alumni and students. I'm Dean Dan Clay.

Mei-Ling Shaw: And I'm your host Mei-Ling Shaw

Dan Clay: Today, we will hear from Dr. Sherry Watt professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs about her research on difficult dialogues and how that work informs our college's Anti-Racism Collaborative.

Mei-Ling Shaw: The college formed the Anti-Racism Collaborative or ARC after the global awakening following George Floyd's murder last summer. I had a chance to speak with Dr. Watt last fall and we began by discussing how she first became interested in difficult dialogues and their outcomes as a young professor.

Sherry Watt: When I was a young assistant professor my focus was always on how to improve conversation and dialogue so that it was productive but I wasn't quite sure what were the all of the factors that derailed the conversation. So as I started to observe that happening more and more in my classes that our conversations begin to go off track and I wanted to understand the pattern better. So I began to research what is it look like for people to be in productive dialogue And what does it look like when they're resistant in dialogue. And so the research started to reveal all of these sort of patterns that were defensive reactions that people often had when they were engaged in difficult dialogues and of the beginning of the research, we thought the reason people are doing it is because they just don't want to hear this. They don't want to know about complex issues social society issues like racism. And then because of the research process we were using we began to focus a bit more on how are we processing this information and we started to admit to ourselves as well as to them that it was natural, normal, in fact, for people to resist new information or information that was different than what they had been raised to believe. The defensive reactions that we are observing and calling resistant were in fact ways for them to find how to get into the dialogue and how to stay in the dialogue. And once they realize their own defensive reactions, they shift their focus from defending themselves to actually talking about the problem or what the issue is. 

Mei-Ling Shaw: Professor Watt's work in the patterns of defensiveness in personal reaction feel especially applicable to this particular moment in history. Many of those same patterns emerge as barriers to creating space for honesty and progress. Discussing why our country feels so polarized, the topic of social media and cancel culture naturally surfaced.

Sherry Watt: I think that canceling sometimes just creates more fuel for the argument and entrenches them more into what they're being called. I really think we have to figure out a way to have stamina to be in a conversation and to be present with people who completely disagree with you or who aren't completely on board. It doesn't change what we're trying to accomplish and in fact it informs what we're trying to accomplish because they're adding content, they're adding the full picture. We all have to look at the full picture. So the fact that I don't let you in the room because you're a white supremacist, racist, homophobic, if I don't let you in the room does that make you any less? Does that mean does that actually mean that racism and homophobia doesn't exist? As hurtful as it is and as maddening, you know, as it is, it's part of the truth the truth of what people see and what people believe and that's another part of this that we have deep discussions about on my research team. There are some students who are like there is a right answer and there is a way that is unjust and we should tell people we shouldn't let racist homophobic language just sit in a room my point back to them usually is what we can't just tell them they can't come in the room and how are you ever going to learn if you're just sitting in a room with people who think like you? We have to figure out where to situate that voice in the dialogue in a way that creates the possibility that there could be some change on their part and that there could be some evolution on everybody's part.

Mei-Ling Shaw: As we talked about personal evolution, Dr. Watt continued to address the need for organizational transformation and responsibilities and how the ARC supports that change.

Sherry Watt: I do believe that as a college we have certain values and I think with this work is trying to do is to help us live up to those. It doesn't set this high standard that like, okay here everyone has to agree on this definition of anti-racism, We all have to do this, if we don't have anything else, it's a compromise. Well, what if I don't believe that's the case then can I not be on board? No, you can still be on board, wherever you are. You have to find your way in this. I'd much rather have you tell me the truth then to tell me some version of this thing that you think I want to hear because then we're not at the real work.

Mei-Ling Shaw: Professor Watt's Theory of Being informs the structure of our conversations large and small. I asked her to lay out what that looks like and how they actually go about creating space for honest dialogue.

Sherry Watt: So we introduced the Theory of Being by just talking about the rationale for why it's important to have a structure and pay attention to a process-oriented approach to how to go about change and addressing social injustice. One of those is that it's necessary because racism is an enduring problem. There's no finish line. We're not going to reach the place that one day where We look up and racism doesn't exist. It's taken us hundreds of years to absorb this, to breathe this air that has all of this bias, and all of this degradation and dehumanization. We've lived it for so long. There is no way for us to just come up with some quick fix. We're going to have to be in this eternal conversation that helps us to constantly revisit and undo it, which is the second point of this is that dialogue is necessary. How do you have authentic dialogue that is difficult, that is also very truthful? And I think that some of the skills that were talking about these practices help create the conditions for people to show up as their whole selves, as they're authentic selves and contribute in ways that are productive to deconstructing a problem that actually impacts us all. It doesn't just impact me as a person of color. Our world is burning literally and figuratively because of the ways in which racism has played out in our society and in our culture. The last part also includes missteps. Understanding that people are going to make missteps and that we can't let those carry as fatal flaws. So you can't then just say well that person is this now and that person is that now and we are going to cancel them. In fact, we have to recognize that missteps are going to happen. How do we offer some grace in that? And how do we all offer it though with holding people accountable, sincere apologies, all of those things still happening, but not make them such a barrier that we can't move past them.

Mei-Ling Shaw: As we finished our conversation, Dr. Watt revisited the importance of this work in the organization and across the country. She stressed our own individual roles in shifting the future of our society.

Sherry Watt: We are at a place that all of the fires have been set off to get us to polarize rather than actually looking at what the problem is and how to address the problem. So I think we have to shift our focus and start to figure out how we go about doing that work. What we have been doing is so much more clearly problematic. Now, what we have been doing is allowing people and allowing our organizations to have this structure that perpetuates the system. We keep looking back and realizing will hardly any progress has been made, not real progress not the kind that transforms people. We have the kind of progress that might you know, you're constantly trying to increase the numbers of minority teachers or folks of color in this or that we have that kind of maybe evidence, but not in ways that transform the institution, not in ways that transform the mindset. So we've reached a point in a my view that we have to say, okay, what is it that we're going to do to transform the organization so that everyone who works in the organization understands this imperative, and to me that is where the work is going to be done. Not  someone else doing it, not some list that we've come up with, but actually individuals asking ourselves where I contribute to this overall organizational effort where I am situated. What do I see and how can I go about shifting that and that shift could be my own disposition, you know, that shift could be oh, I noticed something and how we're going about working that creates a bias will now that we know this, how are we going to go about making sure that doesn't happen. What are the barriers and how might we do something that's an act of courage and bravery to shift the way that we've always done it to do some things that are different so that we're living the values we say we have. And if we're able to do that then I think the outcome is better for children, it's better for you know, how we work with each other, it's a kinder more holistic way to live.

Mei-Ling Shaw: Thank you for listening to the University of Iowa College of Education Office Hours. For more information on our people and our programs, please visit Today's podcast was produced and edited by Mei-Ling Shaw with editorial assistance from Sara Nelson and Brian Vogelgesang. Thank you to Professor Watt for sharing her time.




Host and Producer: Mei-Ling Shaw
Editorial Assistants: Sara Nelson and Brian Vogelgesang
Audio Mixing: Kyle Marxen