Taboo topics course uses dialogue to break through barriers

Contact: Joy Brown
A woman's eyes peaking through a blue piece of paper.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Shortly before the fall 2019 winter break, at a popular Kalamazoo breakfast eatery, Claire Hernandez found herself listening to a friend contemplate committing suicide. The Western Michigan University senior knew something was amiss, but didn’t expect the morning conversation to veer in the direction that it did. As it turned out, however, their crucial talk happened at a time when Hernandez was best-equipped to receive the information: near the conclusion of her Communicating About Taboo Topics course. 

Designed and taught by Dr. Mark Orbe, Taboo Topics relies on dialogic learning—discussion-based study—to address sensitive subjects that are typically off-limits to speak about in North American culture. Therefore, matters pertaining to race, death, sex, religion, and other subjects are the foci. According to Orbe, students have conversations about weighty material that many of us tend to avoid. 

Dr. Mark Orbe standing outside on campus.

Dr. Mark Orbe, Western Michigan University communication professor.

“Family secrets, race, faith and religion, death, interracial romantic relationships, kinks/sex/masturbation and fear were just a few of the topics we discussed,” says WMU alumna Hailey Mangrum, who is now the assistant director of leadership development for fraternity and sorority life at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Resulting is a classroom atmosphere that’s infused with respectful and non-judgmental exchange. Although confusion, shame and anger are also natural emotions that surface when discussing oppositional views, such negativity tends to take a backseat to diverse perspective-sharing, Orbe says.

In the process, classmates often form strong emotional connections with each other, and gain insight about human interaction and communication that will last them a lifetime. Because he and so many students have found the course to be so impactful, Orbe has considered hosting a reunion for students from previous “generations,” which is how he refers to members of each successive course iteration.

“This was the top course that transformed my thinking, that I can easily draw from in everyday life,” says Jonathan Pulley, who took Taboo Topics in 2015 and currently serves as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Racial Equity Program officer. 

Outsiders, such as parents and roommates, tend to react with shock and curiosity when they hear about this elective course offering in WMU’s School of Communication. Why, they wonder, would students want to learn about topics so contemptible and controversial, and what educational value do those lessons offer?

Mangrum says this lack of comprehension from those not taking the class disappointed her. 

“Other folks weren’t able to understand the importance of engaging in conversations of difference. It was almost like we were in a bubble, although a true microcosm of the campus as we had a spectrum of perspectives and beliefs in the classroom,” she says.

Students, however, flock to the annual fall course. Orbe said Taboo Topics, which he has taught for the past 11 years, is the most popular course he has ever instructed during his decades-long teaching career. Upperclass students, student-athletes, honors students and others who have enrollment priority at the university typically register as the 30 available spaces immediately fill.

The effect the course has on students and Orbe alike is tangible. Orbe learned after his inaugural Taboo Topics course that, because class interaction is so mentally draining, it must be the last class he teaches on those days; he can then take those opportunities to drive home listening to soothing music and thinking about what was just discussed instead of prepare for another class. He also requires students to have a check-in partner after each class who can help them recapture their emotional bearings. He says he also often sits with students immediately after class until they’re ready to leave, “just so they can process” what they’ve heard and said.

Discussions can be traumatic. They can trigger anger and fear. Eyebrows are raised and deep breaths are taken. For a book chapter, Orbe wrote how a provocative hypothetical question about his children once caused him to openly sob. But negativity is not always the prevailing feeling. Participants have also been known to uproariously laugh, he says.

“The norm is to emote,” says Orbe.

Purposeful Perturbance

The course objective is challenging to attain, but invaluable: come to understand contrary viewpoints about forbidden topics, especially those you oppose, and, in the process, become transformed. Argumentation and debate are taught elsewhere, Orbe explains. 

“This class is about mutual understanding” that’s not predicated upon persuasion; one can comprehend a particular stance without agreeing with it, he says.

Pulley, who self-identifies as a Black male Christian, was initially taken aback by some stances that didn’t align with his race, culture and faith. But ultimately, he says he came to appreciate oppositional beliefs instead of dismiss them outright as wrong. 

“One thing I drew from this class is, I can be who I am, but honor and respect people with different experiences and who believe differently,” says Pulley.

Class members discover the power and virtue of learning from a humanistic perspective. They also realize the essentialness of delving into the reasons for why someone thinks the way they do. Students begin to realize at a deeper level that everyone’s unique experiences shape how they acquire and interpret knowledge. For instance, a parent’s political preferences may influence how someone votes, or residing in a particular region of the country might influence someone’s views about immigrants. 

History and context are important, says Orbe, whose intersectional interests in communication, culture, race and qualitative research and pedagogy have resulted in hundreds of articles, chapters, books and presentations.

Starting from Scratch

When Orbe created Taboo Topics, there was no teaching template, no existing syllabus that could be used as a model, he says. Interactions within his interracial communications course, subsequent suggestions from students, and the obvious absence of literature and teaching experiences that directly tackle taboo areas instead of tiptoeing around them enticed Orbe to venture into the pedagogical unknown. 

Addressing a culture’s most forbidden subjects can stimulate critical thinking for broader use, and create a desire to understand alternative perspectives, particularly within today’s diverse and polarized society where ideological differences are fostering combative attitudes, Orbe says. His class leads participants to more thoroughly consider, for instance, how an international student at WMU may feel while being away from their country for the first time, contending with their first Michigan winter, and learning a new language.

“Our world is increasingly diverse on so many different levels, and unless we’re teaching the skills on how to understand, we’re never going to have communication, which requires sustained shared meaning. We’re never going to have intercultural communication,” Orbe says.

The course is party based on the teachings of the late Paulo Freire, a contemporary Brazilian educator and philosopher whose critical pedagogy advocacy has influenced teachers the word over in regards to learner-centered empowerment. Freire believed that encouraging students to critically question authority and established meaning is a social justice imperative and the only path to liberation.

Thus, Orbe’s Taboo Topics students are required to respectfully interrogate the motives and mechanisms that contribute to a subject’s unspeakable nature. Why do U.S. Americans avoid discussing the active stages of death? Why are miscarriages kept secret? What’s so embarrassing about masturbation? Students dive into such turbulent conversation waters.

Methods to the Madness

Raised in a multiracial home on the East Coast during a time when interracial marriage was still largely forbidden socially, Orbe’s quest to understand and teach others about his own identity, and to help others understand theirs too, began early on and continues to this day. Orbe and his multiracial spouse have children who acknowledge their African, Asian, Native and European ancestry, and he says he has learned valuable lessons about gender identity, gender expression and sexualities thanks to different family members. Engaging with taboo topics with his students has allowed him to do so willingly and gracefully. His life encompasses a vivid and dynamic tapestry of people, places and experiences. 

Understandably, Orbe academically embraces autoethnography, a form of qualitative research that incorporates self-reflection about lived activities to learn more about larger social, cultural and political realms. Orbe includes autoethnographic practices in many of his communication lessons, and also organizes experiential learning trips abroad. For an autoethnography course in Costa Rica, students learn more about themselves within the context of differing racial, cultural and communicative settings. For instance, to be Black in Central and South America is culturally different than being Black in the U.S., he points out.

For Taboo Topics, Orbe aims to disrupt. He wants students to willingly get uncomfortable, to face their notions head on and to become vulnerable so that the silence surrounding certain subjects is shattered, and power thereby redistributed. 

“Naming it (topic) changes it. That’s one of our themes,” Orbe says. “When you’re able to name the taboo and articulate it, you take some of the power away from it.”

Orbe refers to the classroom for this course as one that reflects a “brave space rather than the safe space.” Confessions are common. Although not required, many students find themselves sharing personal information that they’d previously never shared with anyone. They’ll articulate challenges they’ve faced that they’ve never said aloud before, thereby revealing additional layers of their humanity. As trust builds within the considerate and honest classroom environment, situations such as sexual assaults, eating disorders, announcements regarding gender identity, damaging family secrets and mental illnesses have been offered.

“It was not group therapy, but an expressive environment,” says Pulley. 

“There were some really personal moments that people shared and there were moments that people were crying in class. I’m sure at least half the class shared something that they had never shared with somebody before. That was really shocking to me because I had never been in a classroom setting where something like that happened,” says Hernandez.

Some discussion tools that Orbe uses to facilitate conversations include provocative questions and well-researched student-led interactions. 

He has had students divide into groups and address “Sophie’s Choice”-type hypotheticals, he says, referring to the 1982 fictional film about a Holocaust survivor. One memorable question: if you had to choose between being Jewish during the Holocaust or a North American slave prior to the Civil War, which would you be? 

The “would you rather” activity requires students to guess which stances their classmates have taken on particular topics, and talk about their guesses’ accuracy or inaccuracy. 

During the Fall 2019 course, a group facilitated a class on concepts about the afterlife, including out-of-body experiences, which Orbe says “was crazy powerful” because it generated several insightful questions. 

An exercise called “four corners,” which required people to segregate into groups according to levels at which they think they’ve been affected by sexual violence revealed gendered differences and sparked discussion around ideas of masculinity and cultural expectations, Hernandez says.

Mangrum recalls her class having a powerful discussion about secrecy. 

“Participants were instructed to finish a prompt disclosing a secret they have in their family,” she says. “Maybe something going on or something that nobody knows about except family. A classmate then collected the ‘secrets,’ written on pieces of paper and placed them in his backpack, wore it, and continued to facilitate the conversation. It was such a powerful representation of how we carry things with us wherever we go and how that could continue to stay in the family for generations to come.” According to Orbe, this is one of the many powerful activities created and facilitated by students over the years.

Magical Moments

“Dumela” is a term Orbe uses as a Taboo Topics theme and as a greeting for all his students. Derived from Botswana in South Africa, it means “I believe in you, I affirm you, and I see great potential in you.” He finds it exceptionally relevant to use in this course, where students are willingly sharing thoughts that could very well lead to being stigmatized if expressed anywhere else. Dumela’s tone-setting nature helps contribute to classroom power-sharing. The “magic” occurs when the class realizes its “synergistic power” through dialogue, says Orbe.

Defining communication as “shared meaning,” dialogue, Orbe says, works as a necessary tool to enhance understanding and increase mindfulness. It’s a “peak communicative event” that enables individuals to understand why someone believes and behaves in the ways that they do. 

“It can be something as easy as saying ‘I love you.’ And you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s so nice.’ But you have not interrogated what is meant by another person’s use of the word. So, there are a lot of times where people hear what they want to hear and interpret that, and it’s just not the same,” says Orbe. Contributing to misunderstandings can also be nonverbal cues, differing socioeconomic backgrounds, generational dissonance and many more socio-cultural factors. 

To achieve “dialogic moments,” listening is just as important as questioning, Orbe says. Knowing when to be quiet, and to actually embrace silence, is a learned skill set that runs counter to the notion of “winning,” he notes. “How can we use communication in a powerfully affirmative way and not in a Machiavellian way where you’re trying to dominate others?” he asks. 

The paperclip activity is typically the most memorable class experience where everyone in the class, including Orbe, mindfully and dialogically listens to one another’s self-disclosures. This “was the moment for me where I realized how important it is to listen… where I knew I could say a bunch of things that would make you feel better, but I can’t contribute to your situation because I don’t understand it,” Hernandez says. 

“I learned a valuable lesson that I apply in staff meetings today: when you talk, you potentially could be robbing someone else of their opportunity to speak,” Pulley says. “I realized that just because you have something to say doesn’t mean that, 1) it has to be said, and 2) you can learn from not speaking, too.”

Thus, by tapping into the taboo, students learn how to reach an understanding about why, for instance, someone supports Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or why someone has chosen to become estranged from their parents.

How do you know that peak dialogue has occurred? When you have “experienced transformation,” Orbe explains. “And transformation means that you have changed how you see yourself, you’ve changed how you see others, and/or you’ve changed how you see the world.”

Taboo Takeaways

Hernandez, Pulley and Mangrum say they regularly apply the dialogic lessons and techniques they learned in Taboo Topics to their careers and personal lives.

Hernandez, an Ontario, Canada native who is studying behavior analysis and is multiracial, said she’ll approach this year’s presidential election differently than she did in 2016. Along with asking more questions about why people think and feel the way they do about candidates and issues, she will also speak more about her beliefs instead of remaining reticent in order to not distress others, she says.

“I didn’t want to make anyone upset, and I think that was a problem in itself, not saying what my truth was so that I wouldn’t offend somebody else,” Hernandez says “I think that’s a really important thing to do in a respectful way. ‘I hear what you’re saying and this is why I disagree with you.’”

Hernandez’s friend who expressed suicidal thoughts to her has survived, she said. 

“She’s still here, thankfully. Every day is a battle and you can really see it on her face, you can see she’s working really hard,” Hernandez explains. Listening to her friend without judging or demanding action from her, as some family members were doing, contributed to their meaningful dialogue, Hernandez thinks. She wrote her final paper for the course on that important breakfast conversation, and has carried those lessons with her.

“There has been no better training for how to be an advocate and facilitator than my courses with Orbe,” says Mangrum. “Literally, from the way I set up a space for dialogue, engage people from opposite ends of the spectrum, to helping folks understand the negotiations we make every day based on the intersections of our identity, I learned from him. I am a better professional, educator, learner and conversationalist simply because I was able to take a class with Dr. Orbe,” Mangrum says.

Taboo Topics has helped Pulley navigate complex ideas stemming from his work on the Kellogg Foundation’s Racial Equity Team and made his work far more impactful and rewarding than it otherwise might have been, he says. 

“The way I approach difficult dialogue on hard topics now is through a lens of, how can I affirm someone in the process,” Pulley says. By honoring their viewpoints while also making an effort to access their origins and simultaneously remaining true to himself, Pulley’s identity remains intact and his curiousity to learn more about others, even those whose beliefs he considers abhorrent, continues to flourish.

As for Orbe, he says he hopes to teach Taboo Topics as long as he can remain a student-teacher who is learning along with his pupils.

“Dare I say, if we give students the opportunity to teach us, they will teach us. I’m not the only teacher,” says Orbe. “Yes, you’ll learn some stuff from me, but there are other important teachers in the room. There’s a certain cultural humility that has to come in here from everyone. All of us has something to learn. 

Also, Orbe said the class continuously impresses and humbles him because it brings out the best in everyone involved.

“Students come in and they’re just so inquisitive and willing to share and teach and learn. It also, to be quite frank, has given me a lot of faith and hope in our future because these young people are amazing,” he says.

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