As one of a series of events marking Rutgers University–Newark’s 75th anniversary as a public institution this year, the Dialogue in a Time of Fracture (DTF) project is also one of the most urgent.
Conceived by Associate Professor Jason Cortés (American Studies), Associate Professor Jennifer Bernstein (Graphic Design) and Assistant Professor Domingo Morel (Political Science) via a 2019 Mellon Foundation fellowship, DTF is creating space on campus for candid discussions on topics such as race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, poverty and inequality, and immigration as the country grapples with ever-increasing polarization.
The DTF project has so far featured a two-day symposium featuring expert panels and in-depth discussions, and a follow-up workshop with 40 students, both of which drew enthusiastic crowds in late March.
A third piece was included when Bernstein, an award-winning designer who has exhibited her work at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City and other venues, asked an additional question: “How do we extend the conversations started in the symposium? Is there a way to facilitate continued dialogue through design and technology?” she said.
The result is the RU-N Dialogue platform, an online meeting place for students, faculty and staff to share thoughts, opinions, and historical facts and interpretations, along with images, videos and other information resources to contextualize the conversations.
Bernstein designed the site with RU-N senior Joanna Januszkiewicz and alumna Amanda D’Innocenzio, and brought in Richard Hall, a former graduate student of her’s from Pratt Institute, where she formerly taught, to act as lead developer. (Hall also worked on RU-N's Arts, Culture and Media and Newest Americans websites.) The two design students also helped Bernstein with the DTF identity, event program, poster and social-media publicity.
There’s been a real willingness of the administration to back this idea, to live up to RU-N's commitment as a place of free expression and exploration of ideas.
Populating the site with content, at least initially, was a group effort. A few days after the two-day DTF symposium, the three founders held a workshop in the Express Newark lecture hall with 40 of Morel’s political science students, all of whom had attended the event and had a working knowledge of the discussion topics. With the website displayed on screens throughout the room, they continued the conversation in small groups of eight, each with a faculty facilitator and one student documenting and adding contributions to the site. By the end of the three-hour workshop, the site contained nearly 100 posts on an array of topics, up from 30 when Bernstein and her graphic-design students first tested and launched the site several weeks earlier.
The site’s design embraces a combination of familiar and modern visual and navigation elements, and allows viewers to access posts in multiple ways—chronologically, randomly and via various filter settings—producing different user experiences and letting visitors explore what others are saying and see how things are coming together in juxtaposition as the site content evolves.
“It's meant to be a true visual dialogue with image, text and videos,” said Bernstein, while encouraging all in the RU-N community to contribute to the conversation.
In this time of heightened division, Bernstein also sees the site as a beacon of free speech insofar as it allows RU-N community members to air their differences of opinions without the piling-on affect seen on social media, and she credits the RU-N administration for supporting such an endeavor.
"This is a platform where RU-N participants can say anything they want, so in that sense it’ll be a real dialogue,” said Bernstein. "There’s been a real willingness of the administration to back this idea, to live up to RU-N's commitment as a place of free expression and exploration of ideas. And so this archive will live on in the rutgers.edu domain and will have great potential as a historical document and research resource for student and faculty scholars down the road.”