Failures of Politeness: Write Down Your Rules!

Being a University-level educator has some major advantages. One of the most significant is the degree to which the educators before me, in the school system, have shouldered the load of disruptive students, violent students – the students who didn’t manage to make it through the educational system and get into Uni. My heartfelt thanks, as always, for the effort and patience that it must take!

This gives me, 99% of the time, a very polite classroom. There’s always the impersonal indifference of late teen-age years (I remember how many other really important things I had to do, as well) but that’s usually fairly easily managed. It all runs like a large-ish dinner party with strangers most of the time. People pass the mustard when asked, generally share the food and no-one does anything diabolical. That’s why it’s surprising when you run across someone who breaks through that fragile and informal social compact. Let’s face it, you snatch the bread at home and someone’s going to have words with you. Steal the host’s fork and he or she will look at you with surprise, grab another one and, depending on what you do next, possibly etch your name into the ‘do not invite again’ column. Now that kind of ‘transgression’ is an obvious one – someone’s being rude, for whatever reason.

But let’s talk about finger bowls. A finger bowl is a bowl full of warm water with a squeeze of lemon in it. It’s used to wash your fingers when eating certain messy courses that must be handled manually. If that shows up on the table and you don’t know what it is, chances are you’re going to think it’s weak soup. There’s an etiquette in using these but any decent host is going to work out (a) if their guests know what these things are and clearly illustrate their use or (b) serve something else. Putting people in a situation where they accidentally break rules in ignorance  doesn’t do anything other than upset people.

Community discussion, such as public forums or debates, can be confusing for some students, especially when they don’t understand the implicit social compact in play. When unwritten rules do get broken, people’s feelings get hurt on both sides and it’s hard to know what to do. If someone stood up and shouted in one of my lectures, I’d eventually call security most likely but the disruption has happened and the damage is done. If you have to forcibly march someone out of a computer lab because they’re causing trouble, the lesson is shot for the next 10-15 minutes, no matter how much everyone present agrees with the action. We deal with most of the ‘extreme’ actions with a well-publicised list of acceptable behaviours, but what about the implicit ones? The subtle ones?

This is why I support writing all of the rules down. When you set up an electronic forum, I think it’s really helpful to have a list of (mostly) DOs and (a few) DON’Ts. (My pet theory is that people remember verbs, not modifiers. Hence PLEASE WALK is better than DON’T RUN because it puts the right action in your head. No doubt someone has proven or disprove this. Comments welcome!) If someone hits one of the rules, you can moderate in a transparent and fair fashion. You don’t set up trip lines for people to stumble into because then people will wonder where they can and can’t step – restricting motion when you want them to be embracing opportunity! Do you have in-class discussions? A simple set of guidelines can be put on a forum, or an A4 sheet, or as part of the moderator’s kit and everyone can be briefed.

Unwritten rules, like the arbitrary finer detail of politeness, can be confusing, divisive and, in an educational setting, are a hindrance rather than a help. You don’t know all of the details of your students’ background and, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to come here. So rather than depending on everyone in the world knowing the unwritten rules, let’s write it all down and avoid these unnecessary failures of politeness.

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