Conversation and the Christian University

Is there a difference between a "conversation" and a "discussion"?

This is a question I've been kicking around lately, particularly as it relates to my work at a Christian university.

I've wrestled with this question in the wake of the SoulForce visit to ACU. (SoulForce is a LGBT advocacy group.) After the SoulForce visit I gathered with some students, faculty and administrators to discuss reactions to the visit. During that discussion some students expressed some frustration with how the various "conversations" with SoulForce were handled.

My contribution on this subject was an attempt to make a distinction between "conversations" and "discussions." My point was that our campus tends to overplay the "conversation" frame. Everything is framed as a "conversation" on our campus. For instance, we said we invited SoulForce onto campus to have a "conversation" with them and that we remain keen to keep these "conversations" going on campus in the wake of their visit. Because these "conversations" are important. And so on.

My argument was that the word "conversation" has thicker connotations than simply "good mannered people talking." And it's these connotations that are causing trust problems and hard feelings between the students and the university.

Specifically, when we use the frame "conversation" we suggest that we go into the exchange with some degree of openness to change. Conversations have the potential for persuasion. Conversation entails risk. The Latin root of the word conversation is conversatio and it is the same root in the word conversion. The Latin conversatio literally means "to turn around/about." That is, when we enter a conversation we have some expectation that a "conversion" might take place. You might convert me, or I might convert you. That's the dynamic of a conversation.

The point is, when we deploy the frame "conversation" we activate an expectation in the minds of the students that the dialogue we are about to engage in has the potential for conversion. That both parties are placing some things at risk and are expressing an openness to change.

The trouble is, on some issues the University simply isn't willing or able to change. At least not at this time. So when we invite students to talk with us about these issues are we really, then, "having a conversation"? We're certainly talking to each other and listening respectfully. But are we "in conversation"?

My argument was, no, we're not. And this is the source of the hurt feelings between the students and the university. By deploying the frame "conversation" we create the impression of risk, potential for change, for conversion. We're saying to the students that you might change our minds on this topic. But when the "conversation" occurs the students face a brick wall. They quickly find out that the university isn't going to budge on this particular issue. So the students feel cheated and lied to. They thought they were getting one thing--a conversation--and instead got something very different, a pseudoconversation where students were listened to while they vented, but where nothing was really ever at risk. So the students walk away feeling psychologically managed and manipulated ("They just let us complain and vent so we'll feel listened to and then go away.").

Now let me be clear. All institutions have to have some non-negotiables that define its core identity and commitments. This is perfectly healthy and legitimate. So the problem isn't with these non-negotiables. The problem comes when we suggest we can have "conversations" about these non-negotiables. Because some things you just can't have conversations about. Yes, you can discuss or talk or vent or explain around these non-negotiables, but you can't really have a true conversation about them. To do so would be to put the non-negotiables on the table and make them open for negotiation, placing them at risk. In short, at any given time in the life of an institution there will be both non-negotiables and negotibles. Things we can have a conversation about and things that we can only discuss (where I explain more than I change). The trouble with overusing the frame "conversation" is that we blur this distinction in the minds of students. We make it seem that certain things are up for negotiation when they really aren't. And when students realize this in the midst of these "conversations" they feel lied to and cheated. They thought they were getting one thing and got something very different.

I know why we use the frame "conversation" so much. It conjures up notions of sharing, civility, listening, perspective taking, and hospitality. Beyond notions of "conversion" the Latin roots of conversation also mean "to live with." Which is a perfect word for what happens on a college campus: We live with each other. So this is a very good word for most of what we do at the university. But living with each other implies a kind of egalitarianism that suggests that we might also change each other. Or at least be open to that change. And it's at that point where the ideal of the university--scholars living together in free discourse--runs up against the institutional reality of the university, where some things, like it or not, aren't really open for conversation.

And that's okay, we just need to be clear about that up front and be alerted to the hopes we dash when our "conversations" turn out to be something very different.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

20 thoughts on “Conversation and the Christian University”

  1. Just for clarification. Should I understand that students or professors at ACU cannot be openly and happily gay, bi or lesbian? are they expelled if so?

  2. That's a bit complicated and there's been a lot of conversation on campus about "what exactly the policy is."

    The Student and Faculty handbooks prohibit pre-marital sex of any kind. The implications of this are that heterosexual married students/faculty can, of course, have sex. Given that the US doesn't recognize homosexual unions, any homosexual activity is, by US law, "pre-marital." Now, if the US recognized gay marriage then the Handbooks wouldn't have any wiggle room and would have to take an explicit stand on the issue. But right now, the phrase "pre-marital" catches all homosexual activity without overtly prohibiting it.

    Students and faculty can openly admit to same-sex attraction and a homosexual orientation. However, they have to be, per the Handbooks, celibate.

  3. When I was at ACU (early 90's) that was basically the case. Of course, the expelled option was a last resort, and usually "counseling" was the first step, much like the alcohol policy was.

    There was a friend of mine who wanted to work in the drama department at ACU, and was asked point blank at the time of his interview if he was gay. He was/is, and was not hired. I imagine it is the same standard now.

  4. And to add one note of clarification. My post above has less to do with the issue of homosexuality on my campus than with asking for greater clarity in talking with students about controversial issues about is or is not "on the table" in any given "conversation." Such clarity, while frustrating for students, would, at least, help them feel less patronized and "managed."

  5. This is not 100% accurate, but 99.99% so. "In the closet" is the descriptive norm.

  6. Hi Richard,
    I think those are some truly helpful distinctions you make. As I was reading through your post a couple questions arose. The first asks how the lines between negotiable and non-negotiable issues discerned? Who draws these up? The "institutional" element?

    The second question that occurs to me wonders at the dynamics behind the movement from non-negotiable to negotiable (and vice-versa). At what point can one legitimately claim that now is the time for a conversation? I suppose it largely comes down to the convictions of those individuals and groups who control the financial realities. But does this mean that the power to declare time for conversation resides only with those who hold the checkbook? Or is that too simplistic? Surely something ought to be said for the motivational force inherent in the voice of protest. Even it is "only" in the form of a "discussion."

  7. The comments here seem to be implying that the majority of students at ACU would prefer the Soulforce position on this issue. I can't imagine that this is accurate. It would be more accurate to say "some of the students" rather than implying that this is an issue pitting all students vs. the administration.

  8. Hi Alex,
    Regarding your first question, I think it's pretty complicated. People--faculty, students, administration--are all over the map (but the majority hold a conservative line). Which means in any given "conversation" people view those "non-negotiables" very differently. Insofar as this is the case, on an individual by individual basis, a "conversation" is happening, if only in the hearts and minds of those talking and listening. But when we scale up to the institutional level, we're talking about policies and procedures and those, rarely, are "on the table" when we talk with students. But students think they are, which is why we should clarify this for them.

    Moving to your second question. I've been thinking about this. It's not a binary issue I guess, this is a conversation and that isn't a conversation. I would think that every time we open our mouths there exists on some horizon of possibility the opportunity for change. Which means that even simple discussion is a kind of proto-conversation. Simply "bringing the topic up" is a vital and necessary prerequisite for change. Even if it only gives voice to the marginalized and disenfranchised. They need to be heard first of all. The conflict, I think, comes when the various parties see these discussions differently. Some see them as signs of change, proto-conversations, preliminary conversations, necessary but not sufficient conditions for change, while others see them as a mere airing of differences and viewpoints, with little expectation of change.

    With all this vagueness and diversity of viewpoints the "conversations" we have on campus are a kind of Rorschach test. What, exactly, are we talking about? Why are we even talking? What is the goal of the talking? Venting? Persuasion? Clarification?

    My post offers no real recommendations, it simply floats the caution that overplaying the "conversation" card without ever explicitly talking about our perceptions and expectations surrounding these talks breeds confusion and distrust.

  9. Given that the US doesn't recognize homosexual unions, any homosexual activity is, by US law, "pre-marital."

    But the US doesn't have monolithic marriage laws!


    Now, if the US recognized gay marriage then the Handbooks wouldn't have any wiggle room and would have to take an explicit stand on the issue.

    It's curious to me that they allow that "wiggle room". I'm surprised they haven't already closed that gap.

    I wonder what would happen if someone who was married in a jurisdiction that conducts same-sex marriages (one of the five US states or nineish foreign countries) were to apply.

  10. I like what you've said here, but I think room needs to be made for long conversations. If an institution isn't willing to change, but is willing to talk with those who would bring about change, I think that's a sign that eventually, they will change. These things can take a very long time.

  11. Right. The communication of what is "intended" by the talking (or at least what is currently possible) would be helpful to reduce the bruised feelings here.

    I think you raise the next appropriate question as well: If, on the institutional level, conversation is not possible, what exactly is the point of talking? Perhaps a clue could be found in the non-binary conception you suggest. Perhaps "change is NOT possible now" is simply too stark.

  12. qb loves it when institutional bait-and-switch is exposed. But while we're making helpful distinctions - this is a great post in that pursuit - we ought to be fair, too, and observe that people who appear to be intransigent may simply have set a pretty high bar for being persuaded. qb's open to being shown wrong about a lot of things, but some of them fall into a category where qb has invested a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in developing a rational position...and it'll take an uncommonly persuasive counterargument to move him.

    Plus, it's hard to speak of an institution as a conversation partner. If I'm the president of ACU, I don't have the prerogative of representing the institution by myself; I am accountable to others, who are in turn accountable to others. So a conversation with an institutional official is not really a conversation with the institution as such. That official may be personally open to change and may be putting his or her personal convictions at risk by engaging in a discussion, but the institution's "convictions" have a kind of "due process" associated with them that transcends the prerogative of the individual. We should not be so naive as to pretend otherwise.

    And +1 to those who agree that even a discussion can be understood as proto-conversation in the sense of expectations. If SoulForce is coming to ACU expecting dramatic change in institutional policy, SoulForce is expecting a terribly superficial thing. When institutions change, it is best that they change gradually over time so that the changes actually take root in the institutional culture.


  13. I tend to think the converse/discuss distinction is reflective of the academic tendency to unnecessarily confuse the problem instead of just saying what you want to. It's only more precise if you ignore the function of language and commit an etymological fallacy. You made good points otherwise, and as a former student, I can definitely empathize with the scholar vs. bureaucrats point and the frustrations for professors and students that thus ensues.

    Obviously, homosexuality is a hot topic with the Church, so I'm not going to weigh in in that regard.

    Very cool blog though. Discovered it by looking precisely for game theory applications to Christian thought. You have a lot of neat stuff here man, and should be proud.

  14. Joshua, you don't see a real distinction between offering a "discussion" and offering a "conversation?" Hmmm. qb thought the way Richard put it - "activates an expectation" - pretty well nails it. And married men, above all, ought to know something about "activating others' expectations."



  15. About as much as listening and hearing:Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson Discusses Music (from White Men Can't Jump). I'm not saying there isn't something to the meaning he's pulling out, but any time I hear "We need to talk" or "there's something we need to discuss", it "activates an expectation". Arguing semantics just doesn't do it for me. In this context, the "conversation" part just tells me the person is in tune with the lingo of a few groups running around out in the world. I do agree with his remarks about change, non-negotiables/negotiables, and openness.

  16. I've been thinking about your opening question. To me, the distinction between a conversation and a discussion would be that, in a conversation, one shares something of oneself, one's own perspective. It's not about outright persuasion, but rather about sharing one's own view, with perhaps some back story to demonstrate what shaped it and why, which may (or may not) resonate with others. Even where there's not assent, the mood remains congenial, and the conversation can continue on another day.

    With a discussion, there's a topic or an agenda, with merits or points brought out to support or dispute a particular viewpoint. A discussion is not personal, although people sometimes make it so; it's about an issue that's up for debate, and what should or should not be done in terms of policy. It's when those in discussions resort to personalized attacks on those of differing viewpoints that it all goes counter-productive. There's virtually no chance of persuasion at all when emotions start running high.

    I don't think institutions "have" conversations per se, but they can encourage them. Institutions make and enforce policy, and for policy to change, the people in those positions must themselves change or be replaced by those of differing viewpoints. Like in the corporate world, so in the collegiate world: the underling populace doesn't get to elect its governing officials.

  17. "Conversation" implies listening, that all the parties are hearing what the others have to say and taking it seriously, even sympathetically. It is not necessary that all the parties to a conversation come to an agreement, but it is most useful when they come to an understanding of one another and recognize the reasons that others have come to the the "positions" that they have taken and have made the decisions that they have made.
    If conversation is happening in Abilene, then that is surely a change from the way it used to be, and it is a sign of hope for the wider world beyond the coccoon of Abilene. If conversation can happen in Abilene, then it might happen anywhere.

    God's Peace to you.


Leave a Reply