There's a big fuss this week about a Queen's university professor inserting a "civility clause" into her course syllabus. The clause, written by psychology professor Jill Jacobson, states that, "Discriminatory, rude, threatening, harassing, disruptive, distracting, and inappropriate behaviour and language will not be tolerated. The first offence will result in a 10% reduction in your final mark."
This rankles the student government of Queen's, and is currently the subject of a student grievance. Argues a spokeswoman, "The inclusion of a civility clause, especially when it threatens a student's academic standing, would actively discourage the exchange of critical inquiry and free speech which are foundational to a quality undergraduate education."
Really? Since when is incivility a requirement for free academic inquiry? I mean, there have been some epic academic throw downs over the millenia—Plato v. Aristotle, Augustine v. the Roman Empire—but do students really think that losing grades for threatening their TA is an affront to academic freedom?
It is plausible that a professor might abuse such a clause. Notes Jonathan Patrick, a professor at the University of Ottawa, "The abuse of such a clause is not a totally outlandish thought . . . Professors can be overbearing when it comes to their own opinions, and respectful disagreement may in fact land a student in trouble with such a clause."
It's true that words like discriminatory are often used as intellectual cudgels, but reading the National Post's reporting of the story, it appears that the prof is at her wit's end and was searching for a way to fix the problem. Docking grades, says Prof. Jacobson, is "the only penalty that matters to students anymore."
But the question of whether or not the clause is a barrier to academic freedom is, I think, a side-show. The more interesting question is this: what does it say about our modern universities when basic behavioural norms can only be achieved when a professor feels compelled to resort to what are essentially economic disincentives?
This is not always the case, of course. Dr. Patrick again: "I teach a course that most don't want to take, and even there I find that I can generate interest in at least some of them—beyond simply getting a good grade."
But what do we make of a situation where it appears grades are the only thing that matters?
Grades do matter as a means of measuring the degree to which the knowledge imparted in class has been absorbed, but when they become the only currency of value, the university has become a place where learning and wisdom is secondary to achievement. It has become a place more like the field of battle, or the Olympic track. It has ceased to be a university. There is a long tradition in the West which has for centuries recognized the different natures of the battlefield, the track, and the place of learning. A battlefield is a place where civility doesn't matter—only performance matters. A university is a place where learning—regardless of grades—matters. A university is a place where the type of soul that does not require disincentives to enforce civility is a sign that you have, in fact, passed. Good luck, Dr. Jacobson.