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Classroom Civility: Whose Issue Is It?

November 27, 2006

CNN recently kept an AP story posted for several days on classroom civility. I think they just moved it to their archives today. Titled “Professor’s Advice On Returning Civility To Classrooms,” the piece does something that I’ve not often seen: it places some of the responsibility on the teacher. While I think this is a step in the right direction, the article doesn’t go far enough in blaming the teacher.

In the classroom, instructors are not mere victims of circumstance. The classroom can have democratic elements, but ultimately it is an authoritarian environment. While it may be true that general civility has decreased in the past ten years or so, college deans give quite a bit of leeway in allowing instructors to set the rules of the classroom. For instance, I’ve never seen a dean or department chair demand that one allow computers, ipods, and cell phones in the classroom.

If a syllabus is a kind of informal contract with students, then the instructor need merely outline the rules of the classroom on the syllabus. After that it becomes a matter of enforcement on the part of the instructor, and the question becomes whether the instructor is a person of his or her word? I believe that primary and secondary school teachers are better at this sort of thing. It’s a matter of training, and college-level instructors are not trained at handling discipline. Instructors in higher education expect adult behavior and responsibility levels in a social context of prolonged adolescence.

I think this is even harder in a community college environment, where the age level is mixed. The instructor might feel silly enforcing civility rules (i.e. let someone complete a sentence in discussion, pay attention, turn off your phone’s ringer) in a classroom with some forty and fifty-year olds. Nevertheless, it must be done.

Comments are welcome. – TL

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