Civil Discourse in the Classroom

Simple approaches to tough conversations.
By Lara Schwartz and Daniel Ritter

Young woman with serious expression talking to another woman facing her.

Here’s a familiar narrative: left-wing professors indoctrinate students; conservatives aren’t free to talk; and liberal students violently protest speakers who hold opposing views. In truth, engagement with professors tends to moderate students’ views, according to research by sociologist Kyle Dodson presented in the edited volume Professors and Their Politics. Students arrive at college having grown up with opinion media and all their attendant ills: “both-sidesism”; doubt that stable truth exists; a sense that everyone is an expert, but everyone is biased; and argument unmoored from fact or previously understood norms of decency. Professors, most of whom are subject to student evaluations, are left to facilitate meaningful discussions and apply neutral academic standards in an atmosphere of mistrust. With the right tools, however, faculty members can perform their jobs with integrity and model academic rigor and professionalism.

The Elephants in the Room

In a 2014 clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Oliver says, “You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: ‘Which number is bigger, fifteen or five?’ or ‘Do owls exist?’ or ‘Are there hats?’” When students are asked whether we need to listen to the person who says five is bigger than fifteen, frequently several say yes. If fifteen really is bigger than five, then the best argument will win out. With the exception of some courses on political communication, this belief is in tension with desired learning outcomes and institutional missions. It also sets up professors to seem biased when they apply rigorous academic standards to students’ claims.

The current political climate also creates higher stakes for some students than for others. In law and government classes, discussions of Supreme Court rulings on the travel ban or Masterpiece Cakeshop’s refusal of service for religious reasons are politically interesting to most but are personal only to some. Some would ask professors to assign both sides equal validity in the service of neutrality. However, that approach does take sides; it privileges a narrowly defined version of civility over compassion or empathy for those with something significant to lose.

It can be challenging to encourage students to be sensitive to this circumstance without appearing to censor opinion. Furthermore, students find it much easier to talk about what they have a right to say and whether their school has a right to limit speech than about what wise and productive speech is or isn’t. Those students—and many current books and articles on campus speech—gravitate toward the question of whether they have a right to invite speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos to campus rather than whether student groups should invite them. The latter question is a more interesting one and is far more likely to challenge students to think about their goals and values.

So, what are faculty members to do? They can build room for vigorous, respectful discourse into their courses with some simple tools. But beyond that, they can push their students to move beyond the issue of speech rights—which our colleges and universities should protect and cherish—and to focus on the responsibilities of membership in a diverse, rigorous learning community. This is the object of the Project on Civil Discourse that we launched at American University last fall.

Solutions

These recommendations for faculty members can easily be implemented in introductory courses.

Be explicit about expectations

Students sometimes believe that they could be penalized for their views, but faculty members can persuade them otherwise. Language such as the following can be included in a “class policies and procedures” document that every student must read and acknowledge at the beginning of the semester:

Speech and expression:

• College is a time to engage with challenging ideas and material. We benefit from our diverse learning community. All voices are welcome. You are responsible for defending your claims with verifiable evidence. We debate ideas grounded in fact, not talking points or individuals’ worth. • College is also an adult learning community. Students are responsible for presenting their concerns to the professor, teaching assistant, or class.

Assessment:

• This course will assess your knowledge of the material; higher-order engagement with course concepts; persuasive communication; use of evidence to construct reasoned and logical arguments; engagement with peers’ and instructors’ ideas and questions; improvement; bravery; and respectful and thought-provoking contributions to the learning community.

• This course will not assess native English language proficiency; disability or neurodiversity; prior knowledge or preformed opinions; political belief or expression; identity; access to professional and personal networks; or any other factor unrelated to hard work in our course.

Tie speaking and listening to learning objectives and academic mission

Colleges and universities don’t take a neutral position on all products in the marketplace of ideas. In the classroom, faculty members prefer some kinds of content to others—content that meets the standards scholars apply to themselves and that enables students to become better scholars and grasp complex subject matter.

Although class time is limited, it is worthwhile to begin the semester with a conversation about how the learning community in the course will operate. When talking about the purpose of education and of your course, explain limitations on discourse such as false claims or ad hominem attacks. It also helps to discuss professional norms and standards. Doing so can dispel the misconception that speech is less free in the classroom than in a workplace and prepare students for their futures.

Our program at AU defines civil discourse with reference to professional norms that are familiar to every professor: It is truthful, productive, and audience-centered. It includes speaking, listening, and reading. And it is our own responsibility. We’ve found that classroom conversations about civil discourse usually lead to truth, relevance, and a relationship to learning objectives. Students almost always conclude that ad hominem attacks are neither civil nor productive and have no place in college classes. Standard-setting conversations like these can be tricky; today’s students often have a hard time drawing a line between productive and unproductive classroom contributions. For example, they might say ad hominem attacks are wrong but disagree about whether characterizing a whole group (such as liberals or Trump supporters) rather than a policy constitutes an attack on people. They could agree that “fake news” is bad but be suspicious of efforts to exclude any source of information. The prevailing media model that all opinions deserve to be heard can have absurd consequences in a classroom (do we need to hear from Holocaust deniers and five-is-greater-than-fifteen theorists?). But this challenge presents an opportunity to explore course learning objectives and differentiate between closedmindedness and academic rigor.

Provide neutral, transparent feedback

Grading student papers presents both a risk of being perceived as biased and an opportunity to reaffirm one’s neutral standards. This experience will be familiar to many professors: you receive two papers that read like op-eds, presenting subjective opinions and unsupported claims instead of evidence-based argumentation. One paper is a liberal criticism of “corporatist Democrats,” the other a conservative attack on “criminal illegals.” Neither fulfills the assignment’s requirements. In fact, they both earn failing grades for the same reasons. But if the professor is considered liberal, it’s quite possible that the conservative student will believe she’s being penalized for her contrary views.

By using grading rubrics, professors tie assessment to the assignment requirements and course learning objectives. Rubrics should assign a percentage value to structure and logic, supporting claims with evidence, fulfilling the assignment through engagement with course material, and demonstrating higher-order analysis and critical thinking. Faculty using software such as Blackboard can associate a rubric with every assessment and assign values to each factor, then provide a short explanation of each where needed. This can include a top-line assessment with advice for the future, such as, “Clear, logical argument structure. To take this to the next level, make sure you support all of your claims with evidence.” When students submit a political screed in lieu of an academic paper, point them back to the assignment and learning objectives.

Rubrics make it easier to explain and defend disappointing grades and are a more efficient way to provide constructive feedback. Students should be required to read the feedback thoroughly before they challenge a grade.

Reaffirm speech rights, then move to goals, values, and responsibilities

According to the current narrative, faculty members and liberal students are attempting to serve as gatekeepers of acceptable speech, setting limits on liberty. In fact, faculty members challenge students to use their voices more effectively and persuasively through mastery of their discipline and demonstration of oral and written communication skills.

American University’s Project on Civil Discourse is based on the principle that students bear personal responsibility for their development as speakers and listeners and for the impact they have on those around them. We created a pamphlet called “Building My Voice” to support students in tying their classroom and campus speech to their goals. It asks them to describe the purpose of their college education, what they hope to achieve in college and beyond, what they hope to achieve as contributors to classroom and campus discussion, how they want their peers and others to see them, what modes of communication make them more likely to listen, and what types of communication (such as interruptions and attacks) turn them off. This isn’t an assessment, though; we never require students to share what they’ve written or grade their responses. Students use “Building My Voice” to look inward and to set personal goals, such as attending a lecture by someone with whom they disagree, raising their hand more often, or accepting criticism.

Using personal reflection as a starting point, we can work with students to achieve the speaking, listening, and learning goals they set for themselves. It is one thing to tell a student not to interrupt and another to support her in developing her skills as a listener. It is one thing to say, “Be more sensitive,” and another to challenge a student to practice the behavior the workplace will demand of him in a few years.

Teach the gentle art of listening

Conversations with students about free speech and civil discourse on campus reveal a common thread: students state that they aren’t good at listening to one another or accepting criticism. At AU, we have found that although many students want the university to take a strong stand against racism and injustice, they overwhelmingly say it is students—not faculty members or administrators—who make it hard to speak up and disagree. Listening thoughtfully, like reading critically or speaking persuasively, is an acquired skill. It’s also a critical part of civil, intellectually rigorous conversation.

We’ve found several approaches useful for developing students’ listening skills. First, make it clear that you won’t call on any student whose hand is up while another person is speaking. Explain that students need to listen in order to understand, not to respond. They can’t understand your points or predict your questions before you’ve finished speaking, nor can they engage with their classmates’ points if they formulate a response before those classmates have finished speaking. Another rule: unless you correct a student and ask someone else the same question, the next student to speak needs to engage with the most recent point—not simply state what they were planning to say before that person spoke.

Although listening is essential to productive, vigorous discourse, it isn’t an exercise in martyrdom. We don’t subscribe to the philosophy that every idea deserves to be heard. Ideas aren’t people—but students are. Students should be challenged to examine and discuss the limitations of what they’ll listen to (inevitably, some members of a class will draw the line at Holocaust denial, while their classmates state that they should listen and rebut such a view) and the ethics of expecting others to listen without limitations. This is an opportunity to discuss the fact that the burden of the phrase “all ideas matter” falls unequally, often affecting students from marginalized or minority communities more deeply.

Be brave, and apply neutral academic standards even at the expense of political neutrality

There will be times when one party’s or politician’s approach to an issue is simply wrong. For example, Donald Trump’s statements at a February 2016 rally about “opening up” libel laws are inconsistent with any previously understood modern interpretation of the First Amendment. To remain “neutral” toward the president’s statement, a professor would have to reinvent precedent or indicate that it’s in doubt. This is the opposite of neutrality; it elevates certain ideas simply because they are political.

Taking a side when verifiable facts (or commonly understood principles) are at issue isn’t hard. The more challenging question is how we address issues that affect us and our students and about which we hold strong moral judgments. The decision to teach, for example, about the policy of separating migrant families as a political issue in the same way as whether to raise the minimum wage is not neutral. It is taking a side.

Pretending not to care about political issues doesn’t help anyone. A better approach is to talk to students about whether and why they should be concerned about their professors’ politics. Articulate your own neutral academic standards and ask students to articulate their concerns about taking a class with a professor who might disagree with their political views. You can apply this same approach to conversations between students who disagree with one another. Typically, students conclude that disagreement is okay when it’s not linked to assessment.

The Institution’s Role

College and university faculty members—particularly those who hold contingent appointments—cannot be expected to bear the burden of promoting intellectually rigorous, respectful discourse alone. Our academic administrators need to have our backs. College and university leaders should not be squeamish about expressing values.

Colleges and universities have a mission: to seek and disseminate truth; to attempt to expand humanity’s store of knowledge and understanding; and to serve the public by contributing ideas, knowledge, and innovation and by preparing students to learn, inquire, and contribute to the best of their abilities. Because of their unique role in expanding and challenging previously understood ideas and teaching students to think critically, academic institutions must zealously protect freedom of speech—even when, as is the case with private colleges and universities, they have the power to limit speech based on offensive content.

Protecting free speech and declining to censor students and faculty, while necessary and admirable, is only the beginning. As institutions whose missions include finding truth and helping students think critically, colleges and universities have the opportunity and the obligation to support students in using their voices productively, truthfully, and in a manner that serves their goals.

Moving from a rights model of speech to a responsibilities model also provides a framework to stand with students in opposition to speech that is inconsistent with institutional missions—even while respecting students’ right to engage in it. A university can make it clear that protecting student groups’ right to invite speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos to campus is not the same as endorsing their choice of speaker.

When deciding whether to endorse, remain neutral about, or condemn the manner in which a student or group is exercising the freedom of speech, institutions should consider whether the speech will inflict emotional pain on some students and alienate them, and they should encourage students to do the same. This isn’t a conversation about limiting speech. It’s about challenging students to use their speech productively and wisely as members of a community.

A commitment to self-aware, productive discourse also fosters inclusion by empowering members of marginalized communities and their allies to reject and combat dishonest and unproductive speech as inconsistent with the goals and values of their university and with their own principles. A person who structures his or her speech to be productive and truthful has moral authority to reject speech that does not originate in the same values.

To foster an atmosphere of truthful, productive, and inclusive discourse, colleges and universities should model speech as an expression of values, a freedom exercised responsibly.  

Lara Schwartz is a professorial lecturer at American University’s School of Public Affairs and director of the Project on Civil Discourse. Daniel Ritter is a senior at American University and program coordinator for the Project on Civil Discourse. The Project on Civil Discourse can be contacted at civildiscourse@american.edu.

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