International Initiatives

South Africa


The need for Difficult Dialogues initiative at the University of the Free State (UFS) was identified by top management. The Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice on campus initiated contact with the U.S. consultant and the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) accepted responsibility for the implementation of the project.  Financial support has been provided by the office of the Vice Rector Academic.

Project Leader and co-facilitator Dr Deirdre van Jaarsveldt of the Centre for Teaching and Learning cites the Start Talking handbook in describing the purpose of the UFS initiative:

The Difficult Dialogues project promotes the development of the art and skill of civil discourse. Through the encouragement of respectful, transformative dialogue on controversial topics and complex social issues, a nonviolent approach is taken to dealing with difficult issues.

The project involves the creation of democratic spaces in university classrooms where diversity and the expression of different views are welcomed and respected. Discussions of this nature provide enriching and transformative learning opportunities for students. By means of this approach, the Difficult Dialogues initiative pursues its main mission: to strengthen a democratically engaged society, hereby reflecting a commitment to pluralism and academic freedom.

UFS Difficult Dialogues session

The UFS Difficult Dialogues program involves multiple threads:

1) Academic Staff Intensive
During 2012 and 2013 the Difficult Dialogues project offered an annual week-long development seminar designed to introduce academic staff to a wide range of strategies for proactively introducing controversial topics into the classroom.
Faculty are assisted in ways to create democratic spaces in their classrooms where religious, racial, ethnic, linguistic and other forms of diversity are welcomed and respected.  Faculty are then supported to try out new approaches in the classroom to engage students in discipline-appropriate difficult dialogues by means of year-long faculty learning communities.  The project was based on the model developed by the University of Alaska Anchorage Difficult Dialogues Initiative (described in the Start Talking book); UAA Difficult Dialogues Director Libby Roderick served as consultant and facilitator for the initial phases of this project.

2) Economic and Management Sciences (EMS) Skills Development program
The Difficult Dialogues project was integrated into the undergraduate programme of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences through foundational skills development modules. The modules, which were presented during 2012 – 2013, intended to prepare students for the world of work.  The modules were compulsory for all students from the first year up to the third year of study and were presented in smaller groups of approximately 30 students, each with its own facilitator. Weekly facilitators’ meetings were held with the module coordinators, for purposes of feedback, training and planning. The project involved training of eighteen facilitators in strategies for introducing appropriate controversial topics in EMS courses and ways to ensure productive civil discourse in the classroom.

The participants represented a reasonably homogenous group of young adults with a reserved cultural heritage. The feedback received from these participants indicated that they had benefited greatly from this project. Many comments indicated that transformative learning had taken place and appreciation was expressed for the non-judgmental stance that was taken, as this facilitated genuine engagement in difficult dialogues. The participants reported that they could and would take what they had gained with them to new contexts.

3) Faculty or Department Specific Workshops
The Difficult Dialogues project provides workshops for academic staff designed to explore teaching strategies which acknowledge the sensitivity related to diversity. Some of these initiatives included a session with heads of department within the Faculty of Health Sciences relating to difficult dialogues in the workplace. A workshop was also held with a group of lecturers involved in Service Learning to assist them to promote transcultural learning by means of difficult dialogues. The School of Nursing found a mini-workshop with first year students on conflict management and respect for diversity to be beneficial and has consequently started incorporating Difficult Dialogues sessions into the undergraduate programme. These initiatives have proven the flexibility and relevance of the foundational aspects of the project.

4) The Casebook
A team is currently working on the compilation of a casebook relating to the project implementation at the UFS. The envisioned purpose of the book is to present the project content and participant responses in such a way that the reader will be included in reflective dialogue.

5) Conference Presentations and Workshops
Two papers have been presented at national and international conferences and two articles are pending publication in the proceedings flowing from these conferences. A successful introductory workshop was presented at a national teaching and learning conference during 2013. Sixteen persons representing various institutions across South Africa participated and a keen interest was shown in this work. A request was made that invitations to Difficult Dialogues workshops be extended to colleagues at all institutions of higher education in South Africa in future.  UFS hosted the national conference of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (HELTASA) in November 2014, and offered two pre-conference workshops (“Facilitating civil discourse for social change” and “Dialogue on disability:  Opening channels for success.”)  In addition, an interactive session entitled “The UFS sculpture walk:  creating innovative spaces for difficult dialogues” introduced participants to sculptures throughout the UFS campus which provide opportunities for provocative dialogue about key social issues.

6) Facilitation Trainings
In 2015, UFS offered 2-day trainings for faculty and other interested parties in “The Finer Arts of Facilitation” and “Facilitating Civil Discourse on Contentious Issues.” 

Topics included:
- Establishing mutual expectations;
- Setting ground rules for discussion;
- Creating the right conditions for democratic discussion, for example: dispositions for democratic discussion, decentralising the role of the lecturer, encouraging participation, responding to student contributions;
- Considering language and related issues, such as: rhetoric and debate, second language learning and language identity;
- Encountering controversy more effectively in teaching and learning; and
- Engaging students in explorations of controversial issues relating to curricular content by means of civil discourse.

Trainings were also offered to support staff (including teaching assistants, tutors, academic advisors and heads of residential halls), and departments that adopted the Difficult Dialogues approach were eligible for more in-depth “train-the-trainer” workshops.