Thanksgiving comes early

UConn's Dialogue Initiative hosts "Who's Afraid of 'Thanksgiving'?: How to Start Civil Dialogue in A Divided America with The People You Love" in the Rome Commons Ballroom on November 1, 2018. Attendees of varying backgrounds and worldviews considered how to engage in civil dialogue with loved ones over dinner. (Photo by Judah Shingleton/The Daily Campus)

The tables were set and the turkey was cooked in Rome Commons Ballroom on Thursday, Nov. 1, a full three weeks before Thanksgiving. Hosted by the Honors program and a number of faculty and staff, a faux Thanksgiving dinner aimed to give students, faculty and staff members strategies for dealing with tense conversations that may come up on Turkey Day.

Elly Daugherty, assistant dean of students, and Brendan Kane, assistant director of the Public Humanities and associate professor of history, helped run the event as a bit of a trial. The facilitators hoped to engage participants in “conversation about conversation” in order to give the community a civil way to engage in important dialogue.

“I’m an RA this year on campus and it seems that there’s a lot of division and difficulty creating dialogue amongst residents and students on campus,” third-semester cognitive science student Mia Drago said, “and I definitely wanted to hear about what UConn had to say about bridging that.”

In addition to the food served and the fancy place settings, the facilitators aimed to mimic a real-life Thanksgiving environment by seeking to first establish a relationship between participants during the “Family Round” and then turning the conversation on it’s head during the “Dysfunctional Family Round.”

Participants were clustered into tables of no more than eight people. Each table included several facilitators or “plants” who would turn up the heat during the “Dysfunctional Family Round.” The term “Uncle Walt” was used to refer to a table member who tried to dominate the conversation with disruptive and incensing behaviors, such as bringing up controversial politicians like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh or President Donald Trump. In order for the mix of students, faculty and staff to come up with strategies of navigating challenging conversation, planted group members would take on this role as Uncle Walt.

“Once he got more into the character we shifted our attitudes from ‘this is a role play thing’ to how we would actually deal with it,” seventh-semester political science major Sunjay Venkatraman, said. “It got a little tense. Some strange things were said that you wouldn’t normally publicly hear.”

The event provided a foundation for participants by providing a New York Times Article to read about Thanksgiving myths and by showing a PBS video discussing Thanksgiving conversations. These resources provided some background into not only the somewhat distorted history of Thanksgiving, but also the way the holiday has morphed into something much more tradition and family-centered.

At the end of the event, different tables shared out some of the mechanisms they found useful when dealing with combative personas. Many of these ideas harkened back to the initial PBS video: Listen, engage in comedy, ask questions and ultimately remember why the relationship between you and your family is important to you.

“The whole time we rooted it in our own experiences and our own humanity,” Drago said. “We kept referring back to how and why we saw what we saw.”

The event was a trial program and different tables experienced the event differently depending on the intensity of disagreement and conversation while students had several suggestions for improvement, they also voiced their approval.

“I think the event was a success because it showed us being able to understand one another,” third-semester political science major Spencer Kinyon, said. “It was a really unique event because it brought together different generations on a college campus.”


Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent/staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.