Over the first weekend of Spring Break, three representatives of Sewanee’s Center for Speaking & Listening took a leading role in the 2018 Lansing Lee Conference on “Civil Discourse in America,” held at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Emily Donkervoet (’18), President of the Sewanee Debate Union and Center tutor, Professor Melody Lehn (Rhetoric and Women’s & Gender Studies), Center Assistant Director, and Professor Sean O’Rourke (Rhetoric & American Studies), Center Director, joined Republican and Democratic members of the United States House of Representatives and nationally recognized voices from The Episcopal Church for the three-day gathering.

The conference asked how we might turn from our current milieu of raucous partisanship and coarse, abrasive discourse to a place of cooperation, collaboration, and constructive disagreement. Conference organizers invited Emily Donkervoet to introduce the plenary panel that included Representatives Suzan DelBene (D-WA) and Bradley Byrne (R-AL), Reverend Canon Jan Naylor Cope, Provost of the Washington National Cathedral, Reverend Carl Walter Wright, Bishop Suffragan for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries, Reverend Canon C. K. Robertson, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Ministry Beyond the Episcopal Church, and Professor O’Rourke.

Professor Melody Lehn led a lively breakout session on Sewanee’s Center for Speaking & Listening and the Speaking-Across-the-Curriculum initiative. Speaking with a sizeable group that included Sewanee alums and other interested conference attendees, Professor Lehn discussed the various ways in which the university’s “Learning to Speak, Speaking to Learn” program answers not only the need for higher quality speaking and listening but also the conference’s call for us to be “agents of good in the world.”

Professor O’Rourke led the conference’s three plenary sessions. He guided the conversation across the difficult terrain of today’s political landscape, which many have characterized as mean-spirited, uncooperative, rude, vulgar, and boorish. The conversation included diagnoses of our dysfunctional politics, possible solutions rooted in our institutional and personal values, faith, and commitments, and robust and often provocative exchanges between and among panelists and attendees.

Michael Sullivan, Kanuga President, praised Sewanee’s contributions to the conference, writing that Sewanee participants did an “outstanding job” and that the collaboration between Kanuga and the university was “wonderful” and should continue to grow.