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Workshop on Academic Civility

Week Three (April 30+): Academic Civility by Design

 The third and final week of the workshop builds on the definitions of and considerations for civility of the first two weeks and presents 3 activities that are designed to promote and engage academic civility.

Learning Goals: Participants will read about three ways civility can be incorporated into a course (via policies, in-class activities, and assignment design) and reflect on ways in which they might adapt their course climate, activities, and/or assignments in order to address civility in their courses.

Part I 

Course Climate 
and Syllabus Design
(Compiled from Research) 

Many studies have shown that students and faculty agree on what are the biggest examples of incivility in the classroom.  Robert J. Connelly's 2009 article, "Introducing a Culture of Civility in First-Year College Classes," suggests many ways in which instructors can involve studetns in constructing a classroom code of civility and/or  penalties for violating that code.  Rather than a prescriptive list of behavior provided by instructors without context, this approach is an opportunity to bridge the cynicism, doubt, or ignorance that often affects students' behavior. For example, rather than prescribing “no cell phones in class,” instructors might ask students whether they think cell phone use is appropriate, provide them with the relevant research that discusses why texting in class is harmful to their education,for example.

When students are involved in the process, there is ample evidence that there is both better understanding of the purpose of academic civility and increased adherence to the "rules" of the classroom.

A good starting point might be discussing and getting feedback on existing policies and penalties an instructor has outline on a syllabus. As instructors continue to engage students, these policies could form a living document that evolves from semester to semester. 
Of course, the classroom is not a simple-majority democracy, though.  Involving students in the process does not mean that instructors are subject to whatever guidelines the students think are appropriate. Instructors should expect to have "veto power" and make the ultimate “ruling” on policies, providing reasons those decisions will help students understand why the boundaries and/or penalties are helpful for their learning. 

Part II 

In-Class Activity by Dr. Lisa Hager (English, UW Waukesha)

After attending the UW System Conference on Everyday Civility in February 2011, Dr. Hager revised her approach to teaching English 102, the second course of the first-year writing sequence in which students are asked work with sources in making their own arguments. 

Dr. Hager explains: "This past term in ENG 102, I have used civility as a theme in the course to prompt class discussions about handling opposing viewpoints. The goal here is to encourage students to see respectful engagement with the opposition as a means to both better accomplishing their persuasive goal of getting a diverse audience of readers to grant the validity of argument and more thoroughly understanding and expressing their own positions via engaging arguments against it. It’s not about being nice or “politically correct”; it’s about making one’s arguments as strong as possible and effectively communicating them in writing." 

At the beginning of the semester, Dr. Hager spends a class period on inclusive language in order to: 
  • Give students a concrete example of why inclusivity and civility are important considerations for audience(s) 
  • Provide students with several strategies to make their language more inclusive 
  • Prompt students to view their own language from the point of view of their audience(s) 
  • Help make the classroom an inclusive space by emphasizing how is used language as a means of power 
Example Reading Assignments: 
  • "Writing to the World," "Language that Builds Common Ground," and "Language Variety" from Andrea A. Lunsford's The Everyday Writer with 2009 MLA Update. 4th Ed. NewYork: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009. 
  • Ann M. Johns' "Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice" from Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Eds. Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs. New York: Bedford/ St. Martins, 2011. 498-519. 
In-Class Activity: 

Dr. Hager sets up the activity with the following discussion: "Starting with Johns' piece, I talk about the concept of discourse communities and have students think of communities they writing in already and what some of the rules are for those communities in relation to writing (for example, a family Christmas letter has particular conventions and purposes). I then connect their pre-existing abilities to move within discourse communities with what they’re being asked to do as college-level writers, so that they begin to see college writing as another discourse community they are joining." Dr. Hager also contextualizes inclusive language in terms of academic and professional discourse communities and ask students to suggest why this language is important for the rhetorical purposes of these two discourse communities. 

For the activity, students work in groups to correct the following sentences to make them more inclusive.  The sentences deal with issues of gender, race, region, and sexual orientation.   They present their changes to the class, explaining why the sentence was incorrect and how their changes fix the problem: 
  • A student who does his homework will succeed in this class. 
  • The Congressmen passed a law. 
  • Dr. Hager is from the south, but she is also smart. 
  • Even though Sean is Asian, he isn’t good at math. 
  • Describe the qualities that the opposite sex finds attractive in you. [context: directions on a worksheet] 
Students do well with this activity, and it provides an opportunity to discuss what language means inside and outside of particular groups—especially how dynamics of social, political, and economic power work in relation to many of these words. Dr. Hager also gives personal examples of words that are entirely acceptable within her own discourse communities but would be offensive if used outside of those communities. 

"I’ve done this inclusive language lesson a few times previously, but pairing it with the idea of civility seemed to give the students a better understanding of why they should care about it and use it. Throughout the semester, I’ve used this lesson as a foundation and reference point from which to begin working through how to appeal to broad diverse audiences and to approach opposition arguments respectfully yet confidently."

Materials from the Conference
Part III 

"How Interviewing Can Encourage Us to Listen and Think" 
by Dr. Dylan Bennett 
(Political Science, UW Washington)

Dr. Bennett has had success with a paper assignment that asks students to interview someone and determine that person’s political ideology. Students are urged not to ask the interview subject to label themselves, but rather to ask the person a series of questions about economic, social, and defense issues, note their answers, and then analyze the data. 

To prepare for the assignment Dr. Bennett leads a classroom discussion about how competing ideologies differ on the major issues.  Dr. Bennett also provides students with a list of questions they can use for their interview, although he encourages them to think of their own questions. 

Dr. Bennett's Writing Assignment (in Brief)

Your assignment is to interview someone and to write a three-page paper discussing what kind of ideology and political values they seem to have. Answer the following three questions: 
  1. To what extent does your interviewee conform to the ideological categories and partisan policy positions of liberal, conservative, moderate, or populist? 
  2. To what extent do they express sentiments of elite democracy or popular democracy? 
  3. To what extent do the individual’s views conform to the majority of people who share their characteristics of social class, race, gender, and religions. 
The strategy is to ask them questions that get answers that fit into our categories from class discussion: (a) role of government; (b) economic; (c) social; and (d) defense. 
The idea is to not ask them if they are “liberal” or “conservative” or “moderate.” If they use those labels, fine, but still ask them a range of questions. It is your job to describe their ideology in writing according to how their substantive answers fit in the different areas. Parents, grandparents, neighbors, old people, or friends from the community, all make great interview subjects. I do not suggest interviewing college students your own age. Better to interview someone who is a little older and in the thick of “real life.” Your paper should be well organized with a thoughtful introduction and an introductory presentation of what your paper contains. 

Dr. Bennett drew on his expertise from his previous occupation as a journalist: a job that taught him the value of patient listening, thorough questioning, and clear writing.  Dr. Bennett explains how the students engage civility: "I created this assignment for students to actively practice listening and understanding political values rather than simply declaring one’s own position. The assignment is successful because it gets students conversing about political values and public policies in their own lives. Often students interview their parents or grandparents and quite often this is the very first political conversation they have ever had with their family member. Students discover details and nuances they did not expect. In some cases students seem to experience profound bonding with their family members. It is my perception that many students have a productive, civil conversation about, well, civics, and that may be the most valuable thing they gain from my class." 

Selected Sample Questions

Dr. Bennett provides many example questions to facilitate students' interviews.  Below is a list of a few of the prompts he gives them:

Economic Questions
  • To what extent do you agree with the idea that government should take an active role in reducing inequality? 
  • What are your thoughts about the Social Security system, the deductions it takes from people’s paychecks, and the pensions it provides?
  • Should the national debt be paid down with tax increases, spending cuts, or a combination of both
  • Would you like to see the public school system privatized?
  • What do you think a fair tax system would look like? 
  • Do you think the pay of chief executive officers of corporations being 531 times the income of the average worker is too much? 
Social Questions
  • What is your position on abortion? 
  • Should homosexuals be allowed to serve in the military? 
  • Would it bother you if a future president was not a Christian? 
  • Do you believe in equal pay for equal work for women and racial minorities? 
Military Defense Questions 
  • Do you hold the military in high regard? 
  • Is the defense budget ($700 billion a year) the right size, too large, or too small? 
  • What kind of foreign policy do you think is best? 
Role of Government Questions
  • What or who do you think has the most political influence or power in the USA? 
  • Should the government help people who are in poverty? 
  • Should the government help people go to college? 
  • Do you think affordable health care is a human right the government should provide if necessary?