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.

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