'Condescending Negativism' and Other Transgressions

November 6, 2008

SEATTLE -- Defining "classroom incivility" may begin with which side of the lectern you sit (or stand) on. Professors commonly complain about students texting or e-mailing away on their laptops or phones or, worse, catching up on their zzzz's. To hear David Horowitz and others tell it, however, students are on the receiving end of more than their share of bullying or dismissive behavior, particularly if they disagree with the (usually liberal) views of their professors.

John M. Braxton's view is that classroom incivility is a two-way street, and neither way is good. At a session this week at the Council of Independent Colleges' Institute for Chief Academic Officers here, Braxton, a professor in Vanderbilt University's Higher Education Leadership and Policy Program,
discussed past research he and colleagues have conducted showing that various sorts of classroom misbehavior by students and faculty members both can do damage to student engagement and/or academic performance.

Student misbehavior -- "disrespectful disruptions" such as receiving cell phone calls or talking loudly to peers in class, or "insolent inattention" such as coming to class drunk or sleeping there -- damages other students' level of commitment to their college, Braxton's research has found.

And faculty incivilities -- a list of six "inviolable norms" that include such things as "condescending negativism" (treating students and colleagues in a demeaning way), "particularistic grading" (uneven or preferential treatment of students in awarding grades), or moral turpitude (you know what that means) -- harm students' perceptions of their academic and intellectual development, which often results in academic underperformance, he says.

While those findings probably won't strike many as controversial, Braxton's suggested course of action may: He urged the provosts and academic deans in attendance to develop faculty codes of conduct for undergraduate college teaching at their institutions, and to set up "teaching integrity committees" to respond to reported violations of norms for teaching behavior. Braxton acknowledged, in response to questions from the sometimes skeptical academic deans, that the creation of such a committee would raise thorny issues -- for instance, "Would one violation amount to teaching misconduct" that would bring sanctions? -- but he insisted that raising the topic of expectations for faculty behavior will inevitably have its benefits.

"It shows that you're allocating your values around teaching," he said.

Kimberly K. Estep, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Tusculum College, who presented alongside Braxton at the session, said her institution has gotten part of the way there. The Tennessee independent college has for 18 years published a "statement on faculty responsibilities to students" in its Faculty Handbook (see Page 10).

It holds professors to such practical obligations as ensuring that they hold classes as scheduled and teach courses in a manner consistent with the syllabus and the announced objectives, as well as more philosophical requirements that they owe students "a fair and impartial evaluation" of their work and should "always demonstrate respect for the students" and "avoid exploitation of students for personal advantage." (Tusculum's list of concerns specifically cites -- in a way that Braxton's six norms does not -- the sort of intellectual stifling that Horowitz and other critics accuse professors of frequently engaging in, although Estep and Braxton both say they have seen little evidence of that sort of behavior.)

Tusculum does not go so far as to have a committee to adjudicate potential violations of its code; "This is dangerous ground that John is asking us to traverse," she said. If any college were to create such a panel, Estep said, it would have to be a committee of peers rather than an administrative one, because of the judgment inherent in such concepts as Braxton's "condescending negativism." "I as chief academic officer would not want to be out on that limb, personally," she said. Estep said, though, that Tusculum has considered assessing faculty members, in terms of remaining on contract, on whether they abide by the statement of faculty responsibilities.

Most of the academic administrators in the audience seemed to consider Braxton's idea of trying to police this sort of faculty behavior impractical, for a number reasons. One described professors' tendency to hide all sorts of questionable behavior behind the shield of "academic freedom"; another bemoaned the increasing tendency of students to consider themselves customers who are always right: "I'm paying x dollars for this and therefore you owe me," as one academic vice president put it.

There was widespread agreement, too, that civility is a slippery topic, because of how bound up it is in issues of culture. An administrator at a historically black college described tensions between some white faculty members who don't understand some of the behaviors of their black students. Another recalled problems that arose when colleagues considered an Israeli Palestinian professor -- brought to the campus to help "internationalize our faculty and diversity our culture" -- to be "antagonistic and loud," and the professor in question "perceived those complaints as being racist."

That prompted another provost to share a situation at his college involving another visitor -- "someone from the foreign country of New York City," he said to laughter, who "dealt with faculty colleagues in a disruptive, abrasive way." The faculty member's response to complaints was that "it's what we do in New York," the academic administrator said, "but he was teaching in the South, and you could say that, at a point, you have to accept the reigning standards of the community you're teaching in."

Braxton acknowledged that those and other issues made the idea of addressing classroom incivility tricky terrain. But it is important to "at least have the conversation around it," he urged, because of the potential impact on students.

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