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Respect requires shared norms

Parker Palmer talks to a lot of professors. But his conversations do not lead him to believe there is "a tidal wave of rudeness."

Still, on his lecture circuit, many professors tell him the same thing: Students often just "don't have a background preparing them for a culture of learning in higher education."

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And that may explain the current concern about incivility, says the former University of Wisconsin professor and author of "The Courage to Teach."

"When gross misbehavior emerges, it often started out in more subtle ways," he says. "The professor probably didn't come to terms with the fact that here's a group of students who don't understand what a learning culture is all about."

A good teacher deals with rudeness by, in the first couple of classes, deciding together with the students "what's going to make this class worth your time and money - creating a covenant that students can call on and that establishes the norms the group itself has agreed to," Professor Palmer adds.

Women and minorities face an extra challenge, he says. "Students don't trust their authority in the discipline," he says. "Women who teach physics, for instance, say their male students act like they want to hear this from a real physicist. And these professors feel like they're pushing rocks uphill each day to establish their authority."

That wasn't necessarily the case in the 1950s, when higher education was still a largely white, male culture.

"There were shared norms then, but nobody had to articulate them because everyone looked the same and had the same background."

Now higher education is richer for its diversity. But to do it well, institutions have to be much more conscious about shaping shared norms.

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"The challenge is to make [students] feel embedded in a community that's going to hold them responsible."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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