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November 20, 2008

Teaching Excellence Fair: Ground rules for civility

Pitt’s eighth annual Teaching Excellence Fair, held Nov. 5, included presentations from winners of 2007-08 innovation in education grants and conversations on teaching methods and techniques with faculty, as well as workshops and technology demonstrations led by Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) staff. The event was sponsored by the Provost’s Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence and coordinated by CIDDE.

This year, many of the sessions were recorded in webcast form. Those webcasts are posted online at

While controversial material is the meat and potatoes in Lester C. Olson’s Rhetoric and Human Rights course, the ground rules he described at the teaching fair apply in any course where a controversial subject could come up in class.

“The classroom environment is a crucial consideration for excellence in teaching, and particularly so if one is dealing with highly sensitive or controversial issues, where civility can become a concern,” said Olson at “A Conversation on Civility in the Classroom: Constructing Ground Rules for Difficult Dialogues Concerning Sensitive Topics and Controversial Issues.”

“In 1993 I proposed a course called Rhetoric and Human Rights. I was understandably nervous, because it’s one of those topics that people bring very passionate views toward, and it meant dealing with highly controversial topics,” Olson said.

“In the early versions of the course, one of the ways in which I dealt with conflict was to locate it safely in the past. The earliest versions had units on the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, women’s rights advocates, abolitionists and the like.”

Over time, Olson developed themes for discussion centered on human rights concerns such as poverty, the environment, violence and sexual aggression.

“The more I worked with the course, it became increasingly more important to me to look to more recent years,” he said.

A professor of communication with an appointment in women’s studies and a 1996 Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award winner, Olson co-directs the Provost’s Faculty Diversity Seminar, which, he said, “covers ways to integrate considerations of race and gender, primarily, but also economic status, religion, international background, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity and the like.” (For more information on the seminar, go to

At the teaching fair, the conversation was directed toward graduate students and less-experienced faculty members, regardless of discipline.

Years of experience have taught Olson the importance of setting ground rules on the first day of the term. He begins his human rights course with ground rules and three active-learning questions designed to create a classroom environment where students feel safe expressing their opinions.

“First, though, the ground rules are by no means enough to create a safe learning environment for the students,” Olson maintained. “It’s very important to have a course rubric that is detailed, that is open and transparent and that has clear grading criteria, because when students are confronted with talking about issues they view as highly sensitive and explosive — same-sex marriage, abortion, sexual assault, rape — they want to be evaluated based on the quality of their performance, rather than the content of their views. It is especially important if students are worried about whether they are being evaluated on whether or not they agree with the instructor’s politics.”

The three questions Olson poses direct students to their collective responsibility for the quality of the learning environment, and encourage students to reflect on how they should participate as communicators on controversial issues:

• What ground rules are most important for you when discussing controversial issues?

• What behaviors do you engage in to ensure that you are listening to others?

“In other words, if someone says something you have heartfelt disagreement with, what behaviors do you engage in to make sure you have actually understood them?” Olson said. “This really sends a strong message that I’ll be watching for evidence that they’re engaging in the discussion and hearing what others have to say.”

• How do you approach conflict resolution when discussing controversial issues?

“At this point in an undergraduate course, you have a number of options,” Olson said. “One of the options is to task students to share their own ground rules. Some students are reluctant to articulate their ground rules but, in my experience, they’re quite happy to have them. So, especially if you’re trying this for the first time, having that discussion as part of the group’s work on the first day takes a lot of time, but it also further invests the students in the ground rules because they’ve had a say in them.”

Alternatively, the instructor can collect students’ written ground rules, consolidate them and bring a summary to the second class for further discussion, he said.

“Or you can pass out a syllabus with a list of ground rules and ask them to return with their additions, deletions and revisions,” Olson said. “I’ve done this for 15 years, and I see recurring patterns. So, on the syllabus I have a set of ground rules that I anticipate will surface.”

Directed at the students, those ground rules include:

• You should participate actively in discussion. If you feel uncomfortable in the classroom environment, it is your responsibility to talk to the instructor.

• You may choose to advance or defend an opinion “for the sake of argument.”

• You may choose to “pass” on specific questions or topics without explanation.

“In my human rights course, I deal with subjects that may very well touch one or another of the students very personally,” Olson said. There is no way to tell if a student has been the victim of anti-Semitism, harassment or physical or sexual assault, for example, where discussion of that theme could be painful, he explained.

“Part of why I have a ground rule that people can pass is so people can disengage if they’re just too close to that. It’s also the case that sometimes a person doesn’t feel equipped to be engaged, which I also respect.”

• You must respect diverse points of view. We can agree to disagree.

• You may not belittle or criticize personally another individual for holding a viewpoint different from you own.

• Your use of language should be respectful of others or groups.

This rule includes controlling non-verbal communication, such as sneering or sighing, that could convey a lack of respect, Olson said.

• You need not represent any group, only yourself, although you may choose to represent a group.

Regarding the last rule, Olson said, a case can be made for taking a hostile name for a group and reversing its meaning. “Historically, various groups have done that,” he pointed out. “I had a student who was bothered by the expression ‘woman of color.’ Yet if you go back and look at radical women from minority groups in the 1980s, that was a coalition term and they very much used it constructively to advance a political agenda.

“In recent years the expression ‘queer,’ which was never used in a life-enhancing way when I was young, is actually a very powerful and life-affirming term for a number of students.”

The point is that language changes over time, he said. “Terms that were used a decade or two decades ago are sometimes disturbing to people now. I just encourage students to err on the side of caution in trying to be respectful.”

In summary Olson urged:

• “Put in place ground rules that you’re comfortable with. When I started I used historical examples from the 19th century because that was my comfort level. I had to ease my way into dealing with more difficult and sensitive issues.”

• “If you’re worried about anger surfacing in the classroom, you might ask students to be mindful of how tumultuous responses can affect others participating in the discussions. I try to massage it in that direction about what an emotional response does for others.”

• “On the first day have a discussion on how disagreement and conflict can be constructive, if we’re going to succeed with one another, and have a discussion on listening and trying to engage in other points of view.”

• “On the first day, I will talk about how in this human rights course, I’m dealing with issues that are not easy to solve: racism, sexism, heterosexism; homophobia, bias issues around class, religion — they’re endemic and they’ve proved to be intractable. I also signal on the very first day that the topics are emotionally quite difficult, that they entail confronting the human capacity for cruelty to one another.

“Saying that is important, because it’s important to put careful parameters around their expectations. Some students come in wanting to solve the world’s problems. I talk about the course as a communication course, not a policy course. My goal is to raise their conscious awareness of communication practices.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 7

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