Teaching Civility in the Classroom

I recently attended a conference where I was on a panel to discuss civility in the classroom. The Illinois Communication and Theatre Association Conference differs from other conferences I have attended because there are high school teachers in addition to graduate students and university faculty. We structured the conversation so that the audience had ample time to ask questions and give feedback. Overall, it was a generative conversation that left me thinking about what civility means and how to cultivate it in the classroom. Here are a few takeaways I had from the conversation:

Carefully consider what you mean by civility

At the beginning of the conversation, I brought up that civility may not always be desirable. Prior to the era of accusations of “fake news,” feminist scholars and others had argued that the longing for civility was longing for an era that “never existed.” Further, civility may disenfranchise some voices that use emotion and story, which may not be accepted as part of the norms of “civil” debate. Thus, it is important to consider how we define civil discourse and if it is desirable.

Is ethical communication the same as civility?

One of the goals we had for the panel was to discuss what students need to know to be ethical communicators. However, ethics in communication covers a range of ideas from professional ethics in journalism to ethics of peace.  Thinking of online debates over “tone policing,” one might consider that norms of civility can also be used to disenfranchise. If civil debate can stifle marginalized groups, is it ethical? Marginalized groups who lack the same access to debate may be disenfranchised based on language and tone before ever having their concerns heard.

How can we keep the conversation about civility grounded?

Considering ethical debates over civility is good, but, ultimately, we all have to go back to our classrooms and teach. When we get to those classrooms, we may deal with uncomfortable questions and comments. One of our goals for the panel was to have something for people to implement in their classrooms. Here are two activities that we offered as options to implement:

The CRAAP Test

The CRAAP Test was created by Sarah Blakesee at Cal State-Chico. The test asks students to answer certain questions about a source to judge whether it is credible and appropriate. CRAAP stands for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. Using this five-pronged test, students address how recent their source is, whether it is relevant for their argument, who wrote or created the content, how it lines up with other information on the topic, and why the content was produced.

Many of the attendees had used the CRAAP test, although some had changed the title of the test. Regardless, the questions and probing more deeply about the sources was widely considered effective in getting students to use more reliable sources in their research. Using reliable evidence was mentioned by both panelists and attendees as an important part of civility in the classroom. By implementing evidence, students are also learning to make good arguments and avoid fallacies. The CRAAP test or something similar could also be implemented as a kind of media literacy exercise to help students evaluate sources online.

Structured Class Discussion

My contribution to the panel was an activity that I implemented in my upper level undergraduate class, Media and Youth Culture. The goal of the activity was to have students engage in a discussion about how cyberbullying behavior should be regulated online. My hope was that students would come away with knowledge of the complexities of media regulation to further enrich our discussions of media literacy and media regulation in class.

Prior to the class period, students read a law article on regulating cyberbullying in light of the First Amendment. During class, students were asked to read the XBOX Code of Conduct and an article from Kotaku about a woman who was harassed over XBOX Live, but whose harasser wasn’t punished in accordance with the policy.  After reading the articles, student reflected on self-regulation as a method of dealing with cyberbullying. Then, students were offered a sample legislation to punish cyberbullies and considered whether that regulation would work.

I have done this activity 6 times total. In smaller classes, I have structured it as a Lincoln-Douglas debate, which was very successful. In larger classes, it was an open discussion. The diversity of evidence presented helped students to consider the issue from multiple points of view. They were also able to use the evidence to support their arguments in favor of government regulation or self-regulation. By using the same common evidence, students were able to have a fruitful discussion. Classes overall differed on their policy preference, perhaps indicating that students had considered the plurality of evidence and viewpoints. If you would like a copy of the activity, feel free to send me an email through academia.edu or LinkedIn.

Concluding Thoughts on Teaching Civility

There is a need for classroom activities and tools that help instructors navigate discussions and push students to consider the credibility of their evidence. The panel largely focused on evidence because it is easier to build evidence into teaching activities. At the same time, we still need to consider how civility is defined and what we (and our students) want discussion to look like in our classrooms.