At UChicago, undergraduate program puts free expression into practice

Parrhesia Program teaches skills to communicate, addressing big questions on campus and beyond

Throughout its history, the University of Chicago’s distinctive culture of rigorous inquiry has thrived in its classrooms to teach students how, not what, to think. Academic freedom and the free expression of ideas are two of the University’s core principles that empower students to engage with challenging ideas—in college and for the rest of their lives.

Creating inclusive, productive spaces to help address pressing issues is perhaps more important than ever, especially amid a growing national discussion about increased polarization.

That’s where the College’s Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse aims to make a meaningful impact. Founded in 2018, the program develops the skills of discourse in students in the College through events, annual curricular offerings and community outreach on free expression. At the center of the Parrhesia Program is discourse theory—a concept that inaugural director Leila Brammer wants students to take into the world and apply productively to any discussion or debate.

Whatever the topic, the program’s mission is to foster vigorous, inclusive and productive discourse on campus—upholding UChicago’s commitment to serve as a place to propose, test and refine ideas.

Parrhesia, an English word that originated from ancient Greek, means to speak frankly and freely. According to Brammer, free expression as a principle and a practice must be consistently cultivated.

“We believe that because people can talk, they can communicate,” said Brammer. “Talking and communicating are two different things. Communication is purposeful. It’s a learned skill. We have little training, and the models that we do see are often unhelpful. They lead to a certain type of discourse that is unproductive and repels many people.” 

The purpose of the program is to start and maintain a space for studying and practicing how individuals and communities can engage about, with, and across difference and disagreement and work toward collective understandings and actions about challenging issues.

“The exact issues that we need to have the discourse about are the ones that we shy away from,” said Brammer. “A common mode, the two-sided, competitive, zero-sum bilateral debate model, leads to entrenchment. It leads to moving further apart. That’s why we need discourse theory.”

Discourse theory, grounded in Aristotle, recognizes the starting point of understanding prior to advocacy, Brammer said.

“Aristotle noted that one needed to determine the nature of the issue, understand it and the community fully prior to advocacy.” From understanding, ideas can be tested and new approaches can be developed and refined. Brammer notes that in this model: “advocacy comes last, after understanding, research, testing, and creating, all functions of discourse.”

Disrupting the debate

This past October, Brammer hosted a model class during Family Weekend in which visitors learned the basics of discourse theory. Before long, the room was packed, and Brammer stayed an hour and a half past the end of the session to address questions.

In the model class, Brammer presented an exercise she does with high school students. After asking students who among them was a dog person and who was a cat person, Brammer invites one of each to the front of the room to discuss the question: “What is the nature of the best pet?”

“If I'm the cat person, it takes me very little time before I go, ‘Cats are the best because of this or that reason,’ but my next move is almost always, ‘Dogs are horrible, and you’re a horrible person for liking dogs,’” said Brammer, a former competitive debater. “It always disintegrates like that. The discussion no longer becomes about advocating for myself, it becomes about advocacy and quickly about attacking the other, and, further, the question, the nature of the best pet, is lost. Further, most of the students at this point think the discussion is useless and feel left out because of its form or their own perspectives are not present.”

With a simple disruption, Brammer then demonstrated a practical technique in discourse theory. By inviting, for example, a fan of guinea pigs to join the dog person and cat person, the hostility fades.

“All of a sudden, it can't become a two-sided debate. It becomes a conversation instead,” Brammer said. “They begin to truly work on the question of the nature of the best pet. They are working on understanding and listening to each other to test ideas and come to agreements, not listening to attack other positions. Adding and recognizing the multiple perspectives elevates the discourse.”

Such a simple demonstration is just a sample of the theory and techniques that Brammer teaches in her courses. Building on theory from Aristotle to Foucault, students in the Parrhesia Program get to experiment with different rhetorical techniques and address current issues with their peers. 

That was present in a three-course series Brammer taught on the 2020 election. From the primary, through the general election, to the inaugural and first days of the new administration, Brammer’s classes held space to discuss difference and disagreement and help students process and make sense of unprecedented events.

Upcoming courses available to students in the College will cover topics such as deliberative rhetoric, public engagement, science communication, and community advocacy.

Ryan Solomon, the deputy director of the Parrhesia Program, taught “Pandemic Politics” last spring, which investigated debates about science in the context of HIV and COVID-19. In the course, some students revealed their hesitancy about COVID-19 vaccination, which led to a broader class discussion.

“I was so grateful for everyone’s honesty and willingness to listen,” said Solomon. “That discussion not only led to deeper understanding of the challenges of public science, but it also allowed us to consider more nuanced vaccine campaigns. That discussion made apparent that the demands of freedom of expression and the need for democratic dialogue are not just theoretical concerns, but vital parts of our lived experience.”

As the program grows, these insights transform future courses and programming while gradually building a community.

“What I'm really interested in is what’s working,” said Brammer. “What were we able to do with discourse theory? But also what are the challenges? What kept something from working? That informs what we offer next.”

‘A robust, groundswell effort’

In addition to curricular offerings, the Parrhesia Program is committed to public outreach and partnerships with community organizations across the city of Chicago.

As part of the program’s efforts to disseminate theory and practical tools to provide for more productive public discourse, Brammer frequently hosts seminars and workshops on free expression with high school students and faculty across the country.

In July 2022, the Parrhesia Program will launch its first Summer Academy. This pre-college program will help high school students learn about the principles of discourse theory and freedom of expression, with the goal of empowering these students to further these practices within their home communities. Workshops will provide tools for high school faculty and staff to embed discourse in their classrooms and prepare a broader community to come of age and be effective participants in our democracy.

As participating students in these programs return to their own communities, they bring with them capacities to uphold open, inclusive discourse on the issues that matter most.

“We’re really building a robust, groundswell effort that moves out into the world,” said Brammer.

—This story was first published on the College website.