Learning How to Talk

Lars Hagberg for National Post files

Lars Hagberg for National Post / Queen’s University

The National Post has reported that a “civility clause” in a Queen’s University psychology class has “sparked debate”: the gist of the issue is that the clause threatens an immediate loss of 10% of a student’s overall grade if she or he engages in “Discriminatory, rude, threatening, harassing, disruptive, distracting and inappropriate behaviour and language” (“You Can’t Grade Students’ Behaviour,” Nov. 12, 2012).

Debate indeed. This issue raises a lot of concerns & anxieties surrounding teaching & learning in Higher Ed today. Let’s give those anxieties a bit of an airing here. Take a deep breath, and repeat after me:

increasing class sizes; decreasing tenure-track faculty numbers; downgrading of education to lower-paid, lesser-supported professionals; decreased public funding of post-secondary education; decreasing respect for instructors; tenuous academic freedom for contingent instructors; plagiarism & academic dishonesty; grade inflation; the battle for students’ attention; attention span v. screen culture (or, video killed the lecture hall);  low attendance; low student engagement; post-secondary degree inflation; poor academic job prospects; student infantilization; classroom disruption; incivility in the classroom; the degree-factory university; and the list goes on.

These are the monsters that lurk in the fathomless dark beneath Higher Ed’s bed, most of which are conjured quite effectively, if unwittingly, by The Post‘s Nov. 12 article.  They are truly terrifying monsters. And they are no less real for their ability to attack in packs: you can rarely conjure one without conjuring with it a host of others.

And they are all important issues. But today I want to focus on just one: incivility in the classroom.

Incivility in the Classroom

The author of the contested civility clause, Associate Professor Jill Jacobson, defends the clause as a pre-emptive measure against bullying in the classroom: “I mostly instituted the clause to protect TAs in lab sessions from being threatened and disrupted — basically being bullied by an irate student,” reports The Post.

On the other side of the debate is the academic affairs commissioner for the Alma Mater Society at Queen’s, who takes up the defense of free speech in The Post‘s article.  She raises an important concern: “The inclusion of a civility clause, especially when it threatens a student’s academic standing, would actively discourage the exchange of critical inquiry and free speech which are foundational to a quality undergraduate education.”

I believe that  instructors in Higher Ed are increasingly torn between the desire to engender “open” discussion and debate, which is conducive to critical inquiry and deep learning; and the desire to maintain safety in the classroom, for both students and instructors.  Is this true of your experience? I wonder, too, how do lecture halls and tutorials feel for the students out there who might be reading this? Do you wish for more safety, and less openness, or vice-versa?

I personally fear that in classes that deal with sensitive subjects like race, colonization, gender & sexuality, students feel that lecture halls and tutorials are neither safe nor open. I also personally don’t feel that this is due to any shortcoming of the instructors of courses like this. On the whole, I think students do find instructors (both faculty and TAs) approachable. But there is a palpable fear amongst students of “saying the wrong thing”–and in a course that deals with discourses of race in early Canadian literature, for example, or with the history of colonization in a British Lit survey, “saying the wrong thing” might not simply mean that a student appears academically incorrect, but immoral or unethical. There is moral, ethical and civil weight behind words describing race, sexuality, gender, and disability. Instructors and researchers studying in these areas spend a lot of time learning about the weightiness of discourses that stick so readily to the body and subjectivity. We spend a lot of time learning how to talk about such sensitive subjects. Students are not there yet. And I’m worried, too, what happens if they get there. Are students learning how to talk about race, for example, without learning to think about it critically?

In any case, students need to be able to speak to begin, no? And to err in order to learn, yes?

I can’t point to any band-aid solution to these questions. But I can point to many, little measures instructors can practice in order to try to find a comfortable balance between critical, “open” inquiry and safety in the classroom. Acknowledgment, assigned-role discussions, becoming familiar with accessibility and equity offices at your institution, and collaborative civility contracts are a few that I can think of on the spot. I’m reminded, too, of Mary-Ellen Wiemer’s recent post in her Teaching Professor Blog, where she writes: “We have to stop imagining that learning skills develop just because students are present in a learning environment.” We have to remember that learning skills develop as a set of practices, practices which include discussion, questioning, criticism, analysis, reading, and writing.  Shutting down the practice of those skills and modes of learning with punitive measures cannot be the way out of the problem.