Learning incivility?

In my small honors U.S. Government class, during the first two weeks, I lead the whole group of students through a series of discussions and decision-making processes that helps them co-create things like learning goals and objectives, topics to be discussed, activities and assignments to be used, class agreements to be (hopefully) upheld, and the like. I maintain what I’d call substantive editorial review of the outcomes, and interestingly the overall structure of the course, the activities used and so on, tends to be pretty much the same, though with slightly different emphases and foci each year. And students have a bit more of a stake in the class.

Yesterday, one of the topics was learning goals. Using Fink’s categorization of goals, I asked small groups of about 5 students each to generate 3-5 learning goals covering different areas of learning (foundational knowledge, integration, application, learning about oneself and others, and so on). One of the goals, as usual, was “being able to hold civil conversations with others who hold different viewpoints.” I liked that — I sure hope that students will become better at civil conversations. But even more so, I said, I hope that students also learn how to have uncivil conversations when necessary. While civil conversations should be the norm in politics, and we have to little of them across political differences, there are situations when incivility is warranted. I hope that students will learn how to discern the comparatively rare situations when incivility is the right response, and how to do it well and productively. And when they are the target of an uncivil message, to respond in a way that is curious and focused on learning from the situation, not just to push back.

This is more easily said than done, and it is risky. I have not yet completely wrapped my head around how to approach this without hurting or harming student participants. Maybe including and practicing elements of Nonviolent Communication, which encourage responding to uncivil outbreaks with questions that explore the reasons for the emotional response and that express empathy. But the evidence for NVC seems to be decidedly mixed. In the end, I suspect that the most we can get is for students to become more aware of different ways people respond to hurtful or conflictual interactions and to approach those with empathy and caution.

Busyness, blegh

A quick morning rant, unfiltered and unpolished:

One of the big problems in academia is the culture of overwork, which in fact is a culture of busyness. People get angry or annoyed at others who do not constantly work. And the problem is that this is not just busy work, it’s also stupid work. A well-run organization thinks hard about where to expend its energies instead of chasing the latest urgency or just churning out stuff.

Do we know whether academic overwork works? We know the downsides. But what are the successes? We measure them in students graduating FAST (again, by working many hours, supposedly), by publications and patents, grant dollars. We do not know how many social problems we’ve actually solved, how many people’s lives we have saved or at least have made easier, whether the world became more livable, kinder.

And I don’t know if what we are doing can be done better, or how we should actually measure whether what we do is successful. I do think that practices and rituals that are not optimized towards the right outcome are important and worthwhile, so practices that assess badly are not necessarily bad practices. But what we do in academia is that we optimize busyness, and that’s definitely not the right outcome and not a healthy ritual either. And our assessments do not measure impact but simply how busy we were and whether the products of our busyness were appreciated by the academic circle jerk.