Teaching Civil Discourse

Developed in Fall 2018 by: Karen Forgette, Kate Hooper, Rachel Johnson, and Don Unger

On March 21, 2019, at 6pm in Fulton Chapel, Alexander Heffner, host of PBS’ ​The Open Mind​, will give a  lecture titled “Politics, Media, and the Future of Civil Discourse.” (For more information about Heffner, check  out The Open Mind​ website. We hope to use this lecture to initiate a wider discussion at the University of  Mississippi on the nature of civil discourse and the roles that reading, writing, speaking and listening play in  shaping it. To that end, a group of writing and speech instructors, led by Rachel Johnson, met over fall 2018 to  discuss how the topic enters into our curricula and to develop materials for our spring 2019 courses. This  teaching guide resulted from those meetings. As you are contemplating your syllabi, assignments, readings, and  activities for next spring, we encourage you to use these materials, or others, in order to engage students in  conversations about civil discourse. This first section lists texts on civil discourse and related issues. The list items represent scholarly and popular  press articles, as well as podcasts, websites, and other multimedia that may help shape your knowledge of civil  discourse and/or serve as readings for your courses. We divided this list into categories that reflect some aspects  of the national conversation on civil discourse. These categories include:

  • Defining Civil Discourse

  • Challenges of Civil Discourse

  • Argument and Civil Discourse

  • Academic Freedom and Civil Discourse

The second section describes ​classroom activities ​ related to civil discourse. The third section provides a sample civil discourse mini-unit for first-year writing courses​. Finally, the fourth section offers ​other instructor resources​.

Reading Materials

Defining Civil Discourse

*On Being*​ ​Podcast Episodes Several of these ​podcasts ​model civil discourse between people from opposing views and/or interview people with specific ideas/methods about how to practice civil discourse. See also the Civil Conversations Project​ from ​On Being.

*Justice Talking​* from NPR Features ​podcast episodes​ about controversial topics in which experts debate and discuss the issue (models civil, yet passionate discourse). Some of the links are older and may be broken, so anything assigned from this may need to be downloaded and hosted on a Blackboard page.

National Institute for Civil Discourse Podcast Series The University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse hosts a ​series of podcasts​ devoted to civil discourse on a range of issues including fake news, global trade, and the role of satirical media in political debate. These podcasts run from 20 minutes to a bit more than an hour and could be used in class or as homework assignments.

Voters Not Politicians Voters Not Politicians is a nonpartisan coalition working to change redistricting laws in Michigan. Their movement and  ​website​ are examples of “civil discourse in action.” Students could listen to the

1A episodedescribing the movement and then analyze the website’s rhetoric.​

Janus Forum Lecture Series (Brown University) This ​YouTube channel​ features lectures organized by Brown University. The event usually features two prominent thinkers or researchers who present their opposing viewpoints on an issue of concern. The dialogue between the speakers following their short lectures models civil discourse and demonstrates how the speakers tend to agree about several aspects of a problem – perhaps more so than they disagree.

Civil Discourse 101, from the Civic Education Video Series produced by MetroEast​ A quick ​video tutorial for engaging in conversation​. The video could be used as a pre-discussion or extended group work primer in any class.

Challenging Civil Discourse

“​Dialogic Civility: A Narrative to Live By” by Shelley D. Lane​ This ​article​ provides a blueprint for engaging a public narrative of dialogic civility. Written for ​communication instructors​, the article informs on dialogic civility and can spark ideas for incorporating the practice in a variety of communication courses, including online. Find more on this topic by Shelley D. Lane in the book Understanding Everyday Incivility: Why are They so Rude?

*The Open Mind​* (PBS with Alexander Heffner) - Interview with Teresa Bejan This ​video clip​ features Teresa Bejan discussing portions of her book ​Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. Offers a counterpoint to calls for politeness and civility and a lot of really interesting history.

“​There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground​” by Tayari Jones This​ op ed ​posits that arguments about moving to the middle or finding common ground aren’t inherently virtuous (e.g., where is the middle ground in arguments about slavery? Indentured servitude?). It gets at contemporary issues undergirding what civil discourse means and how part of this discussion means deciding who we want to be as individuals and as a nation.

“​You don’t have to be nice to political opponents. But you do have to talk to them.​” by Teresa Bejan Professor and political theorist, Teresa Bejan, discusses the limits of civility in public discourse and portions of her​ book​ ​Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration.​ She offers a lot historical examples of uncivil discourse from figures students might be surprised to learn were rather uncivil - like Martin Luther. Here is a link to a​scholarly forum​ about Bejan’s book. Each response is concise and provides a specific perspective on her arguments.

The Real Roots of American Rage: The untold story of how anger became the dominant emotion in our politics and personal lives—and what we can do about it” by Charles Duhigg.

Article was published in January 2019 issue of The Atlantic. Based on a psychological study of a contented, suburban town, the article explains how anger is a useful communication tool, which can be used to create positive change and promote resolution in interpersonal relationships, as well as harnessed to facilitate social change. Though anger has an upside, history shows anger has also been manipulated for unethical reasons and that left unchecked, rage can create lasting, harmful effects on individuals and segments of society. Duhigg offers a way to recognize and understand anger and deescalate rage before it turns destructive.

A longer article, an intriguing discussion or project starter for any class looking at emotion in relation to civil discourse.

Argument as a Basis for Civil Discourse

“​Sustaining Arguments” from ​*The Ethical Practice of Critical Thinking*​ by Fowler This short ​chapter​ introduces the idea of a “sustaining argument” as the ethical obligation of a critical thinker. Fowler defines these as “​arguments which matter, about things which matter, to​ ​people who matter to each other​” (5). He goes on to identify specific features of such arguments and explains that argumentation following this model is more likely to find an audience.

“​Reasoning and Critical Thinking​” and “​Clarifying Meaning” by Hughes and Lavery in ​​*Critical Thinking: An Introduction to the Basic Skills​* (5th ed.) These ​two chapters ​are student-friendly in their length and tone. They approach critical thinking as a function of understanding argument. These chapters would be great for having students develop a vocabulary about how to evaluate and understand features of arguments and understand the principle of charity. They would pair nicely with activities related to argument dissection and reconstruction.

“​Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love​” by Jim Corder This ​article​, published in​ Rhetoric Review​, addresses how people develop ​as​ narratives, and even arguments, or put another way, how to approach these narratives and arguments as who someone is. While such a sensibility might seem a bit abstract and the article is a bit dense for first-year students, I think that they can understand how the arguments that we construct are part of what makes us who we are. Working from this standpoint, the article serves as a reminder for readers/listeners to consider how identity, narrative, and argumentation are deeply intertwined, and Corder encourages readers to show care for another by using rhetoric conscientiously. This article could be used in contrast to articles that emphasize the writer or speaker’s agency as Corder focuses on the listener/reader’s agency.

“​Transformations in a civil discourse public speaking class: Speakers’ and listeners’ attitude change” by Barbara​ Mae Gayle Published in ​Communication Education​, Gayle’s ​research​ suggests researching and presenting a speech or argument from one perspective may limit a students understanding.  A method often used in debate classes, Gayle’s research suggests students are more likely to adjust their beliefs on an issue after crafting a speech or argument from opposing views.

Academic Freedom and Civil Discourse

“​Academic Freedom: A Basic Guide” by James Liszka in *Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogs in Higher Education​* edited by Kay Landis This ​short essay​ offers a legal history on the concept of academic freedom. It also discusses when speech is covered or not covered by the principle of academic freedom. The concluding portion of the essay discusses several case studies where free speech became an issue in a classroom or higher education setting and discusses how such cases were decided or resolved.

Class Activities

Argument Dissection and Reconstruction The article linked above describes how to incorporate argument diagramming into a first year writing course to teach critical thinking skills. The activities/assignments described could work well as one day lessons or as an entire unit focused on developing or writing sound arguments.

Developing a Classroom Code of Civility Designed for presentation courses such as Public Speaking but may be adapted for any course in which civility may be promoted. At the end of this single-class activity, students will have an understanding of civility in order to: (1) identify civility and consequences of behaviors, (2) create their own communication civility code for classroom behaviors and presentations, and (3) practice civility throughout the semester.

Inquiry-based Civil Discourse This lesson from the journal Communication Teacher is appropriate for speech or writing classes focused on civil discourse, argumentation, debate, persuasion or political communication. The unit activity will help students build an understanding of civil discourse and its function in society. Students will: (1) increase their capacity to examine arguments critically, (2) enhance their own ability to self-reflect critically, and (3) improve their ability to engage in civil discourse. This activity will employ inquiry-based learning strategies to apply students’ understanding of civil discourse in a dialogue with the broader campus community by partnering with campus media to develop and publish original opinion-editorial pieces. Because the DM may not be able to accomodate, classes could partner with various papers around the state, DWR could potentially host a FB or other social media page for published works in relation to the Civil Discourse, or speech students could verbally present their ideas to partner classes or an invited public audience.

`Interactive, Immigration Timeline <http://www.choices.edu/teaching-news-lesson/immigration-timeline/>`__A one day lesson plan from the Choices: Teaching with the News curriculum by Brown University allows teachers to highlight civil discourse skills. Developed for K12, it is also appropriate for freshman-level speech or writing classes and might be an excellent choice for Power & Privilege sections.

“Circle of Viewpoints: A Routine for Exploring Diverse Perspectives” This activity from the University of Arizona’s Civil Discourse Institute employs a skeleton script to help students brainstorm new perspectives about a topic as well as related agents and questions. It can be used after an assigned reading, to introduce a topic, or to open discussions about controversial issues. Appropriate for speech or writing classes. (Requires part of or an entire class period)

“Text, Talk, Revive Civility & Respect” In this small group exercise, from the University of Arizona’s Civil Discourse Institute, groups receive text messages that guide them in participating in a civil discussion on two of the following issues: climate change, immigration, health care, same sex marriage, abortion, or campaign finance reform. Each group needs access to one cell phone. Appropriate for speech or writing classes. (Requires 1 -2 hours)

Train for Thanksgiving with our Angry Uncle Bot This quick and quirky New York Times article includes a simulation exercise developed by a psychiatrist through which students can navigate a conversation with a relative who holds opposing political views. It offers a five-step method for holding difficult conversations. Appropriate for speech or writing classes. (Requires 15-30 minutes including discussion)

“The Need to Revive Civility and Respect in our Communities” In this one-on-one activity, from the University of Arizona’s Civil Discourse Institute, students identify someone whom they perceive as being on the “other side of the political aisle” and use a scripted protocol to hold a conversation on civility. Appropriate for speech or writing classes. (Requires 30 minutes-1 hour)

“Here Now There Then” This whole class discussion exercise, from Visible Thinking at the Harvard School of Education’s Project Zero, uses a protocol to help students examine fairness issues and how thinking changes over time and place. Can be used with a variety of issues. Appropriate for speech or writing classes. (Requires part of or an entire class period)

“Making It Fair: Now, Then, Later” This whole class discussion exercise, from Visible Thinking at the Harvard School of Education’s Project Zero, helps students identify and evaluate actions that might make a situation more fair. Can be used with a variety of issues. Appropriate for speech or writing classes. (Requires part of or an entire class period)

“Reporter’s Notebook: A Routine for Separating Fact from Feeling” This small group activity, from Visible Thinking at the Harvard School of Education’s Project Zero, is designed for students who are midway into an investigation of a controversial issue. Small groups use a recording sheet to distinguish facts from feelings regarding the issue in order to provide clarity and make informed decisions. Appropriate for speech or writing classes. (Requires one class period)

“Tug of War: A Routine for Exploring the Complexities of Fairness Dilemmas” This whole class activity from, Visible Thinking at the Harvard School of Education’s Project Zero, helps students examine the forces that tug at both sides of a fairness or equity issue. Appropriate for speech or writing classes. (Requires part of or an entire class period)

Civil Discourse Mini-Unit for First-Year Writing

Other Resources

“Revive Civility from the National Institute for Civil Discourse” The resource page has a “civility toolbox”with activities that would work as in-class exercises across several classes as well as infographics on related topics such as managing stress during difficult conversations, how to set up an environment for civil discourse, and fostering civil discourse on social media platforms.

Civil Discourse: Addressing Differences in the Classroom This podcast, from Emory University’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, features professors discussing civil discourse in the classroom.

Civil Discourse in the Health Sciences This podcast from, Emory University’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, features a discussion of the challenges of hot button issues in classes in the health sciences.

Civil Discourse in the Humanities This podcast, from Emory University’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, features a discussion of the challenges of hot button issues in classes in the humanities.

A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future Commissioned in 2012 and sponsored in part by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, this report calls on institutions of higher education to reclaim a mission of civic learning and democratic engagement.

Teaching Critical Thinking - Some Lessons from Cognitive Science Discusses a 6 part approach to promoting critical thinking in undergraduate classroom

Argumentation Step by Step Describes an approach to teaching argumentation that could be adapted to a first unit a writing or speech course.Focuses on achieving a milestone or competency before being able to advance –almost gamified as it is based on martial arts pedagogy.

Center for Teaching: Difficult Dialogs A step-by-step guide for teachers who may be wary of difficult dialogs. The guide will help you consider when and how to address difficult dialogs.