Quick Takes: “Civility Clause” in Classrooms

Promotes Quality Learning Environment

Though some say Queen’s University professor Jill Jacobson infringes on her students’ freedom of speech with this “civility clause,” this is not the case. Behavior expectations are nothing new to the education system, and a clause that clearly states punishments for inappropriate behavior works to ensure that all students in a lecture hall are not disadvantaged due to another student acting as a distraction.

A 2006 experiment by Columbia University’s postdoctoral fellow Karin Foerde found that in a population of UCLA students, noise distractions negatively affected students’ ability to apply information. With distractions in their learning environment, subjects were able to retain the information they were taught, but failed to critically apply that knowledge in other ways.

Without clearly stated punishments, it is difficult to prevent such behavior or proceed with appropriate action. Like Jacobson’s clause, the UCSD Student Conduct Code similarly states that “unreasonably obstructing or disrupting teaching” may result in the student being put under formal review by a conduct board or an officer. The only difference between most codes and the “civility clause” is that the latter creates less ambiguity by clearly stating a consequence and avoiding a lengthier review process.

Jacobson’s clause rightly insists upon appropriate classroom behavior; those who cannot comply will have to learn to behave or suffer her consequence.

— Lauren Koa
Contributing Writer

Policy Discourages Open Class Discussion

If professor Jill Jacobson’s “civility clause” were applied in U.S. schools, it would be more like a “chaining clause.” It discourages a receptive learning environment while infringing on students’ First Amendment rights.

Students care about learning — but grades are most dear. The harsh penalty imposed by this clause may make students less likely to participate in discussions for fear of unintentionally making offensive remarks. Specific examples of verbal offenses aren’t defined in the wording of the clause. This blurs the line between simply being annoying and being outright offensive. A study by the University of Wisconsin–Madison found that in-class discussions help provide an epistemic environment while stimulating development and understanding. This clause discourages students from expressing their individual opinions.

Not to mention that the clause would also violate students’ First Amendment rights. In the 1973 Supreme Court case Papish vs. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, the court ruled that students may express their views, offensive or not, as long as they do not disrupt campus order or violate others’ rights. This clause goes against this ruling — students run the risk of being penalized for their opinions which, while some might find offensive, do not actually pose harm to others.

An entire letter-grade drop punishment will scare students into silence and curtail uninhibited discussion. There are better solutions, none of which involve a “chaining clause.”

— Cedric Eicher
Contributing Writer

Points Should be Taken from Participation

While Queen’s University professor Jill Jacobson’s reasons for implementing this “civility clause” are meant to improve rather than harm the classroom atmosphere for students and professors, the policy would be more effective if deductions were taken from a separate participation grade rather than from the final grade.

According to the “Faculty Focus” article “How Much Should Class Participation Count Toward the Final Grade,” 77 percent of professors include a participation section in their course syllabi, worth, on average, under 13 percent of a student’s final grade. This section of the syllabus can focus solely on a student’s behavior in class, and should include participation and attendance. If deductions are taken from a separate participation grade worth less than deductions from a student’s overall grade, students may be less discouraged from taking the class and volunteering to participate.

A participation policy will effectively punish students for being disruptive, while still allowing them to achieve the grades they deserve. Grades ultimately should not be determined by behavior but by a student’s completion of the course material. Infractions during class should not be reflected in students’ overall grades, especially if they have excelled in coursework and exams.

While Jacobson’s clause is a valid and useful plan to control student behavior, Jacobson can punish her students in a different way that will not affect their entire final grade.

— Sharon Lay
Staff Writer