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Embracing Circles in Higher Education  

Student Success Civic Engagement Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Faculty
November 7, 2023 Peter Mather Ohio University

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 4, November 2023

Lessons in Moral Development Learned From a Sabbatical Adventure: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Early in my sabbatical adventure, I received a call from the manager of a campground where I was staying in South Dakota’s Badlands region. The manager informed me that my tent had blown and tumbled across the property. He shared the good news that the tent was chased down by my campsite neighbors before it summersaulted into the depths of the unforgiving Badlands. I quickly returned to the campground to thank my neighbors and secure my tent. I discovered that my tent’s saviors were a church group from Indiana that were in the area to perform service at a Lakota tribal reservation. Members of the group invited me to join them in helping with creating latrines in the local ceremonial grounds. I eagerly agreed to participate.

Circle as Transformative Practice

My primary interpreter among the church group was a young man named Jim. Jim shared with me his passion for studying indigenous cultures. He had even become proficient in speaking the Lakota language. When we arrived at the site of our work, Jim told me to be sure to dig the latrine holes in the shapes of circles, not squares. He said that in this indigenous tribe, all things were circular. Jim pointed across the grounds to a circle shaped tent (i.e., a sweat lodge) where he had participated in a community ceremony a few days before. He described the experience as profoundly spiritual and leading to a sense of connection with others in the native community.

Indeed, circles are important symbols throughout indigenous communities. Circles are natural, as indicated by the shape of the sun, the moon, and the cycle of life. In contrast to nature’s circles, sharp angles are indicative of the constructions of the Western, modern world. Uniformly, rectangles show up in educational institution’s organizational charts. Within board rooms and classrooms our positioning is constructed by straight lines and hierarchy-based sides of the room. These bureaucratic conventions have their place in our communities. They help focus our roles and responsibilities and guide students to the right places to pay their bills, meet their basic needs, seek career advising, and gain mental health support. They can provide the needed structures to guide our institutional selves. But, the squares that show up in organizational charts and service-windows cannot facilitate the transformative work that can only be accomplished through communities, not by institutions 

Generational Divide

A few years ago, I supplemented my work as a professor with the role of secretary of the board of trustees. I was grateful to get to know our trustees. They took their fiduciary role seriously, conscientiously working within financial and legal constraints to enhance the learning of students and the institution’s service to the public. During my time as board secretary, the trustees navigated significant tensions and conflicts with students and faculty—primarily around the availability and distribution of resources. When I entered conversations with the students, in particular, I recognized their angst. They were concerned about themselves and their peers carrying a burden of enormous debt into the future. They were also highly suspect that the political polarization and dysfunction of the day would improve their futures—that it would improve their economic or environmental prospects.

To students, the trustees represented an establishment that had not provided for them adequately. They felt the same about many of their faculty. In the 2020 election, an undergraduate student asked me, “Why do so many of the faculty support the moderate candidates, who are only going to support the things that have forfeited our future.” As one of those faculty members, the best answer I could come up with was that it was because the system had worked for many of us.

Indeed, I find myself struggling with understanding today’s students. I’m technically a boomer, and my formative experiences differed greatly from those whose lives have been shaped by COVID, immersion in technology, and living in a world on fire. I am having trouble knowing what students need from me. I have wonderful one-on-one conversations with them, but I sense in many of my interactions that I am failing them—not knowing how to give today’s students what they need.

Embracing Circles

While we are immersed in a culture of convention (i.e., squares), colleges and universities are experimenting with a variety of “circle” methods in both administrative and academic practice. Circle practices show up on the margins through restorative justice practices (Pedreal, 2014), as well as through innovative teaching and learning activities (Barkaskas & Gladwin, 2021; Hanson & Danyluk, 2022). But, these practices remain rare and sometimes challenging to implement in our work due to cultural resistance. In the current period of dynamic change, circle-practices could provide new and transformational approaches to engagement. Conventional institutional (i.e., square) practices foster separation from one another, and often conflicts between faculty, students, and administrators. Community approaches foster connections, understanding, and healthy interdependence.

Imagine creating a culture of story-telling circles across groups—a practice for which the purpose is to learn from and support one another—not to solve an immediate problem. The circle approach is anathema to an institution that is designed for efficiency and productivity. That is, circles are focused on understanding and being in relationship with one another—across generations, and across interest groups. In order to rehumanize the academy and to reach the needs of our students to be seen and heard, it will be important to move past our attachment to squares.


Barkaskas, P., & Gladwin, D. (2021). Pedagogical talking circles: Decolonizing education through Relational Indigenous Frameworks. Journal of Teaching and Learning, v15 n1 p20-38.

Blas Pedreal, M. L. (2014). Restorative Justice Programs in Higher Education. The Vermont Connection, 35(1). https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/tvc/vol35/iss1/5

Hanson, A., & Danyluk, P (2022). Talking circles as Indigenous pedagogy in online learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 115, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2022.103715.