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Career Advice

Is uncivil behaviour hijacking your classroom?

The rules of engagement.


Malama Tsimenis says incivility in the classroom runs the gamut from carrying on disruptive conversations and text messaging to verbal hostility. In her workshops with colleagues at the University of Toronto, she warns that this sort of behaviour can have serious consequences and offers suggestions for preventing and responding to it. Dr. Tsimenis, a humanities lecturer at U of T, recently shared her thoughts with University Affairs.

UA: What is classroom incivility?

MT: To me, it’s any behaviour that jeopardizes or undermines students’ learning experiences and hijacks the atmosphere in which learning takes place.

UA: Some U.S. research suggests that about half of university classes have chronic patterns of incivilities. Is the problem as prevalent in Canada?

MT: Although I do not have quantitative data, through my own experience and discussions with colleagues, I am convinced that there is a rise in occurrences of incivility as well as a broadening of the types of incivility that instructors face in the classroom – such as the use of electronic devices for purposes other than note taking.

UA: How does incivility affect learning?

MT: Students may feel that they are not profiting from their learning experience and may lose respect for their instructor and question his/her ability to control the classroom. Their initial enthusiasm for the course may turn into disengagement and a lack of participation. Incivility affects faculty as well: instead of focusing on preparing excellent courses, they may end up spending precious time coming up with strategies to face uncivil behaviour.

UA: How do you recommend an instructor respond to incivilities, like carrying on disruptive conversations?

MT: In most cases, this type of incivility can be eliminated by raising the issue privately with the student and by highlighting the impact of his or her behaviour. In cases where this one-on-one discussion is not sufficient, a more official course of action can be taken.

UA: What should a faculty member do when a student becomes verbally hostile or threatening?

MT: This extreme case of incivility is, in my experience, much more rare, but definitely a big concern. I think that the best way to deal with it is to report it officially and seek the support of colleagues, the department and other professionals in the university. Instructors should also activate departmental mechanisms that are intended to document and follow such behaviour that could lead as far as the expulsion of such a student.

UA: In his often-cited essay titled “Classroom Incivilities”, Robert Boice argues that faculty members create hostile environments by communicating indifference for students. Do you agree?

MT: The classroom experience involves complex interaction between the instructor and the students and while I do agree that the instructor bears a considerable responsibility to create the appropriate connection with students in order to successfully achieve his or her teaching goals, putting the entirety of this responsibility on the instructor’s shoulders is, in my opinion, an unfair burden.

UA: What can an instructor do to prevent a certain amount of incivility in the classroom in the first place?

MT: Setting clearly defined ground rules and behavioral guidelines in the syllabus and referring to them when needed is the first step towards preventing uncivil behaviour. But more than that, creating a non-intimidating learning environment conducive to participation and peer collaboration and exchange is key to preventing classroom incivility. Students who feel that they are part of a small community where their opinions are valued and respected tend to behave more respectfully. Finally, it’s important that instructors reflect on their own behaviour – which, in some cases, could be the source of student incivility. Interrupting students when they are speaking, making discriminatory remarks, ironic comments or inappropriate jokes is unacceptable teacher behaviour.

UA: What would you say to faculty members who – perhaps because they fear being viewed as incapable of managing their classrooms – are reluctant to seek help from colleagues or through learning and teaching centres?

MT: I would tell these colleagues that the same way hockey players make sure the ice they are playing on is of the best quality, the classroom environment is their milieu, and as such they should strive to keep it in the best possible condition.

Carla Gunn is a writer and university lecturer in Fredericton, N.B.

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