Impacts of Incivility

I was commiserating with some friends over the weekend about our recent interactions with rude people. A couple friends had just returned from a trip and had spent time in airports and on airplanes. They shared their experiences with difficult travelers at the terminals and on their flights. They witnessed instances of angry people shouting at flight attendants and yelling at gate workers. Another friend, who teaches locally, talked about the rude parents and students she’s been encountering. She regularly receives angry emails from parents and rude comments from her students. Another friend, who is still working remotely, shared that she’s been interacting with a difficult co-worker through most of the pandemic. Personally, I talked about my recent experiences with a couple of challenging colleagues and students who have sent rude or sarcastic emails to me. As we discussed these instances, we agreed that incivility seems to be on the rise.

Surprisingly, I pulled up my podcast app this morning to find Hidden Brain had dedicated its most recent episode, How Rude!, to the topic. Here’s how the episode was described in the app:

“It’s not your imagination: rudeness appears to be on the rise. Witnessing rude behavior — whether it’s coming from angry customers berating a store clerk or airline passengers getting into a fistfight — can have long-lasting effects on our minds.”

After the weekend conversation with my friends, I felt compelled to listen to the episode. While the show echoed a lot of the experiences my friends and I shared, it also discussed the causes of the incivility and outlined some of the potential negative impacts from encounters with rude people. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the main cause is stress. And with the rise of stressful situations borne out of the pandemic, incivility is also increasing. While that emotional connection seems logical, it also depersonalizes the behavior a bit. For the most part, these aren’t rude, uncivil people doing awful things or sending mean emails. They’re just people under stress who may not be able to see the full impact of the stress on their actions. I know that might not make those rude encounters easier to navigate, but it does make it easier to understand. We’ve all been under stress lately. We’ve probably all said or done something that we didn’t intend. Stress is a challenging emotion.

For me, the interesting part about the episode was when the main guest, Dr. Christine Porath from Georgetown University, discussed the impacts of incivility. Porath is a behavioral scientist and the co-author of the book, The Cost of Bad Behavior—How Incivility Damages Your Business And What You Can Do about It. Porath likened stress to a virus that spreads from person to person, with rude and uncivil acts as being one of the main transmission systems. During the discussion, Porath shared her research that examined the cognitive impacts to encountering or witnessing rude behavior. In a study published in Organizational Dynamics, Porath and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments and found that:

(I)ncivility impairs working memory, which in turn negatively impacts both performance and creativity. Working memory has three main functions – the verbal function, the visual function, and the central function responsible for higher order cognitive tasks; incivility impairs all three. What’s more, this effect occurs in the absence of a specific uncivil event; simply having incivility on one’s mind has been shown to decrease working memory performance. This is important because it suggests that even being in a workplace that has a climate of incivility may impair workers’ creativity and performance. Incivility robs people of cognitive resources, disrupts all three components of working memory, and ultimately hijacks performance.” (p. 259)

That’s some pretty serious stuff, but it might also be the solution. Maybe recognizing the harmful impacts of rude behaviors could cause some people to act differently. While I’ve sent my share of harshly worded emails and angry texts under moments of stress, recognizing those impacts may help me to communicate less rudely in the future. Beyond that, I’m also going to work to put more positive energy into the world. While Porath spent most of the Hidden Brain episode discussing incivility, she has also researched the impacts of civility, too. She outlines some of her work on a post titled How civility matters for you and your network. She writes that just like stress spreads like a virus, research shows that “civility is contagious – the benefits spreading as friends and friends of friends reciprocate civility.” So, while incivility is on the rise, maybe we could spread some civility, too.

Porath, C. L., Foulk, T., & Erez, A. (2015). How incivility hijacks performance: It robs cognitive resources, increases dysfunctional behavior, and infects team dynamics and functioning. Organizational Dynamics. 44(4), p. 258-265.

Something Controversial?

I read a lot of books on teaching and learning. If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you know that I’m always referencing a book I am reading or have read. As I read, I enjoy learning about new strategies to employ in my classroom or new ways to assess my students. I also like thinking about different ways to conceptualize the work that I do or the students I serve. I figure if I can learn one new thing in a book I read, it was worth my time. That’s my standard of success for a book, at least.

Reading as much as I do, I realized recently that there is sort of an echo chamber that exists with teaching and learning books. That’s not entirely a bad thing. All of the books I’ve read over the last decade promote active learning in student-centered ways. In a lot of ways, the books are just identifying ways or sharing research to support Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practices in Undergraduate Education. That might be an over-generalization, but it’s not intended to be a criticism. It’s just an observation.

I share that as a lead into something I read in Paul Hanstedt’s book Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World (2018). Hanstedt takes an interesting perspective on teaching and learning and encourages instructors to create courses to help students develop the skills needed to solve the “knotty problems” they’re likely to face after graduation. The book itself is a good read. Hanstedt is the director of pedagogical innovation at Roanoke College and does a great job of unpacking the different aspects of planning and teaching collegiate courses. While the book is a great primer for teaching, most of the stuff can be found in other places. That’s not a criticism. Again, I read a lot of books on this stuff and there’s sort of an echo chamber that exists. But the book meets my standard of success because of a “controversial” topic that it addresses.

In the chapter on Structuring Wicked Courses, Hanstedt writes,

“When structuring courses, we need not necessarily follow the layout of our textbooks. This point may be a bit more controversial, so I will spend a bit more time on it” (p. 43).

Okay, I’ll admit that it’s not that controversial, but it did make me think. How many teachers follow their textbooks sequentially? I rarely organize my syllabi that way, but I don’t actually know what my colleagues do. I do know, however, that this is the first time I’ve seen an author offer that suggestion and provide a rationale and alternative organizational approaches to instructors. In the chapter, Hanstedt offers the following alternate ways to organize content:

  • categorical – where instructors organize content by “type, class, family division, and subdivision.”
  • chronological – where instructors focus on “what comes first within the course content, then second, and so on.
  • methodological – where teachers focus on “how problems are solved within a field”
  • theoretical – where instructors organize content on “the major ideas driving a particular field”

After outlining these different organizational approaches, Hanstedt dedicates the rest of the chapter to offering examples for how instructors from different content areas structure their semesters. This helps readers see the possibilities and learn a thing or two. And ultimately, that’s my standard of success for any good book.

Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students: Designing courses for a complex world. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Mounds of Papers and Feedback

I’ve been navigating the perfect storm of the semester the last few weeks. I don’t know how it happened, but my courses aligned perfectly (or not so perfectly) so that the students in all of my classes were submitting major assignments at the same time. I probably should chalk it up to poor planning on my part, but I’ve been spending a lot of time providing feedback on student papers and their revised drafts.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve written about feedback a bunch over the last eleven or twelve years. Personally, I subscribe to Wiggin’s Seven Keys to Effective Feedback which outlines that for feedback to have an impact on student learning it must: be goal-referenced; be tangible and transparent; be actionable; be timely; be ongoing; be consistent; and progress towards a goal. I know that’s a lot to address, but basically it means doing a whole lot more than writing “Good job!” on a student’s paper. It involves setting a clear target for students and providing clear, actionable feedback to help students work towards the target. Reflecting on the feedback I provide to my students, I feel like I meet this standard pretty consistently.

The frustrating part for me is that sometimes I’ll provide feedback to students and won’t see that feedback addressed in future revisions. For most of the assignments in my classes, I allow my students to revise and resubmit their papers for better grades. And while I’ll provide detailed feedback on ways to improve their work, I won’t always see that feedback appear in students’ revisions. Some colleagues have advised that I shouldn’t grade those papers where students have ignored my feedback. Others have suggested that I have students write a revision audit outlining how they’ve specifically addressed the feedback I’ve given in their revision. If you’ve ever submitted an article for publication, this type of audit is common after receiving feedback from reviewers. Despite my frustrations with some of the revisions my students submit, I’ve avoided incorporating these policies. Honestly, they just sound like additional barriers that students need to circumvent to revise their work. I want my students to revise their work. But I also want them to incorporate the feedback I provide.

This morning, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and came across an article from ASCD titled Getting GREAT at Feedback. Initially, I didn’t think I’d find anything groundbreaking, but then I read the byline to the article: “The key to feedback is how it is received by the student.” That prompted more reading. In their article, the authors, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, offer a unique perspective on feedback. They write:

“However, a common misunderstanding is that it’s all about the amount of feedback given—and the more the better. But the key is actually how the feedback is received by the learner. The relationship between the person giving the feedback and the one receiving it is paramount in terms of how much ‘gets in.'”

To better address how feedback is received by students, Fisher and Frey offer a different feedback model that “forges trust, helps the hearer sense a positive motive, and is clear and informative.”  Drawing on work by LarkApps, they offer the GREAT model for effective feedback. I know, it’s kind of a corny acronym, but the dimensions are pretty thoughtful.

  • Growth-oriented: The delivery signals one’s intention as constructive, focused on improvement not criticism.
  • Real: Feedback is honest, targeted, and actionable (showing the speaker’s grounding in the area in question), not vague or false praise.
  • Empathetic: It combines critique with care and a quest for mutual understanding.
  • Asked-for: The speaker encourages the receiver to ask questions and seek more feedback, after offering brief comments.
  • Timely: It’s delivered soon after the task or learning is demonstrated. Feedback gets stale fast.

Reading through this list, it may sound similar to Wiggin’s Keys to Effective Feedback. From my point of view, however, the main difference is the intentional focus on care, empathy, trust, and relationship building, which makes a lot of sense. People are more likely to receive advice and feedback from people they trust. Although I’ve never done anything to make my students distrust me, I also haven’t explicitly attended to these areas in my feedback, either. If I believe teaching is about relationship building (which I do!), I have to apply that mindset to all areas of my work, including the feedback I provide.

Needing Netiquette

When I created my first online collegiate class fifteen years ago, I read several online teaching standards that set clear design and implementation guidelines for online classes. They offered guidance so that instructors would state clear, measurable learning objectives and would include course assessments that were linked to the objectives. These online teaching standards also advised that instructors broaden their course accessibility and include diverse instructional materials. In those early days of my development as an online teacher, those standards became invaluable tools for my instructional design. In designing my first class, I followed the standards to the letter and incorporated all of the elements in my first course.

One of the standard documents included guidelines for course etiquette expectations.  They called these expectations “course netiquette,” so address this standard, I created a list of student expectations for online discussion forums, email, and other forms of communication that might occur in an online course. It’s been such a long time ago, that I really don’t remember if I wrote all of these or whether I searched for some examples and combined and tweaked a few for my use. But here are the “netiquette” policies I included at the time:

“All students pay tuition and deserve a positive and courteous learning environment. Students should be aware that their behavior impacts other people, even when interacting online. I hope that we will all strive to develop a positive and supportive environment and will be courteous to fellow students and your instructor. Due to the nature of the online environment, there are some things to remember.

1. Think before you write and reread your writing before you post anything online. Without the use of nonverbals with your message, your message can be misinterpreted. Sarcasm and humor can be difficult to interpret online and should be avoided.

2. Keep it relevant. There are places to chat and post for fun everyday stuff. Inside a discussion board, stay on topic. Make sure your responses answer the question provided, expand the discussion to other relevant areas, or build on the work from your classmates.

3. Never use all caps. This is the equivalent of yelling in the online world. It is also hard to read. Only use capital letters when appropriate.

4. Make sure that you are using appropriate grammar and structure. Some people in the class may not understand things like “CU L8R,” not to mention it does nothing to help expand your writing and vocabulary skills. Emoticons are fine as long as they are appropriate. A smile ☺ is welcome; anything offensive is not.

5. Treat people the same as you would face-to-face. It is easy to hide behind the computer. In some cases it empowers people to treat others in ways they would not in person. Remember there is a person behind the name on your screen. Treat all with dignity and respect and you can expect that in return.

6. Respect the time of others. This class may require you to work in groups. Learn to respect the time of others in your group and your experience will be much better. Always remember that you are not the only person with a busy schedule, be flexible. Do not procrastinate! You may be one that works best with the pressures of the deadline looming on you, but others may not be that way. The key to a successful group is organization, communication and a willingness to do what it takes to get it done.

7. In discussion boards, do not respond with sentences like “I agree” or “Me too”. These add nothing to the discussion.”

And honestly, for the last fifteen years, I’ve included that policy into every new online class I’ve created. I remember revising them five or six years ago because some of the language became dated, but otherwise, they were mostly a vestigial element from my initial course design. I copied and pasted them into new course shells. I referred to them in my course introduction videos and Getting Started modules and that was about it.

Recently, however, I realized how important netiquette guidelines are. I won’t get into the specifics here, but a student posted something in a discussion forum that didn’t align with the course netiquette policy. Dealing with that situation made it clear that while I state the norms of communication in the course, I don’t clearly discuss any potential ramifications or consequences. I also don’t outline my role as the instructor when dealing with communication that doesn’t meet the netiquette standards. Do I delete a transgressing post?  Do I allow students to revise a transgressing post, even though the guidelines weren’t initially met? Do I replace the transgressing post with a message like one that would appear on Facebook or Instagram when their “community standards” are violated? I honestly hadn’t given it any thought prior to this incident, which forced me to create policy on the fly. After the semester ends, however, I plan to think through this more deeply and set a more comprehensive policy for the future. I might not need it for another ten or fifteen years, but I’ll probably be glad when I do.

Like the First Time

Recently, I heard an interview with Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally from the band Beach House. They were appearing on the Broken Record podcast and were discussing their new record Once, Twice, Melody. Besides talking about their musical influences (Stevie Wonder, Nirvana, Michael Jackson, etc.), the band mates also talked about how they approached their live shows. Although the pandemic sidelined a lot of concerts, Beach House was getting ready to go out on tour. The pair have been a touring band for the last fifteen years and will spend months and months on the road, performing live in front of different audiences around the country and internationally. To some bands, all of that traveling and performing can become repetitious and routine. To combat that, Beach House has worked to keep things spontaneous and fresh. They see that as being part of the job and their responsibility to their audience.

“It’s a responsibility. You have worked your butt off to put this thing together and we’re lucky people who get to have people come to see them and listen to them,” Legrand explains.

“Just from a specifics point of view. One thing you have to remind yourself on the road, and we do remind ourselves of this. ‘Yes, this is your third show in a row, but this is the first time you’ve played in Cincinnati in five years.’ And be in the moment and realize that this could be a special night for some of your fans who have never seen you before, ” Scally says.

To combat the repetition, they change set lists regularly and let audience members suggest songs before the show. They’re trying to keep things fresh for themselves, so they can provide the best experience for their audience.

I don’t know why this interchange between two musicians has stuck with me, but it’s been buzzing around my head for the last week. I’m not in a band and I don’t tour the country, performing in front of hundreds of people. I’m a teacher who works at a public university. There’s nothing glamorous or “rock star” about my job.

But I understand the repetition. Now that I’m entering my fifteenth year at the institution, my teaching schedule has become pretty routine. I’ve taught the same three classes every spring for the last four years. While my fall schedule has changed a bit, it typically involves the same three or four classes. Looking at the whole academic year, there are some classes I teach every semester. That repetition creates a predictable ebb and flow which can be comforting. But that repetition could also create a degree of tedium.

Like the members of Beach House, I have to remind myself that while this might be the third or fourth semester in a row that I’ve been teaching a class, this will most likely be the only time that the students will take the class with me. Like a person seeing a band for the first time, this could be a special moment for my students. It could spark their interest in the subject I’m teaching and can provide critical information and perspectives to inform their futures. That’s heavy and important stuff.

Beyond that point of view, however, I think educators who regularly teach similar schedules need to adopt processes to mix things up. Like bands who change their set lists night after night, educators need to regularly change the readings they use, the projects they assign, and their overall semester schedule. I know I do this regularly. I rarely use the same syllabus for different semesters, and I change my readings often.  In a way, it’s about approaching planning a course like it’s the first time it’s being taught. Like the members of Beach House, it’s about keeping it fresh so we can provide the best experience for the students we serve.