The challenge of improving civility and respect shares some qualities with a cat chasing its own tail. Classroom civility provides a case in point.
A college or university classroom brings together people who have distinct agendas. The instructor has the most distinct role in organizing the process whether through lecturing, leading discussions, or structuring student participation. The group of students include those who are fascinated with the course material, those who are completing a necessary degree requirement, and those who are not sure why they are taking this course. What issues define civility and incivility in a college classroom?
A basic question is whether people are taking the class seriously. Is a lackadaisical participation in a class disrespectful or offensive towards others in the class?
• Such an attitude by an instructor would share qualities with incivility.
o Indifferent instructors make a statement: the students do not deserve serious effort.
o Indifferent instructors fail to fulfill the minimal requirements of their role within the social context of a classroom.
• Would such an attitude by students be equally uncivil?
o Is serious participation in a college course a minimal requirement of students’ role within the social context of a classroom?
o Does indifferent participation convey disrespect to the instructor or to fellow students?
o Does the student role of customer absolve them of some aspects of social responsibility in a classroom?
The bottom line is that civility requires people to do more than being benignly pleasant. Incivility is not simply behaving in an actively annoying way. By refusing to do one’s part in a shared social situation, people can signal disrespect to others who are trying to make something of the occasion. Certainly there are social settings, including classes, that deserve to be challenged. A half-hearted level of participation seems to be a fairly ineffective way of expressing a contrary point of view. Yet, it remains a challenge to begin a constructive process.
A good place to start is for instructors to lead a conversation at the beginning of a term on civility and respect in the classroom. This conversation can bring the issue into awareness, reflect on the participants’ commitment to civility as a driving value, and provide the basis for effective action.