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Faculty Development Center

Civility in the Classroom

With a training in civility we develop the invaluable habit of considering that no action of ours is without consequence for others and anticipating what those consequences will be.

P.M. Forni in Choosing Civility

The classroom may not be sacred space, but it is an arena distinctly different from most other areas of life. And one would hope that the hard work of teaching that occurs in that space is understood and appreciated at least by the majority of students. Instructors should find the experience of lecturing or engaging students in discussion to be at a minimum productively satisfying and on the whole enjoyable and invigorating.

Yet we're all familiar with the reality of the classroom, where things occasionally are off kilter. The majority of our students may be attentive, responsible, and interested, but the few who aren't can pose problems for an entire class. Students arrive late and sometimes later. Someone nods off or thinks that the newspaper is more engaging than the topic under review. The student assiduously taping on the laptop in the second row is actually responding to email or ordering the latest fashion statement online. And these are minor disturbances compared to a group of students who chat through lecture or the argumentative one who consistently raises his hand to object or provoke us onto tangents.

If none of these behaviors particularly offend an instructor, she might attend to business and push on with her lecture or discussion, certain that she is accomplishing her goals--at least for the majority of students. But this assumes that other students are not irritated and distracted, quietly fuming, unable to pay attention, and laying the blame for their discomfort more on the professor, who is after all in charge, than on the culprits.

Behaviors that are disruptive will rarely disappear by themselves, and as we know, an issue not confronted can become even more troublesome to acknowledge and correct down the road. Yet what is the best way to handle these cases of incivility? A stern reprimand might seem in order--but will such a response be seen as an overreaction by most students? Will embarrassing a chatterer make the rest of the students consider us unapproachable, uncaring, or simply mean?

First, acknowledge the problem without becoming angry or defensive. It's natural to react to one's own irritation and discomfort first before stopping to assess the situation; but calm and reason are more likely to defuse disruptions than immediate attack. If the problem can be postponed until the end of class or can be handled without stopping class, pause before jumping in and wait until a more private time to talk individually with a student. In smaller classes, sometimes body language-walking nearer disruptive students-is enough to set things right again.

Use your normal methods of engaging students' attention. If you regularly ask for student participation, continue to do so by calling on inattentive students, as part of the routine. Singling students out in anger or with sarcasm is likely to set more students against you, and rather than dampen the behavior, call undue attention to it. But general comments about keeping everyone focused, attentive, or awake-and then a question posed to illustrate the need-can reengage the class. Humor also helps reduce tension in the classroom, if not directed too specifically at one student. Inducing mild embarrassment is preferable to inflicting humiliation.

And of course seriousness can work wonders too. Sometimes using the authority of one's role to remind students of the importance of the work you are engaged in-as a group of adults-can make students pause.

If you're uncertain what to do about ongoing disruptions, talk with your colleagues about optional approaches. Since practically everyone who has ever taught has faced these issues, someone may have discovered a successful approach appropriate for your own teaching style and personality. It's wise to have a variety of strategies in your pedagogical briefcase, and it's important to have the courage to experiment.
What I've been discussing here are minor forms of misconduct. For more serious and prolonged disruptions, disciplinary action may be the most effective means of solving the problem. In such cases, though, it is probably even more important for instructors to discuss their concerns with colleagues or with me or, if the case seems severe enough to warrant, Chris Tkacik in Judicial Student Programs. It's a simple fact that all students must abide by UMBC's Code of Student Conduct.

Books

Amada, Gerald. (1999). Coping with Misconduct in the College Classroom: A Practical Model. Asheville, NC: College Administration Publications, Inc.

Forni, P.M. (2002). Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct. New York: St. Martin's.

Hocker, Joyce L. (1986). "Teacher-Student Confrontations," in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 26. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Richardson, Steven M.(ed). (1999). "Promoting Civility: A Teaching Challenge," New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no 77. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.