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UVA Students Report Positive Climate in Classrooms for Diverse Perspectives

Professor Rachel Wahl's class on dialogue is highlighted in this UVA Today story about students' high levels of comfort expressing their views in UVA classes.

Mike Mather

It was 2022 and Elon Musk was poised to buy Twitter. In professor Rachel Wahl’s new class called Political Dialogue, the pending purchase was a hot topic.

Some in the small class welcomed the billionaire’s takeover because they thought Twitter had been heavy-handed in stifling posts, a blow to free speech. Others fretted Musk would give conspiracy theorists a louder voice. But University of Virginia student Jered Cooper held a moderate point of view.

“I said, ‘Oh, you can set up a council to review things, and you have to have faith in the regular person to make good choices, and then things will go well,’” he reasoned with his classmates.

“History has not proven me correct.”

But the goal of Wahl’s class wasn’t to be right or wrong. It was to talk constructively about differences and be exposed to other views.

“We’re not trying to change each other’s minds. That’s what debate is,” said Skye Snider, a fourth-year student now enrolled in the same class Cooper took two years ago. “This is dialogue. You’re trying to understand one another and trying to understand yourself.”

These kinds of exchanges are common on Grounds.

Course evaluations collected each semester by the University Registrar show classrooms are a place of healthy dialogue. In the surveys, students signal agreement or disagreement to a variety of statements using a 1-5 scale. For example:

The instructor created an environment that respected difference and welcomed diverse perspectives.
Pie chart with 3 sections: Agreed or Strongly Agreed: 79%, Neutral: 20%, Disagreed or Strongly Disagreed: 1%
Data derived from UVA undergraduate student course evaluations, fall 2023. (Graphic by Jonelle Kinback, University Communications)

Each semester since 2021, the vast majority of UVA students “agreed” or “strongly agreed.” Last fall, the most recent data available, which includes more than 70,000 anonymous responses, shows nearly 80% of UVA students agreed or strongly agreed, while about 1% disagreed. The remainder offered neutral responses. According to Wahl, hearing and understanding other students’ perspectives is often the starting place for dialogue.

The instructor fostered an environment where I felt valued as an individual and that I belonged in class.
Pie chart with 3 sections: Agreed or Strongly Agreed 84%, Neutral 13%, Disagreed or Strongly Disagreed 3%
Data derived from UVA undergraduate student course evaluations, fall 2023. (Graphic by Jonelle Kinback, University Communications)

Most UVA students since 2021 agreed. Last fall, more than 84% of UVA students agreed while less than 3% disagreed.

“When students feel valued and respected, they are more likely to participate in class and to engage in free inquiry, which is our true aim at the University,” said Christa Acampora, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

“It is important to me as dean that students encounter and have opportunities to grapple with a wide variety of viewpoints, and the data suggest that’s happening at UVA,” Acampora said. “The takeaway is that UVA students strongly agree classrooms are places where they belong and diversity of perspective is welcomed. These data are good to see, but we also know there is still more work to do.”

The class Wahl launched in 2022 in the School of Education and Human Development, which kicked off a series called “democracy practicum courses,” is part of a growing number of similar offerings University professors have rolled out in recent semesters. The Karsh Institute of Democracy, for example, works with faculty to administer “Deliberative Dialogue” workshops, and offers opportunities for students to have conversations with classmates who hold different views.

The opportunities have different names but a similar goal: to have UVA students learn from classmates with different opinions and learn to have productive conversations. And, of course, to use those tools after graduation. They are part of an ongoing effort from UVA President Jim Ryan, Provost Ian Baucom and academic leaders and faculty across Grounds to ensure freedom of expression is baked into the University’s educational experience.

Jered Cooper and Skye Snider stand next to each other and smile at the camera.
Fourth-year students Jered Cooper, left, and Skye Snider credit their UVA education – and specifically a class called Political Dialogue – with giving them the tools to connect with people who hold different opinions than they do. (Photos by Matt Riley, University Communications)

Like the majority of UVA students, Cooper also found the classroom a fertile place for expressing different views and hearing other beliefs. He credits Wahl with “fostering that type of environment where we could share these differing opinions.”

“It was such a small class, about nine of us total, that you don’t get a chance to villainize people because you know them,” he said. “They are your friends. That’s so-and-so who studies this major. He may have a different opinion than I do, and we may never agree on this particular issue, but we’re friends.”

Snider and Cooper, both fourth-year students, agreed to meet a UVA Today reporter for coffee on the Corner to talk about the Political Dialogue class and the lessons they’ve taken away.

Snider, a double major in youth and social innovation, and sociology, grew up in a small Southwest Virginia town with a population of 5,000. She’ll pursue a master’s degree from the McIntire School of Commerce with a goal of landing an environmental consulting job.

Cooper, who describes himself as a “centrist with both conservative and liberal values,” grew up in a Maryland suburb bordering Washington. He plans to attend law school and, later, a career in politics.

They both came to UVA and to the Political Dialogues class from very different places but are heading to Final Exercises with the same belief that everyone needs to connect more deeply.

Snider’s experience on Grounds and in the Political Dialogue class “will make me a more compassionate person,” she said.

Snider said some of her relatives at first didn’t approve of her college choice because they didn’t believe it would be an environment that valued different viewpoints. But that hasn’t been her experience.

“I was interested in having experiences with people who believe different things than me, as a reflection of how the world is going to be when we get out of the bubble of college,” she said. “You have to make a conscious decision to be in spaces that are outside your comfort zone, and just allowing yourself the possibility of a surprise.”

And after the interview was over, the two soon-to-be graduates who had never met before walked slowly together down Elliewood Avenue chatting about their experiences. They paused at the corner of University Avenue and talked for five more minutes.

Another connection made through dialogue.

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Audrey Breen