Comunicar Journal Blog

“Let’s start from here:” Bringing deliberation back into the classroom

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” This famous quote from Joseph Joubert, together with some staccato reflections on three recent events, motivated me to compile this blog post. The first event was a workshop I attended, held by the Department of Media and Communication at City University of Hong Kong (my alma mater) on 27 March, entitled “International Workshop Political Polarization and Media: Cases in the US, Korea, and Hong Kong.” The second event was another workshop I (had to) attend as a part of new staff introductory training, organized by the Centre for Holistic Teaching and Learning at Hong Kong Baptist University (my current employer) on 29 March, entitled “Flat Space, Deep Learning,” lectured by Professor Eric Mazur, who is Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University. The third case was, unfortunately, far less enthusiastic: two students, each from one of the two classes I teach this semester, reported cases of “free-rider” problems in their group project assignments. You can guess what they said: “One of our group members is always out of contact and not doing his/her job…blah, blah, blah (thousands of words omitted here) …”

These three events took place within one week purely by accident. A normal faculty member will always encounter a lot of refreshing ideas as well as thorny issues at the end of the semester. But the case in point here is, how can people collaborate without pride and prejudice? How can we hammer the notion of deliberation and collegial collaboration into students? When society is being torn apart, how can we offer potential remedies? The answer probably is, like a song’s title, “let’s start from here.”

Let me start this reflection in chronological order. The workshop at CityU was fruitful and insightful, thanks to the organizer, Dr. Tetsuro Kobayashi. The speakers included Professor Shanto Iyengar (Standford), Dr. Kyu S. Hahn (Seoul National), and Professor Francis Lee (CUHK). Professor Iyengar brought tremendous empirical evidence on the extent to which U.S. society has become highly politically polarized. This evidence included, but was not limited to, the insane and unexpected 2016 election, the results from the feeling thermometer, and insights from the social distance scale introduced several decades ago. Data in the past several decades indicated a clear pattern. It is political ideology that is the basis on which people make a series of crucial decisions, just like those known factors like race, ethnicity, and religion. Nowadays, people heavily use partisan media; however, these media provide biased and distorted world views. People select communities to live in, and ideologies are highly clustered within these communities. People rate those who hold divergent political viewpoints more negatively, showing less support. People even select their mates according to ideology during online dating, which aims at establishing long-term relationships.

However, that was only part of the story. I got a chance to ask Professor Iyengar a question after the talk: speaking of those collaborative relationships, will people do business with those who have opposing political viewpoints? Professor Iyengar seemed to think for a while and said, “Well, probably no.” In other words, it is likely that a pro-Democrat company will not do business with a pro-Republican company, even if it generates great profit. Presumably, the case should be different in Hong Kong. I asked a similar question to Professor Francis Lee in the afternoon after his inspiring talk: “Will people who consider themselves ‘yellow ribbons’ use Taobao or Ali-pay?” Professor Lee replied, “I guess, yes. Someone who is not a big fan of China still may hold a lot of Chinese stock!” Taking these two divergent answers together, I am not sure whether Karl Marx and his associates will have a sleepless night.

Can I push the question further: what happens if people have to work with someone who is different? I am thinking about that piece in the New York Times: “Your Surgeon Is Probably a Republican, Your Psychiatrist Probably a Democrat,” which brings me to the next event.

Aiming at facilitating effective teaching and learning, Professor Eric Mazur promoted a group-based pedagogical method that avoided lecturers and exams. People work in groups and solve problems collaboratively, based on “case studies.” Oh, the famous case study—a method that gained its reputation from the similarly famous Harvard Business School and numerous learners and parodies all over the world. Three golden rules, however, as advised by the Harvard “B School” and Professor Eric Mazur, should be implemented when designing group projects: 1) the project should require the practical application of skills, 2) the project should be linked to real-world problems, and 3) the project should be instructed with a compelling narrative (“you are designing a marketing plan that is vital for a start-up company in a developing small city of mainland China…”). Particularly, Professor Eric Mazur elaborated on several of his requirements for the group projects: a) the projects should be difficult enough so that group members must collaborate to accomplish the task, b) the grouping of the students is random, and c) most importantly, when there are several group projects within one semester, students are required to change groups. That way, students can learn from each other and be exposed to different viewpoints. I was impressed by the professor’s pedagogical approach (although that workshop covered far richer information than I reported here), as I am now going to elaborate on the third case, something like a group of Democratic surgeons working with another group of Republican pharmacists.

I used to set up rules for group project assessments in my classes as such: students form groups based on their preferences, and all the students within one group should abide by a mutually agreed workload distribution. Having such a workload distribution endorsed by all the members, all the group members will receive the same score in the group assessment. What I used to follow is “procedure justice” (I must confess that I am a big fan of Jean-Jacques Rousseau). That is, I don’t mind if the workload is unequally distributed among the group members, as I always believe that students can actively form a group (rather than be assigned by me), negotiate among themselves, and sharpen everyone’s best skills under such a group contract. Why not let Amy, who is a veteran in SPSS, shoulder more quantitative work, whereas Rob, a drama society leader, can finish the entire 20-minute presentation?

Obviously, however, my method runs the risk of failure if students are not evaluating each other based on the performance of coursework, but on something identified by Professor Iyengar —notorious factors that lead to political polarization. Yes, unfortunately, I realized from several anecdotal cases (including the ones this time) that typical “free-rider” problems, “uncollaborative outliers,” or “bad group members” emerged when a group included students from varying majors, different genders, different pre-enrollment academic backgrounds, different career perspectives, both local and international exchange students, and both part-time and full-time students. As a keen observer of political polarization studies, I remembered that one of the measurements of political deliberation reads something like this: “How frequently have you discussed politics with people who are a) with a different gender; b) with a different age; c) with a different race; d) with a different occupation, …, etc.?” Defined like this, most students nowadays may only rate below the theoretical median. Birds of a feather flock together, wherein polarization arises.

Hence, as a tiny and humble step toward my contributing two cents to the tearing apart of society, perhaps we can advise students to ensure they are always exposed to people who are different from themselves, be those filtering characteristics gender, age, income level, academic major, place of origin, dining schedule, mode of study, race, religion, interest in a course, GPA, hobbies, organizational membership, political ideologies, self-efficacy, personalities, and other possible items in an endlessly long list. Perhaps some “matching” process can be implemented before the class (via a pre-class questionnaire), i.e., assigning people with similar backgrounds into separate groups, a procedure much like deliberation polling.

In summary, there will always exist discontent with civilized deliberation. We are at the front lines, fighting against it.

[Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Dr. Wan-Ying Lin (CityU) for inviting me as an (additional) discussant in the workshop at CityU; together with the organizer, Dr. Tetsuro Kobayashi (CityU). I would also like to thank the support from Professor Alice Lee (HKBU) and Dr. Klavier Wong (Education U, HK) to make this blog post available to the public.] 

Figure 1: Professor Shanto Iyengar (left) and the discussant, Dr Marko Skoric (right)

Figure 2: Professor Eric Mazur is giving a lecture at HKBU

Prof Iyengar and Dr. Skoric
Figure 1
HKBU Workshop
Figure 2