Reaching across the aisle

Senior Emmett Shell’s ‘contemporary politics’ teaches adults the art of Harkness dialogue.

Genny Beckman Moriarty
May 16, 2018
Emmett Shell (middle) leads a Harkness class of adults.

Emmett Shell (middle) leads a Harkness class of adults from across the Exeter community.

Civil discourse may well be an endangered American species but, like David Eisenhower ’66, Exeter senior Emmett Shell is committed to preserving it.

He believes “productive discussion — in other words, Harkness” — is one of the best ways to start. “The more people we can get respectfully talking to others with different political views, the better off the nation will be,” he explains.

That’s a strategy History Department Chair Bill Jordan advocates for as well. Shell took Jordan’s History 550: American Politics and Public Policy in the fall, and he was inspired by a conversation they had outside of class to design a Harkness course for adults.

Created as an independent senior project, Contemporary Politics brought together 11 non-teaching staff members from opposing political camps in an attempt to promote constructive dialogue around controversial topics. Shell, who implemented the course under Jordan’s supervision during winter term, assigned readings and facilitated weekly discussions on climate change, immigration, inequality and a number of other hot button issues.

The participants represented five different departments (Admissions, Finance, Athletics, Institutional Advancement and Exeter Summer Institutes) and had no previous experience at the Harkness table. With Shell’s guidance, they worked together to establish ground rules that would encourage a thoughtful exchange of ideas, such as “Respect all voices and beliefs,” and, “Ask questions and admit your confusion.”

One might expect some trepidation upon entering into the political fray with students twice and even three times Shell’s age. He admits it was “fairly tricky” at times to figure out when to step in and jump-start a stalled conversation, or how to ensure quieter folks had the opportunity to help steer the conversation. Still, he describes his students as curious, engaged and, for the most part, courteous with one another. Perhaps most important to Shell, who made it a goal to finish the term without anyone guessing his political leanings: “They didn’t say what they thought I wanted to hear.” When disagreements did come up, “I did my best to highlight those,” he says. “We want to point those out. There’s no aspect here of trying to convince people to switch sides. We’re practicing listening.”

Rachel Hanson, who manages Exeter’s summer conferences, signed up for Shell’s course to learn more about the Harkness pedagogy. “I’m often in a position where I need to describe what makes an Exeter education unique, and now that I’ve been through the class, I’m much more capable of doing so,” she wrote in her feedback at the end of the term.

Hanson praised the young instructor’s fairness in selecting weekly readings, his ability to mediate their discussions, and the satisfaction it gave her to listen and respond to her colleagues’ differing viewpoints, adding: “I wish every staff member had the opportunity to participate in this type of class; it made me feel more involved in the Academy, and it changed the way I think about the current political atmosphere in our country.”