Civility in the Classroom: A Better Approach

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by Richard K. Olsen, Chair of the Dept. of Communication Studies, University of North Carolina Wilmington
 Vernon Cronen, Ph.D., Visiting Faculty, University of North Carolina Wilmington 

Leading controversial discussions that develop communication skills is an enduring teaching challenge. Often a faculty member's assumptions about what communication is inform their approach to these classroom activities. I want to contrast two approaches to communication - and then illustrate how the less common approach can enhance faculty efforts to teach and harness communication in the classroom.

2 Ways of Viewing Classroom Communication

The instrumental view. The more common view has several labels, but we will call it the "instrumental view." This view assumes that communication starts with a communicator and terminates in a receiver's accurate or inaccurate perception. This view is focused on control and accuracy, on individuals and on individual acts, and on the present. Within this view, the instructor is the central figure in determining the rules of behavior, and violations of those rules require an immediate response that emphasizes realignment of individual behavior.

The systemic view. The less common view also has several labels, but we will call it the "systemic view." This view assumes that communication is a way of being, and that much of our social world is constituted by communication. This view is focused on creative process, interdependence, and the future. The instructor who takes this view understands the classroom not as a space inhabited by people, but as a habituated set of actions and communication practices that co-create "my class."

Let's look at how an instructor with a systems view of communication can create space in a classroom that allows for the co-creation of classroom civility and fosters civil discussion of controversial ideas. In this article, I'll look at:

  • Steps instructors with a systems view can take in designing the course.
  • 5 specific techniques that instructors (and students!) can take in responding to classroom incivility. These are techniques that advance the larger outcomes for the course and for student development.

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