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Member-Only Article: Creating a Civil Classroom in an Era of Incivility

By Lynn C. Lewis


Divisiveness and vitriol characterize political discourse in the United States today. College campuses find themselves at the center of politically charged debates about what constitutes free speech, when students have the right to protest, and whether faculty members and administrators should hold to an imagined standard of neutrality. In her July 2017 article “Campus Leaders Rethink Their Role in the Age of Trump,” CNN reporter Susan Baer notes that students who support Trump feel threatened by liberal bias, while students who do not support him feel threatened by his message and his supporters. Meanwhile, faculty members and administrators fear that a focus on “fake news” and the drumbeat of hostility toward intellectuals threaten the enterprise of liberal arts education itself.

This past summer, responding to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville and the death of an innocent counterprotester, the president of the United States refused to distance himself from the so-called altright and invented an “alt-left” to explain the violence. Regardless of whether you agree that this current political moment is an emergency, it is naive to argue that the bile and anger evident in social and traditional media have had no effect on our students. And, inevitably, this level of animosity creeps inside the classroom.

As the National Council of English Teachers recently stated, “There is no apolitical classroom.”

As the director of a first-year composition program at a large land-grant university, I have the opportunity to train and support instructors, speak with student advisers, and enjoy dialogue with diverse students. In a sense, mine is a macroview. All of those with whom I have spoken at my university recount a growing sense of unease since the 2016 election. Classrooms have become marked by uncomfortable silences when instructors broach a controversial topic or when students wear politically themed T-shirts or caps. A sense of tension pervades many classrooms, and students report feeling a loss of community.

At professional conferences, colleagues and friends describe an increase in emotional outbursts by students in the classroom. Recently, I spoke with an instructor at my university who typically receives glowing evaluations from her students. She reported that her most recent composition class was unlike any other she had ever taught. After one student loudly and aggressively identified as pro-Trump on several occasions, many students avoided participating in class discussions for much of the rest of the semester. Whether they were pro-Trump or not, the intensity of one student’s voice made the majority fearful that conversation might turn insulting, mocking, and vulgar at any moment. I have also observed classroom after classroom in which aggressive students have proclaimed their political views and used those views to silence both instructor and student. This is a legacy of an age in which incivility appears acceptable.

My discussions with instructors and my own observations in the classroom have convinced me that we need to address incivility head on. Toward that end, I have gathered a range of resources to help faculty members confront this issue in the classroom. These materials are sorted into three categories, presented below: think pieces, organizational and educational resources, and classroom applications.

Think Pieces

Articles and essays can be helpful to readers seeking to understand the nature of the problem. While some of the following suggested think pieces are situated within the discipline of composition and rhetoric, their arguments are widely applicable to classroom instructors in other fields who are seeking to respond thoughtfully to the problem of civil discourse in our political moment.

• The AAUP’s 2007 report Freedom in the Classroom responds to claims that faculty indoctrinate rather than teach through historicized definitions of terms and issues. The report also considers complaints about lack of balance, hostile learning environments, and the use of controversial materials in the classroom.

• Krista J. Radcliffe’s 2006 book Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness proposes rhetorical listening strategies in which assuming a stance of openness and listening leads to authentic dialogue. An essay outlining the importance of strategic listening, “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Rhetorical Invention and a Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct,” is available online.

• In Freire in the Agora: Critical Pedagogy and Civil Discourse,” published in the online journal Literacy and Composition Studies, John Pell and William Duffy describe how to create student-led dialogic classrooms. The authors draw on literacy educator Paulo Freire’s work.

“Post-Truth and First-Year Writing,” an essay by John Duffy that appeared in Inside Higher Ed on May 8, 2017, suggests that classes focusing on argument, such as first-year writing courses, provide an antidote to claims that facts no longer exist, because these classes bring to the fore the “radical humility” necessary to make a substantive and well-researched argument.

• Allegheny College’s Center for Political Participation surveyed one thousand Americans in 2010 on the question of civility in American politics. The resulting report, Nastiness, Name-Calling and Negativity, provides evidence about American attitudes toward a decline in civility in politics and is well worth considering in a classroom discussion of the issue.

• Andrea Leskes’s 2013 essay, “A Plea for Civil Discourse: Needed, the Academy’s Leadership,” argues that civil discourse should be crucial to liberal arts education rather than relegated to syllabus statements. Her essay contains some of the same resources I have listed as well as a useful definition of the term civil discourse.

Organizational and Educational Resources

The resources below are designed for classroom instructors. Some refer explicitly to teaching after the 2016 election, while others offer more general guidance on promoting civil discourse.

• The National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona is a community project created after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011. The website, a nonpartisan advocacy space, offers multiple resources, including research reports, a civility pledge, and podcasts on topics of interest.

• The University of Michigan’s Center for Research and Teaching has useful guidelines for both spontaneous and planned discussions of controversial topics.

• The Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, while geared for the K–12 classroom, provides useful models of lesson plans and assignments, including information about discussing the “alt-right” in the classroom.

• Another K–12 resource that can be useful in higher education contexts is the 100 People: A World Portrait website, which focuses on telling human stories from across the globe through image, video, podcasts, and statistics.

• Emory University has posted two videos on YouTube based on panels put together in 2010 and 2011. The first, Civil Discourse and the Politics of Confrontation in America, features political commentators and scholars discussing “civility on campus and in the classroom, and whether it is compromised by media and public attitudes.” The second, Civil Discourse: Gossip, Bullying, and the Digital Age, discusses “questions of speech and responsibility” with a focus on the problem of digital bullying. The videos are well over an hour long, but excerpts would be useful discussion prompts in the classroom.

• There are a number of TED talks on civility, the benefits of disagreement, and how to converse about politics across ideological divides that may be conversation starters in the classroom.

• Harvard University’s Project Implicit provides a range of free tests examining implicit bias regarding age, race, disability, sexuality, religion, and other characteristics. Scholars from Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington created the site to examine “the gap between intentions and actions.”

Classroom Applications

What strategies for addressing civility work best in the classroom? In general, instructors recommend developing guidelines at the beginning of the semester and asking students to work together to develop consensus on classroom discussion practices.

• Carolyn Vos at DePaul University begins by asking students to write down their ideas for creating a civil classroom and then to discuss together what practices they want to adopt for their classroom. She helps students reframe negative statements into positive ones—for example, “Be polite and respectful of others’ ideas” rather than “Don’t be rude to classmates.” She also asks them to clarify whether they want the instructor to be responsible for enforcing the guidelines or prefer to do so themselves.

• Ball State University’s Breaking Prejudice webpage provides numerous group activities, including worksheets that instructors can adapt.

• Vanderbilt University’s Teaching Center suggests that instructors ask students to take a writing break following a difficult conversation. After the heat of the moment has passed and students have spent five minutes reflecting on their concerns in writing, the class can return to conversation and focus on what students experienced and wrote.


As I searched for resources and classroom applications on civility, I was struck by the relative paucity of sites meant for college and university instructors, especially in comparison to the many resources available for K–12 teachers and corporate audiences. The current political moment argues for closer attention to the problem of divisiveness. Indeed, it is critical that we address the state of our classrooms, no matter our disciplines. In order to teach effectively, we should develop and adopt teaching strategies for this new era.  

Lynn C. Lewis is associate professor of English and director of the first-year composition program at Oklahoma State University.