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Workshop on Academic Civility (in Higher Education)

Week One (April 9+):  An Introduction to "Academic Civility"
Though teaching is the primary focus of the UW Colleges' mission, it is likely that few of its instructional professionals have had the training necessary to deal with the problem of incivility. The majority of higher education pedagogical training focuses on methods and content in the disciplines, and less on how to teach and manage learning environments. Therefore, the purpose of this mini-workshop is to investigate and reflect on how to promote civility in the college classroom.  

Learning Objectives, Week One: After week one, participants should understand the definition of academic civility,its relevance for the higher education classroom, and current best and worst practices with civility.

Definition & Overview of Civility

What do we mean by "civility"?  

In some ways it is easier to identify undesirable behaviors or examples of "incivility" in our classrooms than it is to define civility: late, unprepared, or inattentive students; inappropriate email or other forms of communication; inappropriate classroom behavior ranging from sleeping to outbursts.  We know it when we see it, hear it, read it, experience it.  Robert J. Connelly summarizes the definition of civility well in "Introducing a Culture of Civility in First-Year College Classes":

Civility is a virtue in the sense of a learned capability, habit, disposition, or character trait based on the sincere belief in the value of living as part of diverse communities and the conviction that the goal of living successfully in each community calls us to serve the common good, not just function out of self-interest. The virtue of civility, as I envision it, enables the individual to
    • recognize the differences in various communities (the possible continuum is from the household community to the global and everything in between),
    • identify the accepted social norms/values that generally govern good relations for each community in which one is involved,
    • be flexible and adaptable enough to live by the norms of a given community in the spirit of getting along well with other members in that community,
    • know when to switch/shift/modify behavior and be guided by other norms as necessary to fi t into another community, and
    • be tolerant of defects or imperfections in norms in order to maintain mutual trust in a community (instead of contributing to the suspicion about who is trying to get away with not following the norms). (52-53)
Generally speaking, we might define civility as the minimum standards of politeness, courtesy, and consideration we expect of students in our courses, but these expectations often go far beyond politeness and include students' understanding of responsibility, their definitions of educations, and their expectations of their professors.  In such a complicated "space," it is likely that students and their instructors have very different definitions and expectations of what is appropriate, and what is not.  Civility is, essentially, a constituent part of academic literacy

If what constitutes civility in the classroom often seems like "common sense" to instructional professionals, why is incivility (increasingly) common?  

As one can see in Connelly's definition above, civility is a learned skill, and in the academic environment, our students are still learning how to develop the associated literacies of being college students, a large part of which is constituted by civility in higher education, and that is a new set of skills above and beyond what students learn in their K-12 education. When we consider the demographics of our UW Colleges' students, we might make a limited generalization that a greater percentage of our students may not have fully developed academic civility in their K-12 educational experiences.  For example, in 2010, we admitted 98% of applicants, only 46% of which came from the the upper-half of their high school graduating class (17.7% came from the bottom quartile).  Given the different skills of this population of students, it is perhaps even more important that we address academic civility in the classroom than institutions that matriculate students in the top quartile of high school performance.

In Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen Brookfield describes this responsibility of teaching academic civility:

Students can’t read our minds. They can’t be expected to know what we stand for without our making an explicit and vigorous effort to communicate this. We have to build a continual case for learning, action, and practice, instead of assuming that students see the self-evident value of what we are asking them to do. We have to create windows into our minds so that students can see the workings of our own teaching rationales. Laying bare our pedagogic reasoning helps students understand that our actions are not arbitrary or haphazard. They see that our choices and injunctions spring from our past experiences as teachers, from our convictions about what we’re trying to accomplish, and from our knowledge of students’ backgrounds, expectations, cultures, and concerns. . . . We want them [students] to understand that our insistence on particular ways of working is grounded in a set of examined and informed beliefs about what teachers should do, what education should look like, and how learning should happen. Students do not have to agree with these beliefs, but they need to know what they are and why we have them. And they need to see that our apparent stubbornness about a particular approach or requirement grows out of our pedagogic rationale and not out of egomania. […O]ne of the chief indicators to students that a teacher should be taken seriously is that she makes clear that her actions spring from a well-thought-out rationale grounded in experience. Continuous full disclosure by teachers of their expectations, guiding agendas, and evaluative criteria is an important sign of authenticity. If such disclosure is accompanied by the possibility of negotiating some of these items, so much the better. Under these conditions, students come to trust the teacher much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case. (108-109, emphasis added)

Why Civility Matters

Despite the challenges that teaching academic civility poses, it is paramount that we give attention it in our instruction not only for the purposes of effective teaching and learning, but also for the importance that performing civility in different social contexts has and will have for our students. In a 2008 article in Observer, Jennifer L. Schroeder and Harvetta Robertson describe the importance of civility for students: "In most current work settings, individuals are expected to fulfill their individual roles while participating as a part of a team, showing respect for others, and operating productively in work environments. A lack of civility, even in someone with exemplary skills, can lead to failure in the classroom and later in the boardroom." In other words, civility is not just an expectation we should make of our students, but a skill which we should be helping them develop. In fact, others argue that "Civility is not another piece to be added onto the plate of an educator, it ‘is’ the plate upon which all else is placed” (Vincent 28).   

Pedagogical Considerations for Academic Civility

Dialogic Civility 

In their 1999 communication study, Dialogic Civility in a Cynical Age, Ronald Arnett and Pat Arneson propose the concept of “dialogic civility” as a communication practice with potential to overcome the mistrust, doubt, and cynicism that is a hallmark of our communication era. These theorists propose that countering such cynicism involves practicing dialogic civility: where a speaker respects his or her communication partners’ perspective and engages in genuine dialogue that includes the components of listening and constructing meaning together: “Dialogue (interpersonal discussion focused on the ‘other,’ person, text, and historical moment) and civility (bringing respect for person, topic, and historical moment to the public domain) frame [their] view of dialogic civility. Diversity of persons, philosophies, races, religions, and ideas call us to celebrate difference. Impulses of dialogic civility encourage grace toward difference and move us to seek points of common ground within our present historical moment” (6).

If cynicism or “doubt” can be read as students’ ignorance of the reasons for our pedagogical expectations of academic civility, then engaging students in the process can be one strategy for educating students. If students participate in the construction of academic civility, for example, they have an inherent understanding and stake in its definition and existence in their learning environment.

Rhetorical Listening

While civility and incivility may seem to exist on a continuum of behavior from “right” to “wrong,” it is more useful from a pedagogical perspective to consider them as different understandings or views of the academic setting.  A useful concept here is Krista Ratcliffe’s theory of “rhetorical listening,” which focuses of conducting dialogue across differences.  This theory of rhetorical listening can become a strategy for both students and instructors to address academic civility.

A central component of Ratcliffe’s theory is identifying the “cultural logics” that different parties (for example, instructors and students) bring to the discussion. In the stance of rhetorical listening, Ratcliffe explains, an individual attempts to remain open in interactions with books, people, and worldviews. Part of this openness involves a willingness to figure out the cultural logics, or “belief systems[s] or way[s] of reasoning that [are] shared within a culture” (10), that are functioning in any discourse. By remaining open and understanding the complexity of the underlying cultural logics, listeners may then forge very conscious identifications, nonidentifications, or disidentifications with their conversational partners, rather than accepting or rejecting ideas based on unexamined beliefs. As Ratcliffe puts it, “By focusing on claims and cultural logics, listeners may still disagree with each other’s claims, but they may better appreciate that the other person is not simply wrong but rather functioning from within a different logic” (33). 

Identifying students’ cultural logics about learning and the academic environment, and explaining or sharing those of the instructor, can be a way for instructors and students to collectively address academic civility collectively.  Moreover, naming these logical positions becomes a way to demystify them for students. 

This is an effective learning tool beyond engaging students in discussions of academic civility as well, as will be explored in part 3 of this workshop.

Epistemological Differences

Instructional professionals and students are often operating from different definitions of what constitutes student learning, what kinds of learning is valuable, and what achievement looks like.  In How Learning Works (our 2012 Reading Circle book), the authors discuss seven concepts of student learning, ranging from organizational structures, to what mastery looks like, to how giving feedback can enhance student learning.  One reason for academic incivility may be the underlying epistemological and philosophical beliefs about what it means to know and to learn.  Addressing academic civility in these ways can have a positive effect on student learning and student behavior.   

Best (and Worst) Practices of Civility

 Best Practices  Worst Practices 
  • Reflect on what is in your control
  • Involve students
  • Develop an "Academic Civility Code"
  • Ask why (discover reasons for the behavior)
  • Have a plan (before behaviors occur)
  • Have clear (and appropriate) consequences for incivility
  • Document incidents
  • Model academic civility for students
  • Incorporate civility into curriculum and assignments
  • Assess how well students meet the academic civility expectations of your classroom

  • Participate in or contribute to academic incivility (in other words, violate your own expectations of students)
  • Ignore problems of academic incivility
  • Employ inconsistent or unclear consequences for incivility
  • Ignore and/or assume you understand the reasons for students' behavior 
  • Have unclear expectations of students

What would you add to either of these columns?  

For Further Study

  • Holly Hassel and Jessica Lourey: "The Dea(R)Th Of Student Responsibility." College Teaching 53.1 (2005): 2.

    • Research on student expectations
    • Role of grading and evaluation in student expectations
    • Appendices including "how to" guides for students
Have an additional resource you'd like to share?  Email the director at 

Supplemental Resources

For Reflective Practice

Reflecting on "Academic Civility"

Review the concepts of academic civility described in these introductory materials: 

  • How do you define academic civility?
  • What problems with incivility do you have in your classes?
  • Are there ways in which this behavior extends beyond the classroom to other environments at the university?
  • How can we help students understand when their behavior is interfering with their learning?
  • How do you already do any of these successfully? 
  • Which one(s) do you want to try to improve, and how might you do that?
To respond to these questions, select any or all of the following:

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Congratulations, you made it through Week One of the "Workshop on Academic Civility."  

Works Cited

Arnett, Ronald C., and Pat Arneson. Dialogic Civility in a Cynical Age: Community, Hope, and Interpersonal Relationships. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Brookfield, Stephen. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Connelly, Robert J. "Introducing a Culture of Civility in First-Year College Classes" The Journal of Higher Education 58.1 (2009): 47-64.

Kinzey, Dana and Deborah Minty. "The Dynamics of Teacher Development" Pedagogy 8.3: 481-494.

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Schroeder, Jennifer L. and Harvetta Robertson. "Civility in the College Classroom" Observer Nov 2008

Vincent, P. F. Restoring School Civility. Greensboro: Character Development Group, 2006.