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The Secret Life of Civility

MadamPresident's picture


The Secret Life of Civility


Give to me straight. DO NOT beat around the bush. DO NOT, lead me to infer what you are trying to tell me because you refuse to say more than you have to. DO NOT leave me to fend for myself when I am seeking your guidance, but you are too scared, too reserved, and too trained to tell me what it is that I need to hear to be successful and move along with my life. Give it to me Straight.

This is the problem that I have noticed at Bryn Mawr College; there are too many people willing to be subtle, and not enough people willing to give to me or anyone else for that matter, straight. Upon my arrival at Bryn Mawr, I have witnessed something different here that is unlike any of the other places I have visited. The atmosphere here at Bryn Mawr is, one of solidarity, sisterhood, and most importantly, politeness. The politeness here on campus is so profound to me because, it’s not something you witness every day in the real world, yet alone become subject to it every day. It frustrates me that the civility here is so thick and heavy because it is almost impossible to have a truthful conversation without fear of hurting someone’s feelings or Slipping at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Earlier in my E- sem class my professor had us read a chapter directed to the term slipping, which we defined ecological thinking and acting1. I later took this definition that my class developed and created a definition of my own, which I believed to be more appropriate in certain scenarios. I say that slipping is the act of saying what you truly feel inside. I then go on to say that there is a such thing as bad, slippage, and a such thing as good slippage. The dilemma here at Bryn Mawr is that people are scared to slip at all, creating an atmosphere where people are polite 24/7 and hold their tongues about things that they may feel strongly about, because they do not want to get too personal or opinionated that their slippage may be taken out of context.

 I believe that not being able to say what actually needs to be said can be very detrimental, not only in the short term, but in the long term as well. Some of the very characteristics that shape Bryn Mawr, are only beneficial on campus. What happens once we leave Bryn Mawr? No one is going to hold their tongues, no one is going to hold our hands, and/or cover our eyes from what we may not want to see. In the real world sugar coating everything will not get us very far.

For my six weeks project I have chosen to explore the contact zones on campus, and diverge into this symbiotic relationship, between the students and faculty on civility. I will explore when this community of politeness began, and why it began. I firmly believe that the practices implemented on campus are meant to be beneficial, I just think that some of these practices are not realistically thought through.

I would like to start my research in the Deans office and speak to Ms. Judy Balthezar, because she is one of the most experienced in the office. I would like to ask her when did the communication between student and faculty change. I would also like to know how Bryn Mawr was prehistorically regarding the relationships among the students as far back as she can remember. My goal is to gain as much firsthand information that I can. It is very important to this project that I get the fundamentals to lay the ground work.

From there I would like to start at the bottom of the hierarchy and work my way to the top. I will talk with student appointed positions like, Hall Advisors, Customs groups, Peer Mentors, and any other student led position that has been trained in the way that they interact on campus with other students, but also how they are trained to speak with them. Then I would like to talk to the professors and faculty advisors. I will question them on the community of civility on campus and what they make of it. From there I will speak with the individual offices like the admissions office, LILAC, the Q- center, and the Pensby Office. These are the offices that get to work first hand with students, but these are also the offices that get to train other people on how to be polite.

Lastly I would like to sit down with President Cassidy. She is the leader of this campus, but she is also a psychology teacher. Through her I will explore the concepts of how this civility might also be beneficial. I would also like to know what she makes of this community environment, proactively being the president of this school, as well as a professor.

This project will take a lot of time and effort but I think that it is well worth it. It’s time to give it to me straight and stop pussyfooting around certain issues.


Anne Dalke's picture

I’m smiling as I read this, remembering your initial dismissal of Teju Cole, who also writes about the “cumulative effect of policed language” and “enforced civility,” making it “unduly provocative” to “speak plainly.” I’m also wondering about the intersection of your (and Cole’s!) call to “speak plainly,” with the sort of negotiation and translation that Mary Louise Pratt advocates in the contact zone. Is translation always a form of “sugar coating”? Does “speaking plainly” presume a kind of transparency, that we can all listen and be heard, without explanation? How might we best make ourselves heard, in a room full of people with different norms for politeness and civility?

I agree (hey! As you know, I wrote an essay about this!) that many folks here are afraid to “slip”—and I know that this is a larger issue throughout academia. One of my 360’ers just wrote an essay on this topic. Citing Hua Hsu’s essay on "The Civility Wars." The New Yorker. 01 Dec. 2014. <>, she observes that academic spaces have “adopted codes of civility in order to protect a diversity of viewpoints and insure that campus conversations honored academic freedom.” But she also allows that “the tone-policing that goes on in classroom discussions for the sake of civility suppresses the academic speech of those who do not comply with civil norms.”

I admire the wide range of folks you want to talk to, and esp. appreciate your idea of finding out just how Hall Advisors and Peer Mentors are trained to interact and speak with other students. I’d be curious to learn more, too, about when/how the norms of “politeness” on campus were first introduced (I’m expecting with the ladies who first enrolled, who needed to prove that they were still ladies even if they were smart!) and also when and how those norms and protocols began to shift (if indeed they have—how to measure this? Has anyone tried to?). I’m wondering if there’s any information about this history in the Library’s archives (and how it might be catalogued?!)

I just wish you had a partner in this project…working alone on a survey of civility would be strengthened by having someone to negotiate with, to actually try out different modes of speaking together….but looking through the other proposals, I’m not yet seeing a match…