Promoting Civil Discourse in Troubling Times

Concerns about civil discourse continue to be a major concern for educators. From major social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, and national issues, such as the January 6th, 2021 insurrection, and legislative fights focused on public health and bodily autonomy, polarizing issues are bound to make their way into the classroom.

 What are some of the ways that we can create classroom environments in which students can respectfully address strong differences in perspectives? 

What is Civil Discourse and why is it important in university classrooms?

According to Learning for Justice, a Southern Poverty Law Center project, civil discourse is “discourse that supports, rather than undermines, the societal good. It demands that democratic participants respect each other, even when that respect is hard to give or to earn” (Schuster, 2016).   

Challenges to civil discourse can arise from multiple sources both within and outside of the classroom and university environment. In the classroom environment, civil discourse enables learning and critical thinking to flourish in a respectful manner. Such verbal interchange requires faculty and students alike to become self-reflective and to examine their own assumptions and potential biases about values and respect.    

‘To engage in a healthy political argument is to acknowledge the possibility that one’s own arguments could be falsified or proven wrong,’ says Thomas Hollihan, professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication. ‘This demands that citizens listen respectfully to the claims made by others. Name-calling, threats and bullying behaviors do not meet the demands of effective deliberation.’” 

When thinking about civil discourse, we might ask ourselves:

  • What is the historical context of civility? 
  • What are its primary characteristics (both in the past and present)? 
  • What behaviors does it exclude? 
  • Does it look different depending on context, such as in personal relationships versus professional, in interactions with customer service representatives versus friends, or in classrooms versus other community spaces? 
  • What may cause any of us to become ‘uncivil’? 

Equipped with a better understanding of our own perspectives, the power dynamics latent in the concept of civility, and historical understanding of its use in society can enable us to better engage in and promote civil discourse with our students and colleagues. 

General Attitudes and Approaches

“If you break down the history of ‘civility’ in the United States, students will see that calls for civility are often racially coded. They’ll also begin to understand how an exclusive claim to civility by people in power created the power structure that thrives today” (Dillard, 2018). 

So how do we cultivate discussions grounded in humility and respect for each other? 

Creating an environment that emphasizes both community and agreed upon expectations for discourse is vital for facilitating meaningful conversations and civil discourse. Building your classroom as a community embraces but goes beyond goals for diversity and inclusion.  It speaks to a common goal in an academic environment, acknowledging differences of opinion and creating space for difficult conversations on sensitive topics.  It supports intellectual engagement and multiple perspectives, and it speaks to respect and mutual agreement that all voices have value.  When students view their peers as part of a community, they are more likely to care about the ways in which they communicate and challenge alternative perspectives. 

Such a classroom creates a pro-social environment, one in which faculty model the communication skills that they want their students to follow during class discussions and in small group exercises.  It is an environment in which 

  • Students can ask questions without fear of ridicule, and can make and learn from their mistakes; 
  • Faculty encourage students to brainstorm new approaches to problems and acknowledge students’ diversity of thought, opinions, and ideas; 
  • Both faculty and students are sensitive to the likelihood of having their own biases and preferences, but don’t impose them on each other; 
  • Students are encouraged to allow space for all voices to be heard, especially when working in small groups or on group assignments; 
  • Faculty are clear in their directions and feedback, and avoid sarcasm and innuendo in their responses to student questions or concerns;
  • Faculty help students learn how to respectfully disagree with another’s point of view without blame or recrimination. 

Building a Classroom Community

A suggested first step is to collaboratively define a set of norms for civil discourse within the classroom. The process is best undertaken at the start of the semester, but later is always an option.The goal is for the class to work together to identify the values that will undergird their class discussions.  Here is one example of how the process can work: 

  • Provide opportunities for students to think about or write their individual ideas for the values and guiding principles that they believe are critical for civil discourse in the classroom; 
  • Ask students to share their ideas and generate a list on the board of ways in which students can exchange ideas respectfully during class discussion; 
  • Define all terms on the list to be sure students understand their meanings; 
  • Faculty add to students’ list if items are missing; 
  • As a group, students edit the list and provide examples as needed; 
  • The class reaches an agreement to accept the list and to abide by the class norms for academic discourse; 
  • Distribute the list of class norms to students and post publicly for future reference (in the room and/or as an announcement in the course learning management system). 

Whether students are involved in creating the norms or if faculty design them to present to students, here are some of the items that might be included on a list of communication norms to promote civil discourse: 

  • Encourage students to engage in active listening, and not to interrupt their peers; 
  • Allow space for all voices rather than allowing a few students to dominate the conversation; 
  • Apologize in cases where class members unintentionally offend a peer; 
  • Students (and faculty) should be willing to examine and challenge their beliefs; 
  • Critique or challenge ideas but not individuals; 
  • Refrain from expecting one person to represent an entire social group, class, race, or gender; 
  • Define behaviors that will not be accepted in class, including eye rolling, name calling, and laughing at mistakes 

To learn more about facilitating difficult conversations, visit our Teaching Tips page on Facilitating Class Discussions and Navigating Difficult Conversations.