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Deliberation in the Midst of Crisis

The Penn State sex abuse scandal has rocked the core of our campus. Students, Faculty, and Staff are reeling as they struggle to find ways to talk about an issue of this magnitude and complexity amidst the swirl of information and misinformation. This situation is unprecedented, which makes it all the more important for us to remember that the higher-level administrators are not the only leaders at this institution and that leadership comes from a variety of people on this campus. While it is difficult to know how to guide conversations about a still-unfolding crisis, there is nevertheless more to do than to speculate about motives or to call for firings.

The Center for Democratic Deliberation believes that deliberation about such an emotionally fraught issue is most fruitful when it begins in established communities, particularly when those communities care about inquiry. At the end of the term, such communities of inquiry have been built in Penn State’s classrooms, student groups, residence halls, fraternities and sororities, as well as many social and interest-based organizations.

We are grateful for resources such as CAPS to help individuals work through personal turmoil. At the same time, we believe in the importance of 1) thinking about these issues collectively in groups, and 2) learning how to deliberate about community and social issues in real time. It might not seem like it now, but the discussions we have today and in the coming weeks and months will shape our campus and community—both in how we live together and how we are perceived. Penn State is a lot of things, but it is foremost an institution of higher learning, and there is learning to do in this midst of this crisis. In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, the Center for Democratic Deliberation urges instructors to devote class time—or to continue to devote class time—to structured conversations about issues important to the Penn State community. Finally, we urge students to remember that this is their conversation as much as anyone’s.

To these ends, we invite instructors and students to use the questions and resources on this page to help generate productive dialogue.

Below you will find two sets of resources. First is a set of guidelines for deliberation that will help facilitate discussion. Second is a group of discussion materials organized thematically. Each topic includes a brief overview followed by links to articles for reference or discussion. Please check back for updates in these resources.

If you have questions or suggestions, please contact Dr. Debra Hawhee ( or Dr. Jeremy Engels (


Deliberation Guidelines

We offer a copy of these guidelines for use inside or outside of the classroom. These can be distributed to each member of the class/group, or displayed on a screen for all to see. Consider having participants read these aloud before the discussion begins.

PDF of The CDD Deliberation Guidelines

These guidelines are meant to help facilitate a discussion around a topic that might be emotional and possibly contentious. Consequently, there will be times when you do not agree with what is being said, and there might be times when you hear something that makes you frustrated, upset, or angry. These feelings may be hard to cope with, but they help us learn and grow, individually as well as together. These guidelines will help create a productive, open, and friendly environment in the midst of dealing with sensitive topics and differing opinions.

  1. Remember that we are each responsible for enabling a productive, respectful dialogue.
  2. To enable time for everyone to speak, strive to be concise with your thoughts.
  3. Respect all speakers "by being present" and listening actively.
  4. Treat others with the respect that you would like them to treat you with, regardless of your differences.
  5. Do not interrupt others. Let them finish their statements before your begin.
  6. When you hear an argument that you do not agree with, take a few seconds to write down your concerns and process the logic beneath the statement. Always try to understand what is being said before you respond.
  7. Ask questions of the speaker so that he or she can clarify statements made. Ask for clarification instead of making assumptions.
  8. When countering an idea, or making one initially, demonstrate that you are listening to what is being said by others. Try to validate other positions as you assert your own, which aids in dialogue, versus attack.
  9. Under no circumstances should an argument continue out of the classroom when someone does not want it to. Extending these conversations beyond this meeting can be productive, but we must agree to do so respectfully, ethically, and with attention to individuals' requests for confidentiality and discretion.
  10. Remember that exposing yourself to different perspectives helps you to evaluate your own beliefs more clearly and learn new information.
  11. Keep in mind that just because you do not agree with a person's statements, does not mean that you cannot get along with that person.
  12. Feel free to speak with me privately if you feel that the classroom environment has become hostile, biased, or intimidating. I will do my best to fix the problem.

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Here, we have provided some materials for teachers and students who want to discuss some of the important issues surrounding Penn State's sex abuse scandal.

Identity, Place, and Culture

Does this crisis solidify beliefs we already had, potentially destroy them, or ask us to reexamine them? What do people mean when they present the actions of University officials as beholden to “Big Football”? Does “Penn State Pride” simply mean too many different things to too many different people?

Penn State Alum Michael Weinreb’s recent contributions to the online sports magazine and blog Grantland (owned by EPSN): Growing Up Penn State

Chuck Raasch’s USA Today article on Penn State being “Too big to fail”: Penn State is Just Another Too-Big-To-Fail

NY Times on the Cocoon of Football: The Dangerous Cocoon of King Football

Here is a blog entry from Meg Fowler, a Boston-based writer who has worked with child-related nonprofits, about the importance—and the real difficulty—of thinking about responsibility in advance: Bearing Responsibility

Here is piece from Denise Grollmus, a Penn State MFA student, entitled, "Joe Paterno Fired: The Danger of Making Gods Out of Men"

There has been vociferous criticism of Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary, Graham Spanier, and others for not taking action and speaking up more forcefully and immediately about whatever they might have known (or in the case of McQueary, what he witnessed). There are also those who remind us about how what happened at Penn State is part of a larger narrative of under-reporting sexual abuse. A recent BBC article explains, for instance, that the tendencies to under-report criminal behavior like sexual abuse stems from “self-preservation, denial and fear.” Read the entire BBC article here.

Questions about Identity, Place and Culture

  • While rhetorics of blame will likely continue to circulate in the media, we have an opportunity to look inward and ask ourselves what is taboo in the Penn State culture. Have you ever questioned an accepted community practice, value, or thought but felt hesitant to speak up about it? Even if you don’t have particular critiques, can you identify situations in which others might not feel comfortable to speak up?
  • As you think about these situations or community taboos, you might also think about ways that the student body, administrators, faculty, or other Penn State stakeholders might open up spaces for alternate positions. What can we do as a community to help foster the ability to move past feelings of “self-preservation, denial and fear”?

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Actions, Symbolic and Otherwise

What are the available symbolic responses in the midst of this scandal? So far we have seen a “riot” (which included the overturning of a news vehicle), a vigil for the victims, a vigil at Joe Paterno’s statue and a march to his house, protests with signs (some of which could be seen the night of the riot), blog posts, tweets, facebook posts, etc. Why did a group of Penn State students riot? Why did additional students attend as onlookers? What messages do these actions send? What values do they promote? Who is the intended audience? Who ended up being the actual audience? What other responses were overshadowed by the riot?

Discourse and Listening

This Penn State Student Rally video is of a Penn State student speaking in front of a rally on Old Main steps. He argues passionately for holding our leaders accountable, beginning: “This is not about Joe Paterno. This is not about Graham Spanier. This is about these kids and holding our leaders accountable.” In the two-minute speech, he is interrupted by students in the audience who call attention to his Dorsett jersey (Tony Dorsett played for the University of Pittsburgh), boos from the crowd, shouts for supporting Paterno, and jeers. Other students at the rally, however, call for the importance of listening, valuing the marketplace of ideas, and asking if booing is what “we are about.”


In the wake of the scandal, classrooms at Penn State were particularly charged. One literature professor assigned a poem about "punishment" that took on eerie new significance when read the day after Joe Paterno was fired by the Board of Trustees. Comparative Literature Professor Sophia McClellan published this piece about teaching The Kite Runner during that same time frame: Teaching The Kite Runner at Penn State

Questions About Learning in the Midst of Crisis

  • How did this event intensify class material for you?
  • Are there particular texts (literary or otherwise) you have read in past classes that you found yourself returning to to help "make sense" of the whole thing?
  • Do imaginative texts help us work through political action and individual response?



Was the “riot” a riot? How can we, as members of this community, describe what happened in our own terms?

Michael Weinreb’s piece on the “Culture of Unrest” at Penn State talks about rioting. Weinreb leaves readers with a call to action: “I can only hope that what took place last night was the raging against the dying of that light, and that we will reexamine every aspect of the culture we’ve fostered--including these silly Beaver Canyon gatherings--and that someday our community will be whole again.” Do you agree with Weinreb’s appeal for change? If so, what are alternative ways to find voice/expression/response at a time of collective crisis?

Here is an article about the riot on the night of the announcement about Paterno: Why Penn State Students Rioted--They Deify Joe Paterno

The widespread rioting after the death of Osama bin Laden was partially understood, perhaps surprisingly, as young people dealing with a real force of evil (bin Laden) in terms of a familiar narrative, Harry Potter, and its evil character, Voldemort. The association is explained in this Washington Post article: Why We Millennials Celebrated When Osama Died

Also, the radio show This American Life discussed the Penn State riot after bin Laden’s death with Penn State student Lexi Belcufine. The audio file and transcript can be accessed here: Transcript and Audio File

Just as we might understand bin Laden/Voldemort as icons of sheer evil (in our collective imagination), we can think about how Joe Paterno functions as a different kind of icon of goodness. Many commentators have drawn strong parallels, for example, between Paterno and the Pope, and have considered Paterno to be an ultimate father figure surrounded by a cult of personality. How does a cult of personality shape, influence, constrain, and/or provoke our ability to make sense of and respond to our campus in crisis?

Questions about Alternative Means of Action

  • What are the various avenues by which Penn State students can make their voices heard? Are some avenues better than others?
  • It is often said that “violence is not the answer.” How can Penn State students enforce their obligation to not engage in violence? Does the Occupy Movement present new ways to express discontent?
  • Soon we’ll be seeing signs and shirts with the THON logo, “For the Kids.” How might the meaning of this motto have changed, both for us (within our community) and others (those outside our immediate community who will encounter the motto but who do not have our contextual understanding of what FTK means at Penn State? Should THON leadership consider changing the motto? Whether the motto is changed or not, how can we explain what FTK might mean to this community now, in light of the scandal?

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Leadership and Stakeholders

While in many ways leadership at Penn State is distributed amongst many, including administrators, students, faculty, and staff, much media attention has focused on top-level administrators or specific actions from certain groups of students. This crisis necessitates that we reflect on and discuss who our leaders are or should be, what leadership is, and what role students have in leadership on our campus. It also calls on our ability to identify the various stakeholders in the university and how they have been differently affected by the crisis.

Article on Governor Corbett’s involvement with the U.: Abuse Inquiry Set Tricky Path for a Governor

Penn State English Professor and Paterno Family Chair in Literature Michael Bérubé weighs in on the idea of shared faculty governance with an op-ed piece in The New York times: At Penn State, a Bitter Reckoning

Onward State post including UPUA President TJ Bard’s press conference on Thursday (both video and text):President TJ Bard Speaks at Old Main

Onward State story about PSU Hope’s vigil on Friday night: PSU Hope Plans Friday Candle Vigil at Old Main

The Facebook event for that group

The New York Times asked students to comment on the moral obligations of people in leadership positions: Do Leaders Have Moral Obligations?

Questions for Discussing Leadership and Stakeholders

  • Who is in charge of the university? How is that “charge” bestowed upon them? To whom are they responsible?
  • Who are the various stakeholders of the university, and what are their investments? How are these stakeholders affected by the recent events? How might these stakeholders use their varying resources and power to make their voices heard?
  • What are the characteristics of a good leader?
  • When leadership fails us, how do we call leaders to task for those failures? What are the possible avenues for addressing those failures? Are some avenues better than others?
  • How do we ensure that our leaders maintain their responsibilities?
  • In what ways have students taken leadership roles during this crisis? What are possibilities for students to take leadership in ensuring that their voices are heard and that they have a prominent and productive role in Penn State’s future?

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Media Literacy

From the moment news of the scandal broke, members of Penn State’s campus and community have been sifting through information made available via news media and shared through email, blogs, and social networking sites. One of the difficulties of managing so many messages is understanding, critiquing, and using such information. Such management, or media literacy, includes questioning who represents who and in what ways, what information is left out, and what is the purpose of a particular news story.

Questions for Evaluating a News Story

  • Who is the author of the story? Where is it published, and in what medium? What are the interests of this particular author or venue? Should we be concerned about the particular biases of the author and/or the story?
  • How does the story build or fail to build its credibility? What types of evidence does the source rely upon (if any at all)? Examples? Statistics? Testimony (expert, personal, or otherwise)? Interviews? Stories? Hearsay? What are the advantages and disadvantages of these particular forms of evidence?
  • Is the story backed by facts? Does it rely on shameless rumor-mongering?
  • How does the purported purpose of the source or story (for instance, to inform) align or not align with the effects of the source (for instance, to raise alarm, to incite anger)?
  • How does the source represent Penn State? How does it represent Penn State students? What aspects of PSU and PSU student life are left out of the story?
  • Many sources have equated Penn State solely with its football program. What are the costs of such representations? What aspects of Penn State life are omitted or ignored in such reporting?
  • How have, and how might, students respond to media representations of themselves and their university? What avenues are available for Penn State students to make their opinions known?

Humor, Satire, and "Fake News"

Humor and satire have long been powerful vehicles for social commentary. “Fake news” outlets such as Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and The Onion use a form that can swiftly turn from funny to deadly serious. Here are two commentaries that appeared after Joe Paterno was let go, both of which use their usually humorous form to make a very serious juxtaposition:

John Stewart's response to the student demonstration in protest of Joe Paterno's firing: The Daily Show

This fake news article appearing on The Onion Sports Network hits a similar note to Stewart’s closing statements in the video link above: The Onion

Another Onion article featuring Joe Paterno before the scandal broke provides a useful contrast with the OSN piece: The Onion

Political cartoons combine drawings with words to produce biting commentary as well. Here are some examples:

A cartoon from the Boston Globe juxtaposing the commercialism of football with the sex abuse scandal: The Boston Globe

A cartoon in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analogizing Penn State football with the Catholic Church: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A cartoon in the Philadelphia Inquirer criticizing the student demonstration in protest of Joe Paterno's firing:Philadelphia Inquirer

A cartoon from the Denver Post that was rerun in the Daily Collegian's November 14 opinion page commenting on the student demonstration against the firing of Joe Paterno (WARNING this content may be too difficult for some audience members): Denver Post

Questions for Discussing Humor

  • Why can authors say things in jest or draw or write things in comics they could not say or write in other ways? For example, is it okay for cartoonists to depict victims of the Penn State sex abuse scandal?
  • Comedians often achieve humor through the juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar. How might such juxtaposition hurt or help deliberation in times of crisis by shifting the perspective of audience members?
  • With every attempt at humor some people will find it funny and some people will not. What are the stakes of using humor to deliberate over crisis when, unavoidably, there will be some people who do not find it funny, or as we acknowledge in a warning above can’t bear to look?
  • Humor is often used in difficult times and places to break tension. Eulogies are a prime example of this practice. Is it okay to laugh at a joke that makes light of tragic circumstances? What distinguishes a joke that is "okay" from a joke that goes too far?
  • Some comedians respond to crisis by offering an uncharacteristically serious response. How does their ethos as comics affect how we perceive their statements?

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Arguments and Evidence

How has the grand jury report (PDF) been used as evidence in arguments in the midst of this crisis? Has the grand jury report’s widespread availability generated informed arguments, or has it solidified belief and stalled discussion? The grand jury report includes testimony given by individuals like Joe Paterno in close proximity to graphic testimony given by the alleged victims themselves. How does that placement influence the way we interpret people’s actions and form beliefs about what did or didn’t happen?

How does language used in legal contexts (e.g., the grand jury report) get mixed in with personal narrative? What are the effects of that mixing?

Maureen Dowd’s NY Times column

“The Spirit of Violent Lamentation” by Brian Spears

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Additional Resources for Deliberation

Here, we have provided some links to similar teaching and deliberating resources that have also been developed as a response to the Penn State sex abuse scandal.

Emily Rimland, Information Literacy Librarian, has developed a research guide for undergraduate students.

The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence has posted a resource for difficult dialogue in the classroom.

Dr. Chistopher Long, Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, has posted a collection of resources for dialogue on the Penn State sex abuse scandal.