Modeling Courtesy: Thoughts about Campus Controversy and Maya Angelou


I’m reflecting on recent controversies over change of several kinds in my own campus community and finding myself slowly recovering perspective as time passes. (Although, I must say dear Educatus readers, that I remain astounded and saddened at the sudden loss of senior leaders at the University of Saskatchewan.)

Time marches on and this week, I happened upon an excerpt from an interview Evan Solomon of CBC conducted with the late Maya Angelou in 2008.   Her call for courtesy during that interview has me lamenting last week’s occasions of name calling, trashing of character, and even graffiti to a historical building.  On the upside, Maya Angelou’s words have me feeling inspired to renew my commitment to courtesy.

So, what can I do to answer Dr. Angelou’s call for courtesy, especially during times of controversy?

I know from experience that when I speak with passion, my students (in whatever context and variously defined) look up from their screens, sit up in the chairs, and give every indication that they are paying a new level of attention to what I say.  Given this effect and the passion I feel for the effective leadership of change in my university, I must ask myself three overarching questions as a teacher before I share my views with my students:

  1. Does expressing my opinion on organizational politics and events advance the educational experience of my students?
  2. Can I express my opinion on organizational politics and events in such a way that I model critical thinking?  For me, this means, can I recognize my own position and bias within the organization, can I question my own assumptions about the intentions of others, can I provide evidence that supports my view, can I model respect for those who view the situation differently or hold opposite opinions to my own?
  3. Am I calling my students to act, if they are so inclined, on their own interpretation of events and motivations?  That is, can I genuinely encourage them to question my interpretation and pursue their own understandings and then engage on that basis?

If I can say “yes” to these three guiding questions, then I think I’ve got the makings of a wonderful teachable moment where my students will have the opportunity to see me as an engaged, respectful, and courteous (thank you Maya) citizen of my university and hopefully, also, as a role model.

See the Solomon interview, scrolling ahead to about the 30 second mark, for Dr. Angelou’s remarks first on courage, and then on courtesy.  She was a remarkable human being and Evan’s reverence for the great lady is apparent.

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