Reflections on Bob Boice's "Classroom Incivilities"

Martha Hannah
Associate Professor, Department of History

Is it possible that we, the faculty, are, in the final analysis, more responsible than our students for outbursts of or, indeed, epidemics of "classroom incivility"? This is the challenging argument that Bob Boice puts forward in his essay, "Classroom Incivilities," and it is an argument that compels us as instructors to think seriously about what we do in the classroom and how what we do either encourages or - at the very least - allows for students to act in ways that are disruptive, discourteous, and ultimately damaging to the enterprise of teaching and learning. Boice makes two claims: first that "classroom incivility" is not just about students' behavior; faculty, too, can be uncivil. And faculty incivility in the classroom is not just a rare occurrence: certainly the exceptionally obstreperous instructor who publicly insults a student, who humiliates students for asking questions that are, in fact, reasonable, who treats students, whether individually or collectively with sneering condescension is engaging in acts of classroom incivility. But Boice insists that faculty-generated incivility is - and needs to be understood as - much more far-ranging than this: when we speak too fast in class, when we fail to entertain students' questions with the respect and time they deserve, when we spring pop quizzes on students or present them with tests for which they are not adequately prepared: these acts, too, are expressions of faculty incivility.

Moreover, and more problematically, Boice argues that faculty who act in these ways then generate a student response that is impolite and disruptive. Incivility originates with the ineffective instructor. Faculty who fail to demonstrate the skills of 'immediacy' (which we might be tempted to translate into laymen's terms as faculty who are not 'nice' to their students) send out messages that they do not care about their students and do not care if they learn or not; such messages suggest to students that the classroom is a hostile environment. And in a hostile environment, all manner of impolite and disruptive behavior can be expressed. Boice's studies of when, where, and how incivility is expressed in the classroom suggest to him that faculty well-versed in the skills of 'immediacy' - faculty who arrive early to class, engage their students in interested conversation, who are available and are known to be available outside of the classroom, are faculty who experience very little uncivil behavior in their classrooms. Faculty who fail in the skills of immediacy, by contrast, find themselves confronting classrooms of antagonized and antagonistic students who make it clear to one and all that learning is not going to happen in this particular instructor's class.

I suspect that these conclusions are not going to sit comfortably with many faculty. But we would be foolish to dismiss these conclusions out of hand. It is important that we understand the classroom dynamic from the students' perspective as well as our own. If students really do believe that an instructor is indifferent to their learning, dismissive of their intellectual aptitude and interests, or just going through the unpleasant paces of putting in time in the classroom, then surely those students' concerns need to be considered seriously. After all, when we enter the classroom, we do so not for our own edification but for that of our students. We already know the stuff that we are teaching; making that "stuff" accessible to, interesting for, and intellectually stimulating to our students is what we are supposed to be doing. Insofar as talking too fast, or failing to entertain student questions, or refusing to hold office hours are indeed ways of inhibiting student learning, they are - in a very general sense - acts of incivility.

But does this make faculty solely or predominantly responsible for classroom incivility, as Boice's argument would suggest? When he says that "teachers were the most crucial initiators of C[lassroom] I[ncivility]," it seems to me that he is absolving students of their own responsibility as adults. After all, one of the ways in which university teaching is different from teaching in elementary or even high school, is that we are teaching people who are legally recognized as adults. If they engage in disruptive, ill-considered, just plain rude behavior outside of the classroom, we do not say that they cannot be held responsible for their actions. And so why are they not equally responsible inside the classroom? And if they bring to the university classroom habits of incivility nurtured (if that is the right word) over the years in high school and middle school - if, in effect, they expect to treat their instructors with disrespect because that is what they have been doing on and off for six, seven or more years - are we the only ones responsible for curbing and containing such asocial conduct? To suggest that faculty who lack suitably developed "immediacy skills" are, in the final analysis, responsible for their students' inability to act like responsible adults is, I fear, to treat adults like children. Such assumptions condescend to our students in a way distinct from, but perhaps no less harmful than, those assumptions that take our students as too stupid to learn anything in college.

If responsibility of incivility cannot be justifiably placed on the shoulders of faculty alone, nor can we think indiscriminately about "immediacy" skills, without taking into account legitimate considerations of cultural, gender, and age difference. It is, I think, much easier for faculty "of a certain age" (as the French so delicately put it) to cultivate a sense of professionally appropriate friendliness, openness and "immediacy" with their students than it might be for faculty just starting out. When I helped conduct a survey for the Boulder Faculty Assembly of faculty experience with the Faculty Course Questionnaire, I was astonished (and depressed) to learn how commonplace student incivility is in the classrooms of young faculty. And this is even more accentuated in the classrooms of young female faculty, and faculty of color. While it is by no means the case that all junior faculty contend with incivility in the classroom, many do; and the lesson that emerges from the FCQ survey data is that they encounter incivility because students resist - sometimes outright resent - being taught challenging ideas by people who lack the markers of authority that they expect in a faculty member: age, maleness, whiteness. Perhaps Boice would respond that these young faculty need time to develop the skills of immediacy that seem to make incivility in the classroom disappear. But this in itself is problematic: young women only a few years older than their students often feel that it is highly inappropriate to develop the atmosphere of immediacy that Boice takes as an inherent quality of good instruction. Indeed, a conversation I recently participated in with young female faculty on campus made it very clear that many of these highly accomplished faculty discover that they need to establish a degree of distance from their students in order to be taken seriously by them. In their experience, being too friendly, too accessible outside of the classroom, too "immediate" is not always a formula for classroom success. This suggests that certain classroom skills work well for certain faculty, but we should not ignore, underestimate, or be insensitive to the ways in which perceptions of age, gender, and ethnicity influence cultural assumptions about authority and how it can be exercised. In a throw-away line, Boice indicated that some of the faculty who participated in his workshops to reduce levels of incivility in their classroom ultimately chose not to continue because "immediacy was a dishonest expression of their personalities" (p. 479). Perhaps they were just plain ornery and didn't want to develop simple habits of "niceness" that would go along way to getting along with their students; but perhaps the skills of "immediacy" being recommended were, in the final analysis, not appropriate for these particular instructors.

Boice challenges us to think about how our actions contribute to the creation of a classroom atmosphere that is either conducive to, or incompatible with, effective learning. In this regard his observations are astute and need to be taken seriously. We probably all can do more to make our classrooms effective spaces for learning. But so can our students. And if we forget that and treat our students as immature children who cannot be held accountable for their actions, we are not doing them - or ourselves - any favors.

Read: "Classroom Incivilites"
by Bob Boice


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