Framing Classroom Incivility

Understanding what constitutes classroom incivility can help faculty members minimize its dangers while maximizing the teaching and learning opportunities it presents, advises Courtney N. Wright.

October 4, 2016

Faculty members at colleges and universities around the country are grappling with how to address potentially sensitive topics such as race and ethnicity, sexual assault, gender and sexuality, religion, and political discord in the classroom. Trigger warnings, microaggressions and political correctness now frame what and how they teach. And students’ protests and demands reveal that they are encountering incidences of incivility in the classroom that are negatively affecting their educational experiences and personal well-being.

In fact, one of the most pervasive topics of concern and frustration that I address in my workshops with faculty members and graduate teaching assistants is classroom incivility. In what ways can faculty members respond to inappropriate behaviors without escalating the situation? How can they use insensitive comments as teachable moments effectively? In what ways can they protect themselves from student incivility? From where/whom can they find support for addressing student incivility?

Through my work in this area, I have found that the efforts of faculty members to effectively manage their roles and responsibilities related to classroom incivility are often inhibited by misperceptions and a misdirected tendency to regulate incivility. Reframing perceptions and understanding of classroom incivility and the faculty’s responsibility toward this end can help faculty members minimize the dangers of incivility while maximizing the teaching and learning opportunities it presents.

A Daunting Responsibility in a Distressed Climate

Merriam-Webster defines incivility as “a rude or impolite attitude or behavior.” Although such instances are not foreign to educational settings, increases in incivility and heightened racial, cultural and political tensions have catapulted issues of classroom incivility and faculty responsibility to the forefront of higher education.

In particular, as we see more conversations about race, diversity and inclusion issues take place across college campuses, the challenges and inadequacies inhibiting faculty from productively engaging in them effectively are becoming more apparent and scrutinized. In June, for example, sessions at the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors were dominated by the vital role and professional responsibility of faculty members to confront their own prejudices, develop their racial literacy and engage in productive classroom conversations about race.

Such challenges lead us to question and reconsider what constitutes classroom incivility and the appropriate professional expectations of the faculty. Admittedly, some people may consider these discussions unnecessary or premature, as we do not fully understand the changes taking place and their implications. The importance of engaging in these discussions now, however, is as much about today’s campus climate as it is about preparing for tomorrow’s and the students we will encounter in our classrooms five to 15 years from now who are currently growing up in these times of increased incivility and heightened tensions.

The events affecting campuses today clearly indicate that civility in the classroom depends upon the ability of faculty members to create learning environments that embrace diverse identities and effectively manage conversations about sensitive topics including, but not limited to, race -- such as gender, sexuality, politics and grades. Yet as is too often the case, faculty members seldom receive the resources and skills training necessary to meet these expectations.

The Complexity of Classroom Incivility

What constitutes incivility, and how can we recognize it? Misconduct, impoliteness, disruptive behavior, rudeness, misbehavior and resistance are a few words used to describe uncivil behavior in the classroom. That disregard for others can target and affect specific students, the faculty member and/or the classroom community as a whole. As a result, students and faculty members can experience incivility as both perpetrators and victims.

Although what constitutes uncivil behavior can be quite subjective and different, its undesirable effects are generally agreed upon. Classroom incivility unsettles the teaching and learning environment in a manner that threatens the cohesion and collaboration among faculty and students. The consequential emotional intensity and conflict-inducing potential associated with incivility make it even more challenging to manage.

To identify and frame incivility accurately, we as faculty members should:

Understand the focus of uncivil behavior. Usually incivility in the classroom occurs in three broad areas: expectations for classroom behavior, grading procedures and evaluation, and course content.

Incivility related to expectations for classroom behavior can include: inattentiveness (e.g., texting, side conversations), coming unprepared for class, not listening, interrupting others who are speaking, tardiness, not addressing others by their preferred name or title, and disrespect for faculty authority. Expectations for those behaviors are relatively consistent across disciplines, faculty members and student status (undergraduate to graduate and professional programs).

Second, incivility focused on grading procedures and evaluation is ubiquitous. Open challenges and hostility concerning grades and how they are determined as well as cheating behavior are examples. The significance of grades for student identities (e.g., self-esteem), motivation and educational outcomes (e.g., graduation, eligibility for financial aid) can make this focus of incivility distressing for students and faculty members alike. Predicting how these uncivil behaviors may occur may be difficult, but our grading schedules can help us prepare for when they’re likely to happen (e.g., midterms).

Third, incivility can occur in direct relation to the course material. Students’ negative attitudes and comments about the discipline of study are an example. And combative challenges of the theoretical foundations and tenets upon which the discipline is built can also disrupt the teaching and learning process. Although incivility related to the course content can exist in STEM disciplines, its manifestations are less likely to attack the identities of students or faculty members within the classroom community directly. Incivility focused on the course content becomes a more significant concern for faculty members who teach in the humanities and social sciences, where students encounter information likely to challenge their worldview, value system, social behavior and identity.

Pay attention to the features of incivility. Is the uncivil behavior direct or indirect? Passive or aggressive? Emotionally intense? Trivial or significant? You can see the intensity and severity of incivility in the classroom in both verbal and nonverbal behavior, the emotions elicited, and the nature of the act itself. Uncivil acts can range from something as minor and indirect as inattentiveness (e.g., texting, working on assignments for another course) to severe and direct acts like intimidation, verbal attacks to identity and physical aggression. The potential range in behavior contributes to the uncertainty and anxiety that faculty members may experience as we hope to encounter minor occurrences of incivility and protect ourselves against its worst forms.

Consider the intentions and diverse motivations behind incivility. Faculty members must be careful to not automatically attribute intent to the effects of incivility. Uncivil behavior in the classroom can be unintentional, and consequently, those perpetrators are likely unaware of the negative impact of their behavior. Considering the intentionality of incivility can make teachable moments more attainable and help us evaluate the severity of the offense and respond to the situation appropriately. In addition, several factors can fuel incivility. Sometimes it is a reactive behavior, enacted in response to another occurrence in the classroom.

Further, the motivations behind uncivil behaviors are not always negative or antisocial in nature. For example, a student may express an insensitive comment in an attempt to understand an unfamiliar topic that is challenging their worldview. And perceived inattentiveness may not stem from a lack of respect for the speaker or interest in the content but rather from the individual’s emotional state and overall well-being.

Remember external factors can incite incivility in the classroom. Classroom incivility does not occur in a vacuum. As faculty members, we can become so focused on the events in our classrooms that we overlook external forces that may affect those interactions. Personal and professional environments external to the classroom have implications for how students and faculty members perceive, enact and respond to incivility in the classroom. In addition, we should be aware of how external factors can affect the emotional, financial, physical and mental health of those within the classroom and create incivility in it.

Moving Forward

The benefits of considering these four areas are only fully realized when we understand the corresponding roles that students and faculty members assume (perpetrator/victim) and our responsibilities. As faculty members, it is often easier to recognize incivility aimed at us or the collective classroom directly. It becomes more difficult for us to recognize student incivility that targets or affects only a specific student, because doing so requires communication skills (e.g., empathy, perspective taking) and an understanding of diverse experiences that we do not inherently possess. We must also rely on these same skills to recognize and address the areas in which we ourselves perpetuate incivility in the classroom -- which is understandably more uncomfortable.

But such awareness is vital to our abilities to create spaces conducive for the learning of all students and productively engage them in sensitive topics of conversation and intellectual inquiry. In future articles, I’ll describe how the experiences of faculty members can inform understanding of classroom incivility and related professional responsibilities, how faculty members approach regulating incivility, and how facilitating civility can enhance faculty effectiveness and student engagement.


Courtney N. Wright is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Tennessee. Her research, teaching and consulting activities are in the areas of interpersonal communication, conflict management and instructional communication.


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