Keeping it Civil Online

Student incivility during traditional classroom sessions can take many forms, ranging from rampant use of cell phones and chattering with nearby classmates, to loud outbursts and name-calling. But it’s a problem with online instruction, too.

As reported by Jean Dimeo, in Inside Higher Ed., when online students get into discussions with each other, some individuals engage in ad hominem attacks, poisoning the atmosphere for everyone. Inappropriate behavior is more likely to happen when discussing matters of controversy, especially when it comes to ethnicity, gender, and religion.

As a strategy, instructors often have students, at the beginning of the semester, share personal information with classmates, in an effort to get to know each other before discussions commence. But even if students are guarded, their first and last names, and probably gender, can be out there for all to see. In these highly polarized times (we have been just as polarized before in U.S. history, but we didn’t have digital communication in the old days), even your name can reveal certain traits. So this issue can apply to all disciplines, not just academic subjects that are inherently political or controversial.

Teachers cited in the article recommend an early set of ground rules—not just boilerplate in the syllabus. You should try to get students to buy into an agreement to respect each other. Obviously things can go badly nonetheless, and “free speech” can become a mantra for individuals determined to inject insulting language.

As the article indicates, people often say things online they would never utter face-to-face. We have all reacted too quickly when emailing, for instance. But we now have an entire generation routinely exposed to contemporary culture wars. Ironically, the first time many young people get exposed to individuals who are different from them is in a college class. As many scholars have noted, Americans tend to hang out with folks who share the same outlook, and choose neighborhoods and places of worship accordingly. (Actually, the “melting pot” of immigration has always been a “salad bowl” where ingredients remain distinct and recognizable. Let’s not get into what our American ancestors said about Italian, Irish, and Chinese immigrants, just to name a few.)

Around the Capitol you will hear insiders say that it’s fine to disagree, but a bad idea to question someone’s motives. Generally this approach works, and politicians are able to debate without getting personal. Not always, of course. When things go symbolic, they get weird. Think of flags and monuments. In Texas, symbols can include guns and bathrooms.

When you decided to pursue a teaching career, it is unlikely because you wanted to be an online referee in the culture wars. But here we are.