Bring up “civility” and you have MTSU management professor Jackie Gilbert’s undivided attention.
When spring commencement speaker Evan Cope, chairman of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, encouraged graduates to do their part to create a more civil society, Gilbert took immediate note and felt some level of confirmation for her work in an area she’s been passionate about for years.
A longtime advocate for more civil workplaces and educational spaces, Gilbert again brought that passion to the classroom during the spring semester for her Principles in Management 3610 Experiential Learning, or EXL, course in the Jennings A. Jones College of Business.
Since she began teaching EXL courses in 2011, Gilbert has tried to incorporate the topic into her teaching through course work that takes students outside of the classroom.
“I think it’s critical students know the impact they can have on the community,” she said. “Learning about civility also helps students develop essential employment skills that will help them be better team players and valued colleagues. As bosses, this knowledge will help them set a great example for others.”
Dividing her class into teams, Gilbert charged students this spring with researching the state of civility on the MTSU campus and developing professional presentations on how to develop and promote a more civil campus. Their presentations then were judged by a panel of experts, including some MTSU faculty and staff, at the end of the semester to determine the best projects.
Gilbert met occasionally with the teams to provide feedback on their progress and offer suggestions to improve their projects. She was pleased with the level of commitment she found as students polished their communication, analytical and teamwork skills.
“They were very competitive and they wanted to win, which I think made the end product even better,” said Gilbert.
Collaborative course, competition
The seven-member winning team was made up of Dara Aziz, Keundrea Eason, Xavier Harris, Sheki Hollis, Jacob Moore, Shevan Murat and Daniel Stiles. Their presentation included a PowerPoint, YouTube video and a “Civil Raiders” brochure that defined civility and offered tips for practicing it daily.
The brochure also included a copy of MTSU’s “True Blue Pledge,” which is a statement of the university’s core values that incoming classes recite each year during convocation and represents a universitywide effort to promote a more civil, respectful atmosphere throughout the campus community.
In their required 15-minute team presentation at the Business and Aerospace Building, students were expected to demonstrate:
- Why civility is an important component of campus interactions (and what can occur when the opposite — bullying — is present).
- Specific initiatives to promote civility at MTSU.
- How some of those initiatives can be applied to the wider business community.
To select a winner, Gilbert recruited a small panel of judges that included Dr. Mary Evins, coordinator of the MTSU American Democracy Project, Dr. Dianna Rust, chair of the MT Engage curriculum improvement plan; Carol Swayze, director of MTSU’s EXL Scholars Program; and Lisa Reed, director of human resources with the Tennessee Board of Regents.
For Evins, the topic of civility resonates deeply, since one of the primary goals of the American Democracy Project, which has existed on campus for more than a decade, is to help graduates become more engaged citizens.
“Every student in every class should find a way to address some of these civic learning and civic responsibility issues. Civility is really the backbone of how a democracy ought to work,” Evins said.
“I was very impressed with the work of the students, and I appreciate that they took on such an important, meaningful project.”
Gilbert has taken her passion for civility beyond the classroom: She was part of a group of advocates who helped shape the Healthy Workplace Act, which was signed into law in June 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam.
The legislation grants legal protection to those government agencies that adopt a model policy to combat abusive behavior in the workplace or craft comparable guidelines of their own.
Last year, Gilbert was named a founding fellow to the U.S. Academy on Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse.
Producing tangible results and resources clearly is a constant for Gilbert’s course. One previous class created anti-bullying public service announcements for Oakland High School, and another proposed workplace civility guidelines for executives at Nissan North America in Franklin, Tennessee.
“It’s a win-win,” Gilbert said of her students’ work. “The community gains something of value without having to go to an external consultant, and the students gain valuable experience in that they have to polish their presentations, take it to an outside entity and deliver a product.”
Students learn, practice valuable skills
To obtain an edge on the competition, some teams practiced before Gilbert outside of scheduled class time to gain additional tips and to further polish their presentation, she said.
Others created videos in which they interviewed peers on campus about civility and introduced innovative and attention-grabbing presentation techniques such as skits, online tools such as Poll Anywhere, and presentation software such as Prezi.
“Friendly competition helped spur student teams to be innovative and to craft their best work,” Gilbert said.
Sophomore Jacob Moore, an economics major from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, said the team members of his winning group “learned how to not micromanage each other” as they embraced their roles of being either a researcher or a presenter for the project.
The group gathered periodically outside of class in the Business and Aerospace Building to assess progress and plan next steps, a process similar to what happens in many workplaces.
“We would pool our resources and assemble all of what we knew,” Moore said.
A computer information systems major from La Vergne, Tennessee, senior Dara Aziz was chosen as “president” of the group and assigned tasks to the various members to work on independently.
“One of the challenges was to keep moving,” said Aziz, who jokingly referred to his selection as president as “being punished.”
“I was fortunate enough to have good team members to where they were always available and willing to participate, which made a big difference,” he said. “It was a good experience. … We learned a lot about how to work as a team.”
Sheki Hollis, a senior integrated studies major from El Paso, Texas, said the relationships within the team grew even deeper.
“We didn’t know each other at the beginning of the class, and now we’re like good friends,” she said. “We took the project not as homework, but as just something we did … being together and working together.”
“That’s a great point,” Aziz chimed in. “It wasn’t just homework or an assignment. It was something that everyone was excited about. … Everyone was working really hard. We were really trying to win this.”
Sophomore Daniel Stiles, a marketing major from Rockvale, Tennessee, said the experiential nature of the class meant that students weren’t just learning and “regurgitating” information onto a piece of paper that they’d soon forget.
Instead, students researched and compiled information, then reached a consensus as a group to develop a presentation “that ended up being pretty good.”
“It’s easier to retain information when you’re putting it toward real life use,” he said.
Senior Xavier Harris said he also felt the business class taught him useful skills as an aerospace major. Helping create a more civil workplace and “treating people right” will help him “go further in life” as well as in his career as a pilot, the Atlanta native said.
“In aerospace, you’re working with somebody else a lot. There’s always two pilots in the cockpit, so you’re always having someone beside you.”
Harris recently obtained his certified flight instructor rating and will “be teaching students how to fly.” Helping those students deal with the anxiety that can come with flying is important, he said, and doing so civilly can help put them at ease.
“This project will help me with that,” he said.
Senior Shevan Murat, a computer science major from Kurdistan, plans to pursue a tech career building apps. He recalled a class lesson taught by Gilbert where she stressed the importance of creating goals and timelines for projects. It caused him to rethink his approach to an app he wants to create.
“I’ve learned a lot in this class, and I didn’t expect to learn this much,” he said. “The way (Gilbert) taught the class made it pretty easy.”
Impact beyond the classroom
For Hollis, participation in Gilbert’s class has opened other doors on campus.
Hollis said she plans to join the American Democracy Project in the fall and support the group’s efforts to help raise civility awareness at MTSU and other campuses. While her class research revealed that MTSU’s campus encourages civility, issues such as cyberbullying and sexual violence will require ongoing vigilance.
“What if the cure to cancer is in one of our bright students who is being bullied, and we never get to find the cure because the student got bullied and quit pursuing his/her degree?” she said.
“I believe that by raising awareness, educating ourselves, and coming together as a community, we are more likely to potentially decrease the lack of civility, not only on campus but also in workplaces and in our communities.”
Hollis described Gilbert’s class as an “an eye-opener” as she plans her career because it allowed students to look at management from different perspectives. One such perspective was the implicit civility expected among management professionals in general and within the EXL class itself.
“Management is not only about having the power to manage a project or a group of people, but also about being a true leader while being civil,” Hollis said of the lessons she’s learned. “Students will one day find themselves in a position where management skills will come into play, and we can count on referring to the skills learned in this class to help us solve different issues.”
After taking Gilbert’s class, Hollis said she now has “a very strong foundation” to know how to handle different situations in the workplace and better understand different points of view and different cultural perspectives.
Those are important skills, said Larry Spratlin, chief financial officer for Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital, who spoke to Gilbert’s class about the cultural transformation to value civility at the hospital. The winning student team made a final presentation before Spratlin.
“I was very impressed with the engagement of the students. Their presentation indicated that they have been encouraged to reflect on civility and its impact on relationships,” Spratlin said.
“The students demonstrated that they are very sensitive to the importance of behaviors in the workplace. Dr. Gilbert and the faculty are doing a great job presenting the perspective and impact of civility in the workplace.”
Spratlin said that workplace civility is a rising priority within top companies.
“The importance of individual behaviors in the workplace in driving cultures of excellence is becoming more and more recognized in the business world,” he said. “Organizations that are focused on excellence are equally focused on aligning their teams and associates toward behaviors that support and promote positive work environments.
“I believe that it is very relevant and important that students are given exposure to the concepts of civility in the workplace.”
For professor Evins, workplace civility represents a necessary ingredient in creating a more civil society in general.
“We can’t have a participatory democracy that’s meant to engage our society in a meaningful way of self-governance without the understanding that there is respect for our fellow citizens,” she said.
“As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘It’s a republic if we can keep it,’ and the way in which we keep it is through civil discourse. Civility is one of those cornerstones for how we can make this kind of system work.”
— Jimmy Hart (firstname.lastname@example.org)