It’s your fault.
You designed this horrible marking system.
Perhaps I paraphrase, but I’d swear under oath that this captures the essence of their communication. Thirty aggrieved young adults — heavy on the young — are on the defensive and, therefore, on the attack. They’re defensive because one month into the 1990 university semester, I’m staging an intervention with one of two classes to which I am teaching a 4th-year business course.
It’s a course that gives students fits. Beyond some basic instruction in problem analysis, there is no textbook: no received body of wisdom to read, study, memorize and regurgitate. Instead, there are twice-weekly “cases” — descriptions of various business situations — to read, analyze, and present, working in small groups.
The pedagogical purpose of this intellectual and interpersonal torture is to provide a mechanism through which students in their final program year can start the career-long process of learning how to diagnose problems and how to think about possible solutions:
- Synthesizing all the textbook knowledge gained to date
- Surfacing their own unexamined beliefs about how and why people and systems work
- Benefiting from what other group members know, while managing the inevitable differences in performance standards and level-of-effort expectations
It is to start them on the road to being able to apply their expertise in a single discipline — accounting, marketing, business law, operations research, production — within an organization that functions well only when everything fires together. It makes their brains hurt.
Rightly, they feel that nothing in their education to date has prepared them to do this, and it gives them fits. They can’t know it yet, but it’s remarkably like the work world they’re about to enter. The other thing they can’t know is that it’s a course that also gives instructors fits. Well, this instructor.
This instructor is only a few years out of school herself. This instructor is insecure in her teaching abilities and in her real-world business knowledge. But this instructor is also committed to fostering classroom discussion and, in other experience with this course, has found that the best way to do that is to link their evaluation to their participation.
There was never any problem until there was. This one class has slid into a snotty, hostile, aggressive posture when asking questions of the presenting group, and when responding to other comments. It’s really quite remarkable.
Remarkable and unacceptable. So I decide to stage an intervention. Except where there should be one person with a problem and many intervenors, we have many people with a problem and one me. Unsure of my competence and uncomfortable with conflict, I nonetheless take them through it.
The tone of our classes is unacceptable. I’ve used this system other places and other times, and this class is the only one that’s gone sideways. It’s up to you to change it.
What?!! They’re outraged!! Although they don’t challenge my assessment of their group behaviour, they strongly challenge my assignment of responsibility. They practically sputter.
It’s *your* fault.
You designed this horrible marking system.
I may be uncomfortable with conflict but I’m not a pushover.
Let me say it again.
I’ve used this system elsewhere,
more than once,
and this class is the only one that’s gone sideways.
It’s up to you to change it.
Uncharacteristically, I don’t belabour the point. The day’s presentations continue, and the tone of the comments . . . changes. Just like that. And stays changed for the rest of the term.
Why do I think of this now, after 30 years? A few weeks ago, on another blog, I made an offhand comment about whether common courtesy might be negatively affected by population size, and it got a few responses. People described their international experience with the presence or absence of what North Americans see as common courtesy.
The less-offhand bottom line? Courtesy is not a function of ethnicity or education or population density. It’s cultural. And that means it’s a choice.
Every group is, at heart, just like my classes of young adults. Each makes a choice, intentionally or not, consciously or not. Some choose an aggressive public posture, while others choose civility.
I get that people live under vastly different circumstances, some more challenging than others. I get that specific behavioural expectations vary: The fine points of what constitutes courtesy are not the same at all times and in all places. But discourtesy — behaving without respect for others — is not caused by ethnicity or poor education or high population density. It’s not the fault of the political environment or popular culture or the media or the speed of everyday life or the dagnabbed marking system. It’s a choice.
And when we believe that our behaviour is a choice, it becomes one.
Just like that.