by Lisa Dorr, Associate Dean

Students in large lecture

Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed concerning instances of bigotry and hate, and many may question whether it is possible to foster civil dialogue about the problems that face the nation and the world. While these events have been horrifying, as Michael Signer, the mayor of Charlottesville, wrote, “Democracy, like a muscle, needs to be worked out.” He identified the special role of universities in “instilling the values of deliberation and civility in their students.” Faculty, however, do not always feel they have the skills and resources to do so effectively. This post provides some initial thoughts from universities around the country about how to handle tense discussions and situations in the classroom and includes links to several resources that faculty may find useful.

Virtually all discussions on civility in the classroom emphasize that it is imperative that faculty establish the ground rules for discussion and behavior at the beginning of the semester. Sources recommend stating clearly the behaviors you will not tolerate in the classroom, from playing on your phone to interrupting other students. It is also helpful to explain why such behaviors are prohibited. The most convincing reason, studies show, is that they annoy fellow students.

Another option is to have the class collectively write a contract for classroom conduct. This can be done at the beginning of class and should ask students to be specific about behaviors that should be avoided. Students are more likely to buy into a set of rules of conduct if they have had a role in creating it. Examples are available in the attached resources. Even just reminding students that while you respect your students’ opinions, those opinions should be thoughtful, supported by evidence, and willing to adjust in light of new information. As one source noted, remind students that their opinion reflects their perspective on the world, not the world itself.

Over the course of the semester, other strategies can help create a civil learning environment. If the class is small enough, get to know your students. Learn their names and learn to pronounce them correctly. Encourage students to learn each other’s names too. Be open with them that you are trying to create an environment that works to advance everyone’s learning. Avoid the small things that can raise the irritation level of your students: be on time, be available to meet, avoid changing the syllabus without a warning and a reason. More importantly, model civil behavior in your own teaching. It should almost go without saying, but rudeness, sarcasm, and being indifferent, insensitive or inflexible can cause the same behaviors in your students.

Practice active listening, indicating your understanding of students’ points by responding with, “What I hear you saying is….” If students say something that seems offensive, ask them to clarify their remarks. Instead of immediately disagreeing or shutting them down, respond by saying something like, “When you said ______, it could be interpreted as ___________. Is that what you meant?” Students may be inarticulate or their thoughts unclear. Allowing students to rephrase any statements that came across differently than they intended can diffuse incivility before it starts.

Even with such efforts, “hot-button classroom moments” may nonetheless arise. If you face such a moment in your classroom, keep calm. Do your best to avoid being provoked. If you maintain your composure, you are more likely to earn and keep the respect of the rest of the class. Take a moment to collect your thoughts before you respond. Even better, have the entire class take a moment to reflect, asking them to write a bit about why the issue at hand evokes such high emotions. A pause or change in activity can defuse the immediate situation and lead to more productive engagement after.

If one or more students are being uncivil toward others, don’t ignore their behavior. Respond immediately by recalling the expectations for classroom behavior. If two students are engaged in heated debate, try to help them find common ground. Or ask them to switch sides and argue the other person’s point of view. For additional ideas, consult the Hot Moments Handout or attend a PIE workshop to learn how to help students discuss hot-button topics thoughtfully and respectfully.

One of the goals of civil discourse is persuasion, and yet studies have shown that presenting someone with more accurate facts or a more reasoned argument is often entirely ineffective when it comes to changing hearts and minds. Intensely held beliefs do not always grow from a deep understanding of an issue. All humans assume that we know and understand more than we do. Asking someone to explain in detail the implications or basis for their views often gently reveals that they know less than they think they do, allowing them to moderate their beliefs a bit. In a heated debate, it might be worthwhile to have each side write in detail about the implications of their position.

Finally, however, you may encounter a student who is persistently disruptive. The first intervention should be a one-on-one conversation with the student outside of class. Clearly and unemotionally explain that their behavior is inappropriate and disrupting the ability of other students to learn. Ask the student if other issues are affecting his or her behavior in class. Warn the student that the behavior needs to improve and strategize about how to make that happen. If the student is impervious to gentler interventions, The University of Alabama has some tools at your disposal.

  • If you think that the disruption in your class carries an immediate risk to safety, or the student is threatening violence, call UAPD immediately at 348-5454.
  • If you believe that the person’s behavior may reflect other emotional or mental disorders, contact Lisa Dorr in the Dean’s Office and/or the Office of Student Care and Well-Being (348-2461). OSCW can assess a student’s mental or emotional state and provide access to needed interventions.
  • If a student is disruptive and you do not believe their mental or emotional well-being is at issue, please contact Lisa Dorr in the Dean’s Office (348-7007). We have successfully improved student’s behavior in the past with Behavioral Contracts that specifically address problematic classroom interactions. Also, disrupting the ability of faculty to teach is a violation of the Code of Student Conduct. In cases in which other interventions fail, we can bring a code of conduct violation against the student.

Crossroads PIE (Practicing Inclusive Excellence) Workshops

The ACTS workshop, in particular, helps participants practice ways to conduct dialogue to promote listening and understanding. These workshops can be conducted for faculty in a department or in a particular class. Faculty have found them useful for strategies to guide students through tense discussions.


Lisa Dorr is an associate dean in the College of Arts & Sciences and an associate professor of history.