Student (In)Civility in the Age of Trump

Wed, 2018-01-31

When I began teaching in the late 1990s, the classroom behavior statement in my syllabus was three sentences long. Now it runs to a page. Are students that much more ill behaved 20 years later? Or have the academic landscape and the manner in which professors are expected to manage student behavior shifted dramatically?

A year or so ago, I gave this topic zero thought. But on Nov. 9, 2016, our nation experienced a seismic shift. Suddenly, educators across the country reported a spike in instances of incivility, bias, hate speech and bullying in classrooms -- from elementary schools to the college level. Entitlement was coupled with a new national “role model,” and some students felt it appropriate to speak of immigrants, people of color, GLBTQ students and many others in problematic ways.

Some students confuse civil speech with their “right” to free speech. One of my classes included a student who used expletives like punctuation and ended many sentences with one. When reminded of the class policy on language, he yelled at me, “I can say whatever I want to! It’s my right to free speech!”

Other students act as if people of color or a protected class are not in the room when they speak of them. A student in my writing course stated that “there’s no such thing as white privilege” and made remarks about Trump’s first travel ban that offended Somali students.

This is a balancing act, of course; students can’t be entirely protected from hearing sometimes painful speech. New and different perspectives push us out of our comfort zone; part of my job is to create these kinds of learning experiences. That said, I have yet to meet a student in my classes who took the position that he/she should not have to hear opinions that differ from his/her own.