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UH Project 'Deliberation Testbed' Focused on Facilitating Civil Communications in Turbulent Political Landscape

Project Supported by Cougar Initiative to Engage

Nov. 7, 2022

By Mike Emery, 713-743-7197


“This one goes to 11.” 

That’s a line from the film “This is Spinal Tap” in the scene where a rock guitarist explains that the volume on most amplifiers peaks at 10, but his are “one louder” than the rest. 

That particular statement certainly applies to rhetoric emitted from voters and candidates on the road toward Election Day. Following events such as the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, there’s a consensus that Americans’ voices and political passions are “turned up to 11,” if not louder. 

Such volume, however, makes many wonder if civil discourse is a thing of the past. 

Enter a group University of Houston students ready to facilitate productive political conversations as part of a high impact co-curricular project. Led by Ryan Kennedy, associate professor of political science, students are moderating online discussions on hot topics using the platform Common Ground for Action. 

Kennedy recruits and trains student moderators for this initiative, titled “Deliberation Testbed," This semester, they are overseeing online discussions on the topic of “regulating social media.” Those participating in the online conversations are students from UH sections of Introduction to Texas Government and Introduction to American Government classes.  

Kennedy’s “Deliberation Testbed” is supported by Cougar Initiative to Engage (CITE), UH’s Quality Enhancement Plan that sponsors hands-on projects for faculty and students. 

This fall, 20 undergraduate students are serving as moderators for online discussions (all text, no virtual/video engagement) with three graduate students providing assistance. Kennedy said it’s not uncommon for recently graduated alumni to contribute their time and energies to supporting these discussions as moderators as well. 

“Our student moderators learn several things,” Kennedy said. “Among the lessons I want them to walk away with is a sense of ethical decision making. Making decisions is not a monological task. It’s not something that you should only do in your own head or by watching the news. It’s important to listen to discussions and learn from others.” 

Kennedy added that students also gain confidence in themselves as facilitators of discussions. This ultimately prepares them for leadership roles in both their academic and professional careers. 

“Deliberation Testbed ” is in its third year at UH, and he’s pleased to see it grow in a very short time. 

This initiative is especially relevant now, he said, considering the deep ideological divisions amplified by social media, daily news cycles and evolving rhetoric from both sides of the political fence. 

“We’re seeing a breakdown in people’s tolerance and ability to have civil discussions,” Kennedy said. “This is part of any successful democracy. You need to have a certain ability to deliberate and compromise. I believe this project is preparing future leaders to do exactly that.”