Dialogues Across Difference: Solutions to Disruptive Speech in the Learning Environment


Negative workplace climate and racial trauma both contribute to loss of productivity among faculty and to faculty turnover. Dialogues Across Difference advances faculty retention by addressing the negative impact of disruptive speech in learning environments. We define disruptive speech as politically provocative, harassing, or hate speech, including the display of symbols or objects, that adversely affect teaching and learning. This project has three phrases. The first will document the extent of this problem in these politically polarizing times. The second will build communities of faculty from across campus to generate a collective awareness and structure composite stories. In the third, we will write and produce performance pieces based on these stories that reflect experiences of and responses to disruptive speech. Once produced, these pieces will be offered in synchronous and asynchronous environments as part of broader programming to empower faculty, graduate students, and other instructional staff and to inform policy.


As our civic spaces have become increasingly polarized, as false news stories are retweeted more than factual news, and as we become more isolated in our systems of belief, UC Davis faculty are interested in looking critically at how existing notions of freedom of expression have served and not served our mission as a public university–and what it all means for our at-promise scholars and faculty from historically marginalized backgrounds.

Our support for freedom of expression as foundational to a free society lives side by side with our belief that speech has a weighted set of consequences in spaces such as classrooms where faculty bear the responsibility to teach and protect the learning of all students. The free exchange of ideas and views is essential to critical thinking and character development. However, these very spaces can be disrupted when faculty or other students use or experience speech as attacks on identities or lived experiences.

At U.C. Davis, our Principles of Community recognizes that the exercise of freedom of expression within a diverse environment calls for a nuanced balance between affirming the right to freedom of expression and striving to build and maintain a climate based on mutual respect and caring that rejects all forms of discrimination. To fulfill our teaching mission, we have a responsibility to create efficacious learning environments. To fulfill our research mission, we must support our faculty as they disseminate information. Both goals require us to consider proactive and courageous responses to disruptive speech that equip faculty to create and maintain learning environments that safeguard the dignity, rights, and well-being of students and faculty alike.


We propose to offer a series of actions and interventions that build on best practices learned from other projects at UC Davis, in the UC System, and among our aspirational peers:

Action #1: Document the Experience

The mechanisms in place to document disruptive speech in the classroom have been inadequate, discouraging, or intimidating so faculty have been reluctant to file official reports documenting their experience. Therefore, our first challenge is to gather and document a wide range of stories so that we have a clear, deep, and broad view of the nature of disruptive speech and problems that arise from it in the learning environment. We propose a survey to instructional staff that will collect case studies and assess respondent interest in further participation. From there, we will continue to collect qualitative data via interviews and oral histories. We will utilize creative focus group methodologies to draw out detail and specificity.

Action #2: Share the Experience with UC Faculty

Once we have built a database of these experiences, we will build and convene communities of faculty, within and across academic units to create collective awareness of instances of disruptive speech in the learning environment in order to share experiences and solutions. These symposia will build on UC Davis’s success with Communities of Practice—networks of faculty gathering together with a common objective. We will invite faculty from UC Davis, extending invitations to other interested UC faculty members who might also be invested (and willing to invest) in joining us.

The first symposium will involve the sharing of gathered data and recording of immediate responses to the stories. We will work toward a typology and priority. We will make notes for future scripts and start to anticipate areas of resistance. In the second symposium, we will test scenarios and discuss complementary tools and facilitation processes. Both symposia will focus on continuous building of community and allyship.

By working with faculty groups, we hope to determine how we might authentically communicate experiences across identities, and what types of responses might be cued to interrupt the patterns that result in disrupted or hostile learning environments. Data gathered from these sessions will enable us to take the next step: sketching out scenes, dialogue, and facilitation scripts that illustrate both the issues and solutions.

Action #3: Deliver and Sustain

In the final action, we will establish long-term support and guidelines around disruptive speech in our classrooms and community. We will have a communications plan to describe the project and publicize our efforts in this complex space. As we have done with FRIENDS and PLACE, we will create a companion website and utilize social media strategically to enhance our efforts and raise visibility among our key stakeholders.

Dialogues Across Difference Theatre: Live and recorded performances adapted from the lived experience of UC Davis faculty of color are an important method for documenting incidents and experiences of disruptive speech in academic environments. Performance offers a powerful alternative to the text or table-based presentation of data. By incorporating embodiment into the dissemination of information, performance emphasizes the visceral, emotional, and individualized impact of these experiences.

We will collaborate with Davis Repertory Theatre (DRT) to develop performance-based workshops to facilitate dialogue about BIPOC faculty's experience with disruptive speech. DRT is led by Dr. Oona Hatton, a playwright/dramaturg who specializes in adaptation and ethnographic performance, and Lucas Hatton, a director and actor who has taught workshops through UC Davis Grad Studies.

Live performance has been successfully utilized to inspire dialogue in a number of professional settings. In the context of racial justice work, post-performance conversations should lead to action. We propose 90-minute workshops in which ethnographic performance is paired with forum theatre activities (drawing on the work of Theatre of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal) in order to raise awareness, experience solidarity, and most importantly identify and propose revisions to harmful policies and generate ideas for infrastructural change.

Dialogues Across Difference Toolkit: We plan to record performances and provide facilitation toolkits that can be used either in synchronous or asynchronous options. We know that capacity to meet demand has been challenging for initiatives such as UC Davis’ STEAD training on implicit bias in academic hiring, so we will be working with faculty and our colleagues in DEI education (in the Office of DEI, Academic Affairs, and Undergraduate Education) to think through scaling and what it would take to create impactful asynchronous options.

Working with academic departments, we will continue to support the campus’s effort to develop guidelines around outside speakers and institutionally-sponsored social media spaces. We envision providing guidelines for individual faculty to utilize in their own classrooms, such as model language for syllabi or methods of assessment that attach professional expectations to respectful dialogue, debate, cultural sensitivity, and multicultural competency as a measurable classroom and professional skill.

While our core audience for this project is ladder rank faculty, we believe that graduate students and other instructional staff will benefit as they spend considerable time in the classroom or lab working directly with undergraduates, and are the ladder rank faculty of the future, thus their inclusion is essential to ensuring long-term transformation.