Disagreement is uncomfortable. It can easily lead to the incivility, or worse, of the type that you might have experienced at an academic conference or in a committee meeting. Just as bad as incivility can be a lack of disagreement, where constructive argument is absent and apathy reigns.
What is needed to advance the work of the academy is disagreement with civility: disagreement to get closer to the truth or to the answer to problems, and civility to maintain dignity and respect for everyone joined in a common enterprise.
If you’re like me, disagreeing with civility doesn’t come easily. It’s something that takes thought and practice. Here are a few practices that I try to honor.
First, build long-term relationships that can withstand disagreement. It’s hard to take disagreement from strangers, and easier to take it from friends. By building long-term relationships with colleagues, you earn the right to disagree with them. This principle is part of arguing with ethos. Of course, this principle also means that every so often you have to be the one who is wrong in a disagreement. After all, you probably are wrong more often than you recognize it.
Second, turn questions of opinion or ideology into empirical questions. On any question of policy or academic position, you can probably come to a pre-determined decision on based on the opinions you’ve already expressed and the ideologies you are loyal to. Doing so is seldom helpful. Instead it’s better to turn questions into the kinds of questions that can be answered with evidence rather than opinion. For example, the question “should we raise tuition?” is one that can and should be argued about ideologically, but it’s also a question susceptible to evidence. It’s better to argue about evidence. As one professor of mine put it, “Instead of testifying to your truths, put your truths to the test.”
Third, skip the small stuff. Avoid disagreeing over the trivial parts of your opponent’s position, and instead focus on the telling points. The devil, and not a civil disagreement, is in the details. Of course, sometimes the details are not trivial.
Fourth, never be offended at the truth. For me, anyway, it’s harder to take a criticism that is truthful than one that is mistaken. But if the person you are disagreeing with has truth on his or her side, you are better off not being offended by the truth.
Fifth, ask questions rather than making arguments. Some questions, especially the kind you often hear asked at academic conferences, don’t count. For example, any question that begins, “Isn’t it true . . . ?” or “Aren’t you aware . . . ?” or “This reminds me of my own work . . .” does nothing to help the discussion. But asking a question can reveal your opponent’s position, and, used subtly, can also explain your position by getting others to think the same way that you do.
This post is scarcely the final word on the subject. We’ve talked about civility in the academy at ProfHacker a great deal. You should also read Billie’s post about what professors might be doing to encourage incivility, Amy’s post about “Modeling Civility and the Use of Evidence in the Classroom,” and Jason’s posts about why “Bad Meetings Are Your Fault,” how to deal with jerks on campus, and “What Not to Say at a Department Meeting.”
What advice do you have about how to disagree with civility?
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