Common Courtesy and Professionalism: Do We Expect Less from Each Other than We Expect of Our Students?


Many of us can remember Robert Fulghum’s 1988 work All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The book became a bestseller due to its title essay’s simple yet often overlooked premise: our lives and our interactions with others would be richer and better if we observed the simple principles of common decency that we were taught as children.

Unfortunately, as we become immersed in our day-to-day work and activities as faculty members or as college administrators and staff —whether we are arguing a point in which we believe passionately or are simply sitting in yet another committee meeting when our time is already overcommitted—we sometimes fail to remember those simple rules of courtesy that we have known all of our lives. As educated adults and professionals, we certainly know how to behave responsibly and politely and, hopefully, have the self-awareness to realize when we are not doing so. We attempt to teach and model principles of good behavior to our students and to our own children. Yet when we interact with each other, we may unwittingly slip into conduct that is less than collegial and professional, and in doing so we can create an uncomfortable or unpleasant atmosphere that hinders the important work we do.

Common Courtesy in Meetings
All of us have busy schedules, and most of us spend far more time sitting in meetings than we would like, especially when we feel that our time could be more usefully spent elsewhere. Nevertheless, as colleagues we owe a degree of courtesy to the other individuals in the room. Most of us have been in meetings that did not start on time because several committee members were late, have been interrupted during meetings by cellular telephones ringing, or have even seen people answer calls and begin talking before they were out of the room or without leaving at all. If we expect our students to arrive on time for class and to turn off their electronic devices in the classroom, we should be able to make it to our own meetings at the scheduled time, to at least remember to silence our own telephones, and to make a point of not disrupting meetings with other business. When we fail to do so, we often make our meetings less productive and create unnecessary tension or ill will.

Many of us are now in the habit of using laptop computers or tablets during meetings. Those who have been in meetings with me know that I am very much guilty of doing so; with the many overlapping commitments and responsibilities we all have, disconnecting completely from the rest of the world for an extended period is difficult and in some cases may not even be reasonable. But while the use of laptops or tablets is an increasingly common and accepted practice during meetings, we may be sending unintended and offensive messages to others in the room if we never look up from our device’s screen or seem more interested in the computer than in the conversation in the room. Even if the use of an electronic device during a meeting is not in itself problematic, we still owe our colleagues our respect and attention when they are speaking.

Hijacking Meetings or Events
A meeting is usually called for a specific purpose and often to accomplish a predetermined goal. However, many of us have seen instances when a person with a particular agenda will attempt to take over and dominate a meeting, taking advantage of the opportunity to pursue some personal objective. Such an action can cause frustration for the person chairing the meeting and for other attendees, and it can prevent the work of the group from being completed.

This same situation can happen at events such as the breakouts held at Academic Senate plenary sessions and institutes. A person or a small group will sometimes see an opportunity to raise their own issues or will arrive with a predetermined position on the topic of the presentation and will try to dominate the conversation in order to steer it in the direction they wish to see it move. While such individuals are undoubtedly acting in this manner due to their own passion regarding the issues they are raising, they fail to consider that others in the room are attending with a good faith expectation that the advertised topic will be explored and the discussion will allow for a variety of viewpoints. They may also not be considering the amount of work that the presenters put into planning the event, preparing materials, and educating themselves on the issue in order to lead an informative session. Whether the situation involves a breakout or other presentation at a statewide event or a regular committee meeting on our own campuses, we have a responsibility to conduct ourselves respectfully and to allow the person leading the event or meeting to follow the planned agenda.

Language and Tone Matter
Collegiality also involves the way we address each other, whether in meetings or in one-on-one interaction. No matter how vehemently we may wish to defend a position, we should always remember to do so in a professional and polite manner. We all know that angry or insulting words generally do one’s position more harm than good, yet in the heat of a moment we sometimes forget this simple truth and express ourselves in ways that are not appropriate among professional colleagues.

The issue of appropriate expression has become increasingly significant at recent Academic Senate plenary sessions during the debates and voting regarding resolutions. Some speakers, no doubt arguing out of deep and sincere conviction, have used language and tones that attacked or insulted other speakers or guests, degenerating in at least one case to the use of profanity at the microphone. Numerous attendees noted and commented on the inappropriate behavior, yet the speakers appeared to feel completely justified in their comments.

Certainly the Academic Senate would never wish to silence anyone’s perspective, and collegial debate and disagreement are a healthy method of working through an issue and reaching consensus. However, as I thought about some of the less appropriate behavior that has taken place during recent plenary session debates, my mind once again returned to the classroom. I teach argumentation and persuasive writing, and one of the texts that I regularly offer to students as a model of good argumentative writing is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Those who are familiar with this essay know it to be a masterful example of audience awareness and persuasion: King responds to critics of his activism in simple, direct terms, pointing out the flaws in their arguments and the hypocrisy of their positions without even once insulting them, belittling them, or using any form of harsh language or tone. He leaves no doubt regarding his convictions or the justification of his actions, yet does so respectfully and gives his critics no room to criticize his comments. In short, he offers a stirring example of the fact that one can speak passionately and emphatically while still remaining collegial and respectful—a lesson that all of us would be well served to remember.

When we are in our classrooms and students behave inappropriately, we are able to control the situation and bring the misbehaving student back in line. However, our relationships with our colleagues are different from those with our students, and we do not have the same sort of authority or control to reign in another faculty member. We therefore all need to police ourselves and make certain that our own behavior is appropriate, respectful, and collegial. If we can demand courtesy and responsibility from our students, then we also have a right to expect each other to exhibit such behavior as well. Our interactions with our colleagues and the results of our work in general can only be better for doing so.