Norms for Respectful Classroom/Seminar Discussion

David Chalmers is compiling a useful set of guidelines for respectful, constructive, and inclusive philosophical discussion. It makes sense to concentrate on a single field, like philosophy, since customs often vary wildly from one discipline to the other — but there’s really nothing specifically “philosophical” about the list, it could easily be adopted in just about any classroom or seminar environment I can think of. (Online, alas, is another story.)

What immediately strikes me are (1) how nominally unobjectionable all the suggestions are, and (2) how so many of them are routinely violated even in situations that wouldn’t strike us as relatively civil and respectful. Here are some cherry-picked examples from the list:

  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Don’t present objections as flat dismissals (leave open the possibility that there’s a response).
  • Don’t dominate the discussion (partial exception for the speaker here!).
  • Unless you’re speaker, existing questioner, or chair, don’t speak without being called on (limited exceptions for occasional jokes and other very brief interjections, not to be abused).
  • The chair should attempt to balance the discussion among participants, prioritizing those who have not spoken before.
  • Prioritize junior people in calling on questions (modified version: don’t prioritize senior people).

Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t strive to be as respectful as David’s lists suggests — just that we don’t even try, really. How many times have you been in a seminar in which a senior person in the audience interrupted and dominated discussion? I can imagine someone defending that kind of environment, on the grounds that it leads to more fun and feisty give-and-take, and perhaps even a more rapid convergence to the truth. I can testify that I was once at a small workshop — moderated by David Chalmers — where the “hand-and-finger system” was employed, according to which you raise a hand to ask a new question, and a finger to ask a follow-up to someone else’s question, and the chair keeps a list of who is next in the queue. Highly structured, but it actually worked quite well, carving out some space for everyone’s questions to be treated equally, regardless of their natural degree of assertiveness or their social status within the room. (If you’ve ever been at a “Russian” physics seminar, imagine exactly the opposite of that.) I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to judge whether enforcing these norms more actively would create a more hospitable academic environment overall.

David also suggests some related resources:

Any other suggestions? Comments are open, and you don’t have to wait to be called on.

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16 Responses to Norms for Respectful Classroom/Seminar Discussion

  1. Manuel says:

    I would’ve expected at least at seminars to see more respectful people. We wouldn’t even need any guide except good behavior, really.

  2. Sheena says:

    A series has just aired on BBC Radio 4, the idea of which was to get people with opposing views to discuss subjects respectfully and reasonably.

  3. Nathaniel says:

    While mostly unobjectionable, I’m not sure that this list is always helpful. I would boil it down to two norms or precepts: don’t be nasty and don’t play favorites. It’s understandable, if regrettable, that some people come into meetings or seminars looking to score points at someone else’s expense or curry favor with someone. Not that these two precepts will magically stop this, but if taken seriously, they should help fight it by making it known that, for the sake of the discussion, your own personal advancement takes a back seat to a constructive sharing of ideas.

  4. Jake Maier says:

    Could you please say a little more about the “Russian” physics seminar. Is that insider terminology, what distinguishes a “Russian” physics seminar?
    BTW, you are the first person I ever followed on the internet. Never regretted it for a minute. Thanks for your public engagement.

  5. Sean Carroll says:

    Jake, Russians (as in, physicists from the actual country of Russia) are famous for having raucous seminars in which audience members jump in to question everything the speaker says, and the whole thing often lasts for hours. I once gave a talk at the University of Minnesota, where the department has many physicists from the ex-USSR, and it took me half an hour to get through my title slide. It can be stimulating and fun, but you had better know what you are getting into.

  6. Swami says:

    Russian seminars sound like meetings of the Bourbaki mathematicians in the late 30s. Everyone jumps in, cacophony reigns and whoever speaks the loudest gets the most attention.

  7. paul kramarchyk says:

    Russian Engineers – My experience has been different. Which may have been due to a kind of deference to seniority or lack of real world experience with a particular design. I worked (now retired) for a global nuclear energy company that designs and builds commercial nuclear power plants across the world. As the industry recovered from TMI we hired a fair number of Russian engineers. In meetings of all kinds (design review, problem solve, etc.), I’ve always found them to be somewhat introverted, polite, knowledgeable, and on point with questions or comments. Often offering helpful suggestions and unique points of view that move the ball down field.

    Maybe my experience demonstrates the difference between an academic setting and a for-profit business environment where time & efficiency matter.

  8. Haolin Lu says:

    Hi, I am waiting to be called on

  9. Boor says:

    I think a philosophy argument is not really dependent on the way it is said and more about the argument. For instance, take the Prime Ministers questions in the House of Commons compared to the strict decorum of the American House of Representatives . A list of philosophical debate rules and colloquium norms is just asking for someone to violate them.

    The great speakers in my experience use the Socratic method or practice their material on smaller audiences keeping the material that works with the audience and throwing out what does not. This would also suggest what possible common questions come up and how to effectively answer them.

    If science makes progress by falsifying a theory then why did the rivalry between the big bang and the steady state theories produce so many insights into stellar nucleosynthesis? Why was the big bang theory able to adapt to experimental discoveries while the steady state theory was not able to adapt? Why is the Lyman-alpha forest so important? How do we know that reionization occurred all at the same time instead of at a steady rate?

  10. Jake Maier says:

    Haolin Lu
    you may be out of luck here. You may not be called on. Nobody knows if you lifted your hand or a finger.
    but watch out, details about which finger matter.

  11. ElstonG says:

    These seem perfectly fair for seminars, though when I think of public talks or discussions, I’m reminded of many times when the moderator or chairman absolutely ruined a fascinating dialogue/argument between two speakers, just to let someone else chime in.

    One more rule I’d add is: If you’re the chairman in a public discussion, please keep in mind that you’re (usually) not the one the audience is there to hear.

  12. Piscator says:

    No experience with philosophy but completely disagree with these as rules for physics seminars. It is often extremely informative to watch expert senior people disagreeing vigorously during talks. An active rambunctious seminar in which all the experts go at each other is a far better learning experience than a polite silence punctuated by a first year student asking what a fermion is. Whenever I give a talk I always positively encourage interruptions because they improve the talk: as speaker I can always shut them up if I need to,

  13. Haolin Lu says:

    Hi, Jake Maier, I think you are too serious. Though I made a bad joke, you did not get it.

  14. Steven French says:

    When I was a grad student in the Dept. of History and Philosophy of Science at Chelsea College, University of London (now defunct – the college that is), our invited speaker seminars were almost always chaired by the Head of dept. Heinz Post, a former physicist (son of Friedrich Paneth, fwiw). Post would always ask us to respect the speaker’s wishes to hold all questions until the end but typically within 5 minutes of the talk starting, his hand would be the first to go up and that was that – a ‘Russian’ free for all ensued. Great fun for us postgrads sat at the back in the ‘peanut gallery’, not so much for the speaker and no chance for anyone who didn’t have the necessary cut & thrust (or club & bash) expertise to get a word in! Now when I chair I adopt something akin to the Chalmers rules, not just because I get tired of hearing senior folk chunter on but also because I think its good training for students *and* they often come up with something interesting. But of course, as ElstonG indicates, fairness etc should be balanced against letting a particularly useful or informative exchange continue.

  15. Steve Crye says:

    Good to see that Chalmers is still around! I first learned of his work back in the 90’s reading in Sci Am about the “hard” problem of consciousness.

  16. Simon DeDeo says:

    In my “Research Methods” class ( we began by having students observe and conjecture patterns from watching video footage—the idea being that while all science ends in rigorous statistics, it does not necessarily begin there, and that the first thing to do when approaching a new system was “just to look”.

    We first watched a few minutes of shaky camera footage from the Occupy demonstrations in New York. This was great, both for the patterns that students noticed (e.g., how police push back a protest line “arrest-by-arrest”, or other features like the prevalence of cellphone and the absence of women), and their reasonably critical attitude towards the objectivity of using even continuous footage when it is shot by a particular observer with a particular set of personal goals.

    Anyway! I felt bad that I was giving them such a dysfunctional material (the video is hard to watch in places). So I figured I’d use some footage from the Moving Naturalism Forward meetings. You can imagine we got pretty quickly in to tracking who was interrupting who…