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What IS “The Big Question?”

By Kathleen Herring

In the fall of 2012, Bridgewater College debuted the Academic Citizenship Quality Enhancement Program, an initiative designed to increase and improve student conversations about a variety of academic and social issues. The program comprises two key components: (1) The Big Question, which poses themes to focus and invigorate campus conversations and (2) the Annual Pedagogy Project, in which faculty employ student-centric learning strategies to enhance the formation of perspectives, public reasoning and self-authorship skills.

It takes time for a new initiative to diffuse through the campus culture, but this past year has seen many successes for Student Fellows – a team of students who volunteer to lead discussions at various events – and faculty alike. These successes included The Big Question speech competition, a variety of post-convocation conversations and “fireside chats,” mini-courses based on existing convocations, and the Annual Pedagogy Project itself, which challenged faculty members to incorporate Big Question themes and strategies into their coursework.

Jennifer L. Babcock, instructor of communication studies and participant in the Big Question Faculty Fellows Program, highlights the benefits of her participation in this new program over the past year. According to Babcock, “sometimes a 50-minute class period is very constraining. The Faculty Fellows program is a great opportunity to really spend time with students talking about one focused issue.”

Babcock pioneered the Big Question “mini-course” idea, which focused on Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson’s campus visit this past spring.

“A small group of students and I got together the night before Dyson’s speech to discuss a chapter in his book, Debating Race,” explained Babcock. “We all met again a couple of nights after the convo to make connections between the reading and the speech. Whenever the topic is race there’s a potential for misunderstanding, but this group of students really listened to one another’s experiences. We held the pre- and post-meetings in one of the dorms, and I think the fact that I was on the students’ ‘turf’ broke down some barriers and contributed to the depth of the conversations we had.”

In addition to the work on her mini-course, Babcock endeavored all year to incorporate The Big Question themes of “What is Fair?” (2012-2013) and “What Should Change?” (2013-2014) into her oral communications courses as jumping-off points for the persuasive speech assignments.
“We’ve found a way to showcase the best of these speeches by holding a public speaking competition in Cole Hall at the end of the fall semester," Babcock said. "It’s important for students to become comfortable with sharing their ideas in the public square, and this event accomplishes that goal.”

Participating in dialogue training with the other Faculty Fellows, incorporating Big Question ideas into her classes and leading conversations outside of the classroom, Babcock really is an ideal participant in this program. The more involvement there is from faculty and students on this level, the more completely the ideas of dialogue on difficult conversations will permeate the student body and the campus community as a whole.

This fall a Dialogue Club was established to bring these ideals to students. The club works by using professionally trained students to lead other students in conversations across campus.
Babcock sums up her participation this way:

“I appreciate the way the Big Question program challenges me to get creative and pushes me toward faculty/student exchanges I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Those are the sorts of opportunities that brought me to Bridgewater, and I think The Big Question is a great example of what is unique and special at Bridgewater College.”

To learn more about Academic Citizenship and The Big Question, visit bridgewater.edu/academics/academic-citizenship.

Kathleen Herring is academic citizenship coordinator at Bridgewater College.

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