What Does It Take to Have Civil Discourse in the Classroom?

When Agnes Bolinska was an undergraduate, she didn’t talk much in class.

“I was scared of being judged, and I was scared of saying the wrong thing,” said Bolinska, who is now an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina. “I would have learned more if I wasn’t like that.”

She later found that speaking, in and of itself, is a powerful way to explore and sharpen nascent ideas.

Now Bolinska teaches controversial topics, like abortion in the context of medical ethics. It’s already a struggle to get every student — not just the outspoken ones — to talk in class, let alone about polarizing issues like abortion. She sometimes suspects that even the students who are willing to share are tempering their real opinions, hedging their bets so they don’t take a potentially taboo stance.

A 2021 survey indicates this could be a common problem in college classrooms. More than 80 percent of students reported self-censoring at their colleges at least sometimes, according to College Pulse. (Other surveys complicate that picture.) Meanwhile, recent op-eds argue that academe is now being taken over by a refusal to challenge prevailing (usually leftist) ideas, and that students who do speak up are silenced, usually through a perceived social pressure.

For professors who want their students to understand one another’s viewpoints and use them to develop their own, making sure all students feel comfortable speaking in the classroom is a lot easier said than done. On today’s college campuses, where nearly half of students wouldn’t even want to bunk with a person who votes differently, how can professors create a classroom where students can productively disagree?

It was in pursuit of an answer that Bolinska and 22 other faculty members attended a “Teaching Civil Discourse in the College Classroom” summer seminar at Duke University. For about four days in August, the mostly early-career faculty members gathered to discuss (and yes, disagree) about what it means to have civil discourse, what professors should expect from their students, and what the boundaries of speech in classroom discussion should be. The participants, who each received a $5,000 stipend, agreed to teach a course about civil discourse within three semesters.

The seminar, which was closed to reporters, is part of Duke’s Civil Discourse Project and was inspired by the class “How to Think in an Age of Political Polarization,” created by John S. Rose, an instructor at Duke and associate director of the project.

The class, upon which the seminar participants can loosely base their own course, began as something of an experiment, Rose said. He wanted to see if he could get his students to talk about “hard issues in a civil manner.” Rose said there was an appetite for it on campus; the 100-person class typically fills up immediately and has a waitlist.

Teresa M. Bejan, a professor of political theory at the University of Oxford, joined Rose as a presenter at the seminar and helped to develop the schedule and reading materials, which included the Campus Pulse survey and a widely read New York Times op-ed from a then-senior at the University of Virginia lamenting self-censorship.

Bejan said that, over the course of the seminar, it became clear that political climates and student bodies varied widely among participants’ home institutions, which included colleges large and small, private and public, religious and secular. Participants represented a range of disciplines, including political science, communication, philosophy, and history.

“There’s a bit of a cottage industry of commentary in the U.S. right now, that is basically op-eds complaining about quote-unquote woke students.” Bejan said. “But we’ve got to resist this idea that the problem can be identified as some set of students or some particular ideology.”

Bejan said she believes that the answer to creating civil discourse and freer speech in classrooms is attempting to moderate speech so everyone can be heard. It is a perennial problem, not one created by today’s politics, she said. Disagreement has always been disagreeable to us.

Rose is the first to admit he is an unlikely person to teach civil discourse. He is a scholar of Christian theology and has spent most of his professional career in religious, not secular, academic settings. His studies have left their mark on his understanding of civil discourse, Rose said, and in the values around which he structures his class. The syllabus for his Duke course on polarization lays out three principles to set the tone for the rest of the semester: freedom, charity, and humility.

“If you follow these norms, you’re going to get the kind of results you want without having to get into the business of saying, ‘We’re going to specify in advance that you can’t have that view,’” Rose said.

Bolinska said she was inspired by Rose’s values and, while it may be idealistic to expect students to always be charitable to or loving of those with divergent opinions, it’s her goal as a professor.

Rose “structures his course in a fairly Christian way around this idea that we should love everyone. Not love like our partner or friends, but love them in respecting them as fully human beings,” Bolinska said.

Bejan, however, said she has a very different image of civility, one that emphasizes just how difficult coexistence is in a diverse society.

“The whole point is that civility isn’t charity because you have to be civil to the people that you don’t love. You are civil to the people you don’t respect. And that was a really profound disagreement between us that really sort of shaped things” at the seminar, Bejan said.

According to Bejan, civility is an “artifice of good faith, good manners, respectful behavior” that students and academics adopt when the sincere feeling isn’t there so that society can function and people can discuss difficult topics without shutting down. And even that mask of civility, she said, is incredibly difficult to maintain for issues that are so divisive and personal for many students.

Janice T. Chik, who attended the seminar and is an associate professor of philosophy at Ave Maria University, left agreeing that “mere civility,” as Bejan calls it, is sometimes all one can and should ask of students.

“You might enter a debate feeling utter contempt for your opponent,” Chik said. “In that case, mere civility is the best that we can do.”

Both Bejan and Rose said it’s important to make the bounds and expectations of civil discourse clear from the start, and to remind students of them throughout the course of the semester, no matter which framework you choose. Rose tells his students that if they aren’t willing to abide by his three core principles, they should drop the class.

Other instructors take a different, more collaborative tack. Kevin Marinelli, a teaching associate professor of rhetorical studies and executive director of the public-discourse program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, lets his students create their own “class compact” to regulate discussion.

“I’ll quickly turn it over to them because I want to know what they think and know what their concerns are,” Marinelli said. “And I also want students to be held accountable and to hold each other accountable for preserving the culture that they want to aspire to.”

In Rose’s course on civil discourse and polarization, he begins with a survey. He asks his students, “Are there some politically sensitive issues that you feel too uncomfortable raising around other students or, if the issues do come up, that lead you to be less than fully honest about what you think, even among friends?”

Usually, more students answer “yes” to that question than “no,” Rose said. To some, that would indicate that students are self-censoring. But what does it actually mean to self-censor? And is it always really a bad thing?

According to Bejan, the answer is sometimes no. She distinguishes the negative term “self-censorship” from “discretion,” which is a virtue, Bejan said. Civility in itself is a form of self-restraint, like manners and other social conventions, she said. Almost everyone restrains themselves depending on whom they’re talking to and the context. It becomes a problem when that restraint leads to what Bejan calls a “civil silence,” where students don’t even try to talk about things or voice opinions that could lead to disagreement, simply because they are afraid.

“The classroom has got to be a site where we try to cultivate a very peculiar kind of community where students feel free to sort of think aloud, feel free to be wrong,” Bejan said.

Fear of being wrong, especially in the classroom, is especially prevalent when discussing highly charged issues. It is also gendered, with high-achieving women tending to be more afraid of failure than their male peers.

Creating a space where students feel they have the freedom to say the wrong thing, Bejan said, is something of a balancing act. Sometimes that means outspoken students need to yield the floor or modulate their speech toward civility.

Chik said it takes a lot of practice to find that balance, just as it takes students time to learn “moderation” in their speech, uncover their false presuppositions, and converse civilly. She likened the process to learning to eat right.

“You can’t attain moderation without eating, right? That’s absurd. In order to learn moderation, you have to practice eating,” Chik said. “And sometimes that means you’re going to eat a little more than you should or a little less. But by making those mistakes, you learn moderation.”

In order to create what Chik calls a “space of reasonability,” sometimes professors must let students practice “free-flowing speech,” even if it goes wrong, and create a classroom culture where the ensuing mistakes are treated as just that and not an act of malice.

“We don’t want to affirm hate speech, but maybe there is something to that idea that in order to learn civic, civil, and reasonable discourse, we need to sometimes just let our mouths run,” Chik said.

The real challenge comes when professors bring current events and modern phenomena into the course to apply the concepts they’re teaching. That’s when class discussions can go off the rails.

Karen Taliaferro, an assistant professor in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, has found that certain hot topics immediately cause students to retrench, moving them from a learning posture to a defensive one. Bringing up former President Donald J. Trump, for example, would make her students immediately retreat into the views they already hold with little room for intellectual curiosity.

“With current events, we think we know why we hold the views we hold. And so rather than question those, we search for rationalizations for them,” Taliaferro said.

Rose’s course on polarization is all about breaking through those rationalizations and forcing honest conversations that students would rarely have otherwise. The class includes difficult and controversial essay prompts, requiring students to think for the “other” side too.

The seminar participants aren’t required to do the same in their iterations of the course, and some are still considering whether to apply theory to current events.

For Marinelli, as the head of the public-discourse program at Chapel Hill, engaging topical issues is obligatory. He sees it as his job to prepare students for the conversations they’ll be having in the “real” world.

“Our philosophy is there’s no way around them. So the best way is just to go through them,” Marinelli said.

Marinelli said he knows that facing hot-button topics head-on presents unique challenges. More often than not, one or more of the students in the room will have a personal connection to one of the topics at hand.

About once a year he receives an email from a student telling him that the topic or direction of discussion was offensive, he said. When he was moderating a class debate at another institution, the students chose to argue whether prisoners should have the right to vote. In the middle of a presentation, one of his students broke into tears and was unable to complete her speech. After that class, she wrote a letter to the dean, writing that Marinelli had not handled the debate as he should have and accusing him of “whitesplaining,” a term sometimes defined as the condescending explanation a white person might give to a person of color, downplaying their experiences as overly emotional or refusing to attribute racist actions to racism.

Marinelli said he disagreed with the student’s assessment and thought he had handled the debate delicately. The issue, Marinelli said, was clearly close to the student, and every debate demands that someone take the other side. He said that she stayed in the class, and that after he had explained his point of view to the dean, no action was taken.

“While instructors should strive to learn from such instances, they should not be deterred from engaging controversial content,” Marinelli wrote in an email. “Instead, educators should make it their objective to empower students with the capacities to navigate such difficult tensions as they emerge. That, rather than the absence of tension, is the mark of a successful class.”

But how much can professors expect students to divorce their own experiences from a debate? Should instructors expect a transgender student not to bring their struggles navigating health care to debates about legislative medical restrictions for transgender youth? Can instructors expect an undocumented student to ignore their background when discussing the latest immigration debate?

Seminar participants disagreed on the answers. Some instructors argued students should ideally put themselves on the back burner during an argument. Bejan said that civility sometimes requires that debaters step into a separate role, one that ignores their personal affiliations and focuses only on making a tolerant society work.

Chik agreed, saying that to make logic and reason primary, one has to work hard at separating one’s self from any singular argument. “The best civil discourse happens when we depersonalize our own feelings,” Chik said. “I’m an optimist about a space of reason and questions. We can really depersonalize, step back, detach ourselves from our own commitments and look at things with the lens of reason, and then engage with one another.”

Several participants raised marriage counseling as a parallel. Therapists might tell each spouse to leave the question of who is ultimately right to the side and focus on understanding the other person. It is an emphasis on mutual understanding over adjudicating truth.

But one seminar participant, Francisco Gallegos, wondered if something is lost when students try to detach themselves from their arguments. Gallegos is a philosopher of emotion at Wake Forest University; he has studied the anxiety that intense polarization in a society can cause. He also said he wants to explore the productive role of anger in conversations across difference. He pointed to writers and activists like Audre Lorde, who argued in her 1981 speech “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” that “your fear of anger will teach you nothing.”

He said the seminar leaders did not really grapple with ways in which anger can be useful.

Gallegos asked whether civil discourse can serve to quash that anger, which is sometimes key to the truth of an issue. He also questioned whether, by always assuming best intentions and making sure everyone is cared for, we lose the opportunity to inquire about the potential for bias or even bigotry.

While professors continue to struggle with these questions, Bejan said that neither professors nor students should expect final answers or solutions from a class. Every student, she said, feels some kind of grievance that makes deliberating difficult.

“You’re not saying that all grievances are equal or equally righteous, but you are taking a step back and saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to resolve ultimately or decide authoritatively on which grievances are just and which aren’t in this classroom,’” Bejan said. “We’ve got to free ourselves from the idea that somehow we’re going to fix politics in our classroom.”

Several participants said the seminar itself was a good example of practicing civil discourse. Discussing a class designed to get students talking and trusting one another actually created the same effect among the participants.

Bolinska said she was sad to leave, and she and the others joked about holding reunions at their respective institutions. Another participant described it as “one of the best intellectual experiences I’ve had in a very long time.”

“It was just by just talking about civil discourse, talking as intellectuals, we started to practice it,” Rose said.

Participants, including Bolinska, said the long periods for open discussion and ample downtime to actually get to know fellow participants were helpful in creating that atmosphere.

“I think there were people from across the political spectrum, and yet we were able to really connect with one another and care about one another,“ Bolinska said. “That’s when you really get people talking to one another in a way that’s productive.”

Some participants were skeptical that the same attitudes and community could be replicated in a college classroom.

“It is more challenging to envision myself with a group of students having these kinds of discussions than a group of faculty who are very committed to civil discourse. So committed that they’ll take a week off of summer and go discuss it,” Taliaferro said.

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