October’s Diversi-Tea session started with a list of critical questions focusing on incivility and dealing with difficult dialogues. The participants raised some insightful and critical questions throughout the discussion and identified some applicable tips and strategies to address incivility in the classroom.
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The focus questions included:
- What does incivility mean and look like in the context of your work and experience?
- What informs your perspective of incivility? What role does your background, culture, society, etc. play in your view?
- What assumptions do you make about incivility?
- What do you consider to be a “difficult dialogue”?
- What are/were some examples of “difficult dialogues” in which you have been involved?
- What is your general reaction?
- Why do you think this is the case?
- How would you like the situation to have been handled?
The participants raised critical questions including:
- Who’s to blame for incivility?
- How can we get students to care about civility?
- Is civility the “end game”? Or is it “community”?
- How can I dialogue with someone and learn from them?
- How do you move from a place of “agreeing to disagree” to a place of appreciation?
- How do I (as a faculty member or staff working with students) express my opinion? What’s my place in the discussion?
While connecting incivility to the cases of difficult dialogues, Diversi-Tea participants share the following strategies and insights:
Establishing policies at the beginning of the course would set transparent boundaries for all the students as well as the instructor to preserve each other’s rights and respect and avoid many challenging and uncivilized occasions throughout the course. Again, doing this with students may help with buy-in. Be sure to include university-wide policies on your syllabus.
Co-create “brave” spaces
In addition to providing policies on your syllabus, it is also helpful to work together with students to create an environment in which everyone feels respected. Ask students what respect and civility look like, and collaboratively define boundaries. In some cases, doing some role-playing can also be useful to assess students’ understanding of policies, as well as clarify issues that you may not have addressed on the syllabus. Emphasize the importance of creating a class “community” by soliciting feedback from students about the classroom environment in a variety of ways (e.g., providing a comment box, inviting students to come and talk to you during office hours, asking for feedback on index cards at the end of class, etc.). This will help reduce “spark” moments, and let students know that you care.
Acknowledge your own feelings
Realize that there may be times in which you as the instructor can get frustrated or angry at student comments. While students may be directing their frustration in the classroom, their remarks may be the product of events that might have taken place outside your class. Resist the urge to take student comments personally and instead separate the student from the remark. This can be done by asking for clarification about the comment (“Where does this idea come from?”). If it is not reasonable to address the comment during class, remind students of the established codes of conduct in class and/or redirect the discussion to a different subject.
Acknowledge the students’ feelings
When the “spark” moments do happen – and they will – a good strategy to defuse the situation could be to acknowledge the feelings of the parties involved. The effectiveness of this strategy largely depends on how extensive the interruption is and on the rapport that the instructor has with the students. An instructor, for instance, could respond to students having a heated debate in class by saying, “I understand that this topic is difficult/ there are a lot of opinions about this topic, but…” Depending on the students and the situation, the instructor could set an alternative time to discuss the issue or ask the students to support their point of view with research if it is connected to the content. The important issue is to decide whether the interruption could be converted into a learning moment for all students, or if it simply is a detraction from student learning. In either case, research and experiential practice assert that it is best to acknowledge students’ feelings (whether during class or outside of class) that will be reproduced in another occasion if not addressed effectively.
Contribute to students’ awareness
Asking students to provide empirical evidence for social phenomenon they claim or advocate would significantly contribute to raising of their social and critical consciousness. For instance, a student might say, “Latino immigrants are taking all our jobs.” By asking the student questions, the instructor might help them come to the following conclusion: “This article / experience, etc. suggested that Latino immigrants are taking our jobs.” When you know where a comment is coming from, it is easier to help students reflect on their ideas and learn different perspectives.
Locate and contextualize the impressions
All students come with specific social backgrounds that informs their impressions about social and political phenomenon. When dealing with difficult dialogues, instructors should be mindful of students’ socio-economic status, religious backgrounds, nationality and immigration history and many other factors that play critical roles in forming their attitudes and beliefs. Having students fill out “information sheets” is a first step in getting to know more about the learners in your classes. Asking students to contextualize their comments is also helpful.
Need more strategies and tips? For more information on incivility and difficult dialogues, check out these resources:
Need more one-on-one support? Schedule a consultation with the Teaching and Learning Center today. Or perhaps you are a graduate student interested in teaching? Our UT-CIRTL Program provides training for future faculty wanting to learn new teaching skills – learn more about it here.