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January 25, 2012 / dlitgroup

Online Civility

Online civility is a big issue! Rude e-mails are common. Part of it can be that the student is unaware of their tone, but there’s also defensiveness and a sense of entitlement (e.g. why did you take my points?). Some suggestions:

1. Angry, Aggressive and Challenging Students*

a. Engage the student privately and learn about them (not “what is your problem?”, but “can I answer any questions or help you be successful?”)
b. Show that you are willing to listen and be clear and rational in your response (I know you are doing this already).

* McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 11th Edition, College Teaching Series

2. Responding to E-mails**

a. Show appreciation for the question and be polite. You don’t have to put up with abusive language, but you can attempt to re-direct the conversation (if all else fails, I start with “thanks for your e-mail”).
b. Be neutral and non-judgmental. I recall publicly correcting student for their spelling (it was horrible) and it turned out they got the error from my previous post.

** Teaching Online, Draves, LERN

3. Students With Behavioral Issues***

a. Achieve a balance between asserting your authority and overreacting to student outbursts/provocation. I rarely say that I’m in charge, but I have reminded students that I’m responsible for enforcing course/college policies and that I too deserve civility.
b. Avoid the smiley. 🙂 If you have a student who is angry about outside issues, feels they are justified about their outrage or considers it sport to provoke, attempts to be light often don’t work. Be respectful, clear and firm.

*** Teaching Online, A Practical Guide, Ko and Rossen

4. Advice from Experienced Online Faculty

a. Be clear about course policies and don’t let them see you flex/bend/sweat. Some faculty and students will say I’m not very compassionate, but few would say I make up rules as I go along or unfairly apply policies.
b. Consider the medium. I recall times when I provided lots of feedback and then found out the student never reviewed it. I replied to e-mails and the student became more upset because they didn’t receive it.
c. Seek to clarify a complaint. A number of times, I’ve read things into a student’s e-mail. I’ve learned to ask if I’ve understood. One time a student told me a post “did not add value.” I thought they were being critical, but they were actually commenting on how they needed to improve the quality of their own posts.

In the end, continue to seek input from your peers and try to keep things in perspective. In most cases, consistent and timely responses will calm the storm. Document EVERYTHING and seek support from leadership. Don’t forget that there is are resources to help with behavioral issues (see video below).


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