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The Campus Civility Video Project: Affirming an Implicit Societal Obligation of the Academy

January 2012, Volume 15, Number 1

By Joseph Worth


Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know;
it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.
John Ruskin (1819-1900)

John Ruskin’s words are among the myriad of maxims on the function of higher education. The passage speaks to a longstanding dilemma within the academy related to the role, mission, and goal of conferring a college education upon a member of society. To some, imparting a college education is strictly about the delivery of content, while to others, content finishes a distant second to the development of impeccable character; for most, though, the answer lies somewhere comfortably in between.

The St. Louis Community College Civility Video Project was partially conceived within the torrent of theorizing generated by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Though a great deal remains unknown about that day, what is irrefutable is that there was a very ill young man in a great deal of pain who acted out in a way that brought unspeakable harm to thousands of people. The aftermath of such a tragedy often spawns a period of reflection that can lead to hopeful actions. The video project was part of a larger institutional zeitgeist that has included training in both mental health first aid and critical incident stress management.

Conceived by a cross section of college employees, the campus civility project has the simple goal of educating, or reminding, the entire college community about the significance of civility as the essence of effectual communication. Recognizing that, after centuries of existence, the academy may have reached a point where its implied ethical obligation to aid in the further moral development of its students needs to be made more overt and intentional, the project formally introduces to college employees a responsibility previously only gently implied: the notion that within the process of edification we attempt to convey not only how to be, but also how to become. For students, the project is often a reminder of a concept they recognize to be true.

Campus Civility Video Series

At the heart of the project is the campus civility video series, a set of three videos depicting ideal resolutions to moderately complex college community dilemmas. The first video portrays a student dilemma with a faculty member, the second depicts a faculty member lodging a concern with a student, and the third depicts college staff members attempting contextual behavior modification with two students. Each video was written, produced, and recorded with the use of the college's existing resources.

Video I: Classroom Management. Sociological research has long supported the idea that individuals are more apt to abide by expectations they felt instrumental in crafting. In that vein, the initial video in the series is designed to elicit conversations about how the classroom will be managed by both the instructor and students. The instructor and students watch the video together, helping free all viewers from the notion that classroom decorum is the faculty member’s responsibility alone. The video begins with a student confiding a troubling experience—a disorderly classroom—to a college employee, who in turn encourages the student to arrange an audience with the course instructor. The video has a number of meta-meanings, such as agreeable behavior and communication, that the viewers discover and discuss collectively. The guided viewing sheet that accompanies this video helps facilitate this sometimes intimidating, yet indispensable conversation between the instructor and the students.

Video II: Faculty-Student Conference. The second video addresses the faculty-student conference, often approached by faculty and students alike with disproportional trepidation and historical avoidance. Though taxing, the faculty-student conference is among the most fundamental methods for dispelling truly disruptive classroom behavior. Chairpersons, deans, and vice presidents are keenly aware of the dilemma presented when students are referred to them prior to an attempted faculty-student conference or intervention. The video models important communication skills, such as the various levels of assertion, empathic listening, and “verbal judo” (Thompson & Jenkins, 1993). The broader societal implications here are innumerable as the skills modeled by the faculty member are ideally generalized to the worldly task of respectfully modifying others' behavior.

Video III: Contextual Behavior Modification. The third video in the series illustrates what may be the most challenging of the campus civility interventions, contextual behavior modification (CBM). CBM seems to best capture the process of redirecting behavior that is not so much inappropriate as it is sorely out of context. The complexity of CBM emanates chiefly from the abdication of responsibility that often occurs when behavior is seemingly outside an employee's sphere of influence. For example, often the management of misbehavior in areas such as the cafeteria or student center is mentally assigned to the campus police or a student affairs official. The campus employees in this vignette address “horse play” in a campus courtesy zone; courtesy zones are areas where conversational tone and muted behavior are encouraged, and each courtesy zone has signage that clearly conveys appropriate use of the space. The video demonstrates three different attempts at CBM, one overly aggressive, another passive, and a third assertive yet respectful. Socially, this video illustrates appropriate action to take when the obvious choice seems to be to do nothing at all, the bystander bias. However, the courage to get involved and stay involved, once developed, can be alluring; therefore, this learned activism might be generalizable to a way of being not only on campus, but also in the world.

Guided Viewing Sheets

The guided viewing sheet that accompanies each video was created to prompt discussion about the actions and reactions displayed on the video. Each guided viewing sheet asks participants to reflect on similar experiences they have had in the classroom or in public. The discussions that follow have allowed members to vent discouragement, lend support, and share creative solutions. Each of the three videos concludes with an idealistic resolution for all, inviting the question, “What happens when they don’t comply?” It is important that institutions eager to promote more assertive actions among their employees suitably arm them with a familiarity in proper protocol and due process. Attempts to curb behavior with threats or intimidation that grossly distort institutional policy and procedure serve only to further complicate an already complex matter. Videos addressing the faculty-student conference and CBM are best accompanied by a review of current institutional behavior policy and protocol.

Action Oriented Toward Change

The creators of the campus civility project have presented the civility video project multiple times at local and national conferences, and each time the presenters are asked by audience members how to obtain a copy of the video series for their campus. However, the video is not for sale or distribution. The true spirit of the project is to highlight what can happen when a college community evolves from a posture of conjecture and lamentation into one of action oriented toward change. More simply, it is much more productive for colleges and universities to create their own civility video series, applying due attention to locally identified needs and concerns. Involving faculty, staff, and student volunteers in production of a video series emphasizes the notion that sustaining civility within the culture remains the responsibility of the entire campus community.

In these fiscally challenging times the academy must continue to establish creative ways to support and cultivate innovation within their workforce. Society depends on us—the faculty, staff, and administrators of America’s finest institutions of higher education—to produce not only the next generation of scholars, but also some of the finest citizens this country has ever known.

Thompson, G. & Jenkins, J. (1993). Verbal Judo: The gentle art of persuasion. Marrow: NY, New York.

Acknowledgement: The Campus Civility Video Project specifically is the intellectual property of Joseph Worth, Mary Caldwell, Dan Betzler and Steve Bai.

Joseph Worth is Professor of Counseling at St. Louis Community College, Florissant Valley, in Missouri.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 01/11/2012 at 10:18 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -