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Communication Teacher
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Discovering Civil Discourse: Using the
Online Public Sphere for Authentic
Assessment
Angela M. McGowan & Kelly Soczka Kaiser
Published online: 01 May 2014.
To cite this article: Angela M. McGowan & Kelly Soczka Kaiser (2014): Discovering Civil Discourse:
Using the Online Public Sphere for Authentic Assessment, Communication Teacher, DOI:
10.1080/17404622.2014.911339
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2014.911339
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Discovering Civil Discourse: Using the
Online Public Sphere for Authentic
Assessment
Angela M. McGowan and Kelly Soczka Kaiser
Courses: Argumentation, Computer Mediated Communication, Critical and Cultural
Theory, Online Journalism, Persuasion, Public Opinion, Rhetoric and the Internet
Objectives: Students will recognize Habermass public sphere theory and analyze public
deliberation occurring within the online public sphere. After completing this unit
activity, students will also be able to distinguish between civil and uncivil comments
that people use in online forums. Finally, students will construct civil comments in an
online public forum.
Angela McGowan is a doctoral candidate in The University of Southern Mississippis Department of
Communication Studies. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Honors) and Political Science
from the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2006 and a Masters of Arts in Communication from the University
of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008. Her primary areas of teaching include Public Speaking, Business and
Professional Communication, and various rhetoric courses. Angelas involvement with the League of Women
Voters, the American Democracy Project, and managing a state senate campaign support her endeavors to teach
students about public deliberation and democratic decision-making. Angela has presented a variety of
professional papers at regional and national communication conferences and has received recognition as one
of the top nine overall submissions in the G.I.F.T.S. category at the National Communication Association in
2012.
Kelly Soczka Kaiser earned her Bachelor of Science Degree in History from University of Wisconsin-River Falls
and her Master of Arts Degree in Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Kelly is
currently a Communication Instructor at Mid-State Technical College in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. She most
recently worked with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay as an Adult Associate Academic Advisor. Prior to
that, she taught as a Communications Studies Instructor at Winona State University and as an adjunct instructor
at Augsburg College. In addition, Kelly previously was employed with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation as
the Director of Member Relations. Although, Kellys pursuits have been primarily instructional in nature, she has
also continued to present papers at state technical college and English conferences, as well as, the Central States
Communication and the National Communication Association Conferences. In addition, Kelly has previously
published instructional activities in the Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal.
Angela M. McGowan, Department of Communication Studies. The University of Southern Mississippi. 118
College Drive, Box #5131, Hattiesburg, MS 39406. Email: angela.mcgowan@eagles.usm.edu. Kelly Soczka Kaiser
Department of General Education. Mid-State Technical College, 933 Michigan Avenue, Stevens Point, WI 54481
Email: kelly.kaiser@mstc.edu.
Authors contributed equally to this article.
Communication Teacher
2014, pp. 17
ISSN 1740-4622 (print)/ISSN 1740-4630 (online) 2014 National Communication Association
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2014.911339
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Introduction and Rationale
In June 2013, Texas Senator Wendy Davis argued against a restrictive abortion bill.
Davis encouraged dialogue about the legislation tweeting that The leadership may not
want to listen to TX women, but they will have to listen to me. I intend to filibuster this
bill (Long filibuster against, 2013). Thousands of Americans employed civil and
uncivil discourse to voice their opinions on the bill via news outlets Web sites by leaving
comments in various online forms. Consequently, passionate Americans used the online
public sphere to engage in public deliberation. Using Texass controversial anti-abortion
bill debate, we ask students to analyze and discuss contentious material posted online.
Through this activity, students will comprehend Habermass (1991) public sphere theory
and identify civil discourse occurring within the online public sphere.
Mezirow (2000) encourages instructors to design coursework that challenges
students to examine numerous perspectives. To answer this call, we created an
activity that asks students to read and discuss online public forums. In turn, students
learn how to evaluate a writers use of civil discourse. In our activity, students learn
that uncivil discourse contains vulgarity, provokes prejudice, exhibits gender bias,
uses stereotypes, or pinpoints scapegoats. Conversely, a person using civil discourse is
respectful and wants to understand anothers perspective. Our teaching activity
increases student awareness about participation in civil, robust, and effective public
discourse (Gayle, 2004, p. 175), which has important implications for our civil
society. We believe that by teaching students about how to use online public forums
appropriately and effectively we are strengthening the online public sphere. Although
we chose abortion as our topic, instructors can use any controversial topic that elicits
civil and uncivil discourse. By selecting a current event as a class, instructors also help
students to become more cognizant of and engaged in political events.
Because Habermass (1991) public sphere theory expounds on democratic
deliberation, the theory is a model that instructors can use to teach students about
public discourse and democratic decision making. Habermas views the public sphere
as an opportunity for individuals to share their views with one another freely,
question any claims, and form public opinion. Citizens expression of public opinion,
in turn, checks the states power. Habermass theory relies on the transmission of
arguments through written conversation, such as print media and oral conversation
occurring in coffee shops and, by extension, the college classroom. Although
Habermass conceptualization of the public sphere has flaws, the notion of the public
sphere remains important (DeLuca & Peeples, 2002) because the ideal public sphere
encourages rational-critical debate (Breese, 2011). In our activity, students use online
forums to engage in rational-critical debate by assessing others comments and
discussing controversial issues using civil discourse.
The Internet allows people to remain knowledgeable about controversial issues and
express their opinions. However, the online public sphere, as is the case with the
abortion debate in Texas, is full of aggressive and inflammatory rhetoric. Online
communication may meet Habermass (1991) criteria of the public sphere, yet, the
Internet occasionally falls short of being a space for rational and civil discussions.
2 A. M. McGowan and K. S. Kaiser
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People who engage in online debates are sometimes self-motivated and discussions
may only be accessible to a small number of people (Papacharissi, 2002). Our unit
activity teaches students to examine a debatable issue from multiple perspectives and
communicate their opinions civically, and in turn, strengthen the online public
spheres integrity. Civil discourse supports the societal good and demands that
speakers respect one another (Teaching Tolerance, n.d.).
In our essay, we also offer formative, summative, and authentic assessment
suggestions that help teachers to measure effectively how well students understand
the public sphere and civil discourse. Formative assessment, according to Black,
Wilson, and Yao (2011), facilitates learning by providing information to be used as
feedback, by teachers and by their students, in assessing themselves and each other,
to modify the learning and teaching ideas in which they are engaged (p. 74).
During our activity, the instructor assesses students in the form of oral dialogue.
We use formative assessment activities, assignments, and feedback to help students
who engage in uncivil discourse online to change their communication choices to
reflect Habermass (1991) public sphere theory. Whereas formative assessment is
assessment for learning, summative assessment is assessment of learning. When
students partake in the formative exercise prior to the summative assessment,
they have a better understanding of the performance expectations of participating
in and writing civil discourse. In turn, teachers help students to identify the gap
between their current and desired summative performance (Nolen, 2011). In
addition, authentic learning involves engaging and worthy problems or ques-
tions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion perfor-
mances effectively and creatively (Wiggins, 1993, p. 229). Our unit activity also
employs authentic assessment because students deconstruct and examine real
world comments.
The Activity
Depending on the course and instructor preference this activity typically requires two
or three 50-minute class sessions. Prior to the first days discussion, the instructor
should assign a reading that explains the art of civil discourse and asks students
to explore a controversial topic. The instructor should then spend one class period
explaining Habermass (1991) public sphere theory and civil discourse. Students
spend the following day(s) analyzing online discourse while completing the three-
step activity. We have developed a worksheet that guides the class discussion (see
Appendix).
Step 1: Lesson on Habermass public sphere and civil discourse
(1) Introduce and explain Habermass (1991) public sphere theory and civil discourse.
(2) Ask students first to identify how a persons socioeconomic status is disregarded/
displayed in online public forums. Then, using the selected topic, discuss how
communicators use online forums to review issues of common concern. Critics
of Habermass theory argue that marginalized groups are excluded from the
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public sphere (see discussions in Calhoun, 1992). Therefore, students should
discuss inclusivitywhich people are left out of the online discussion?
(3) Using the chosen topic, the instructor asks students about the effect that
polarized thinking, which leads to false dichotomies that label two sides and
give the appearance of deeper division that might actually exist (Gayle, Martin,
Mann, & Chouser, 2002, p. 4), has on Habermass ideal public sphere.
(4) As a class, devise a definition of civil discourse by listing words that students
deem as civil and uncivil. Provide students with a scholarly definition of civil
discourse and tie the definition to students understanding of the public sphere.
(5) Instructors should outline the difference between denotative and connotative
meaning. A words connotative meaning goes beyond the linguistic meaning and
allows humans to communicate emotional and other experiential aspects of our
perceived world (Clore & Ortony, 2000, p. 52). Students should identify feelings
that may arise when someone uses a particular word.
Step 2: Formative assessmentcommunication forum activity
(1) Ask students to bring in three or four online news articles about the selected
controversial topic, with at least two to three pages of peoples comments per
article. Alternatively, the instructor can provide students with copies of the
material.
(2) Divide students into groups of four, give students discussion questions (see
Appendix), and ask students to answer the discussion questions while keeping in
mind the comments from the public forums.
(3) After each group completes the worksheet, they should write one example of civil
and uncivil discourse on the board. Then, students should circle the uncivil or
civil words.
(4) In a round robin fashion, each group presents their findings and explains their
reasoning.
Step 3: Summative assessmentdiscussion board activity
(1) The instructor can expand this activity to include a summative authentic
assessment activity by posting controversial discussion board questions to a
learning management platform (D2L, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.). This final step
allows students to participate in a simulated online forum.
Debriefing
Students should be able to recognize that participants in online public forums
sometimes lack inclusivity and use uncivil discourse. Students admit that online
public forums occasionally lack rational discussion and may not meet Habermass
public sphere theory. In fact, students are often shocked by comments that people
post throughout the online forums. Students easily identify language associated with
uncivil behavior, but struggle to find civil discourse. For instance, students recognize
the comments, Republicans are morons. Pure and simple and Tom is willfully
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dumb (Tumulty & Smith, 2013) as uncivil. Students engage in audience analysis as
they recognize feelings that arise when communicators use a particular word.
Consequently, students understand online commentators emotional responses to
civil and uncivil language and begin to identify civil language. Given the importance
of civil discourse in creating respectful public deliberation, instructors should spend
an ample amount of time discussing what constitutes civil discourse.
Instructors can measure students comprehension of civil discourse and the public
sphere throughout the duration of the activity. During the communication forum
activity, we found that learners struggled to list words associated with civility.
However, during the discussion board activity, students incorporated civil language
into their online discussion board forum. For instance, one student wrote,
I appreciate your perspective. While I agree that legislators have a right to pass
policies that their voters want, I think that women should be able to make their own
health decisions. Additionally, students demonstrated their understanding of
Habermass public sphere theory while distinguishing between civil and uncivil
comments. Students recognized that vulgar language, such as cursing and name
calling, is uncivil discourse, and that points of agreement and inclusive language are
characteristics of civil discourse. Finally, most students successfully fulfilled the units
primary learning objective by constructing civil comments. For example, one student
stated, Although, I disagree with your position on abortion, I do agree with your
position on the filibuster. As a result of participating in this active learning exercise,
students spent more time evaluating messages prior to responding to online
comments.
Appraisal
Our activity is highly adaptable to various class sizes and debate subjects, and requires
that instructors use minimal materials. Additionally, depending on interest or allotted
class time, educators can expand or modify this activity by encouraging students to
identify and discuss comments that exhibit the use of Aristotles ethos, pathos, and
logos persuasive methods. Therefore, students are able to construct quality arguments
that are tailored to their intended receivers, and develop awareness of how people
receive and interpret persuasive messages. Instructors can also expand students
discussion of polarized thinking by asking them to examine how civil discourse
generates both/and responses versus uncivil discourse that creates either/or reactions
(see Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). Consequently, students learn both/and logic,
create connections between evidence and the audience, and understand how to
investigate an issue from multiple perspectives.
The Internet is ripe with instances of citizens discussing contemporary issues.
Commentary about Texas strict abortion legislation is just one example of how
online discussion platforms evoke heated reactions. In an effort to increase Americas
civil discourse, instructors can use the Internet as an available and familiar tool to
teach students about civil discussion occurring within the online public sphere. While
learning about the public sphere and civil discourse, students acquire skills that
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enable them to communicate rationally. Learning activities, such as this one, teach
students how to measure the supporting materials strength, identify another persons
stance, and encourage discussion of alternative perspectives. As a result, our activity
encourages students to evaluate each others communication strategies while
simultaneously engaging in civil discourse in a twenty-first century online public
sphere.
References and Suggested Readings
Baxter, L. A., & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Relating: Dialogue and dialectics. New York, NY: Guliford.
Black, P., Wilson, M., & Yao, S. Y. (2011). Road maps for learning: A guide to the navigation of
learning progressions. Measurement, 9, 71123. doi:10.1080/15366367.2011.591654
Breese, E. B. (2011). Mapping the variety of public spheres. Communication Theory, 21, 130149.
doi:10.1111/j.14682885.2011.01379.x
Calhoun, C. (1992). Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Clore, G., & Ortony, A. (2000). Cognition in emotion: Always, sometimes, or never? In R. D. Lane
& L. Nadel (Eds.), Cognitive neurosciene of emotion (pp. 2461). New York, NY: Oxford
University Press.
DeLuca, K. M., & Peeples, J. (2002). From public sphere to public screen: Democrcy, activism, and
the violence of Seattle. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19, 125155. doi:10.1080/
07393180216559
Gayle, B. M. (2004). Transforming in a civil discourse public speaking class: Speakers and listeners
attitude change. Communication Eduation, 53, 172184. doi:10.10/03634520410001682438
Gayle, B. M., Martin, D., Mann, S., & Chouser, L. (2002). Transforming the public speaking
classroom: A scholarship on teaching and learning project on civil public discourse. Journal
of Northwest Communication Association, 31, 126. Retrieved from http://www.north
westcomm.org/?page_id=8
Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of
bourgeois society (T. Burger, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Long filibuster against Texas abortion limits suspended. (2013). CBS News. Retrieved from http://
www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57590966/long-filibuster-against-texas-abortion-limits-
suspended/
Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on theory in progress. San
Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Nolen, S. B. (2011). The role of educational systems in the link between formative assessment and
motivation. Theory into Practice, 50, 319326. doi:10.1080/00405841.2011.607399
Papacharissi, Z. (2002). The virtual sphere: The internet as a public sphere. New Media Society,
4, 927. doi:10.1177/14614440222226244
Teaching Tolerance. (n.d.). Civil discourse in the classroom. Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty
Law Center. Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/TT_Civil%
20Discourse_whtppr_0.pdf
Tumulty, K., & Smith, M. (2013). Texas state senator Wendy Davis filibusters her way to
democratic stardom. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com
Wiggins, G. P. (1993). Assessing student performance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
6 A. M. McGowan and K. S. Kaiser
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Appendix. Discussion Questions
Public Sphere
Familiarize yourself with the public forum comments. Place an X next to comments that evoke hostile language.
(1) Choosing one page of comments, identify each persons stance on the issue. How did the person discuss
alternative perspectives?
(2) How can those responding enact civil communication?
(3) How has the Internet reinvigorated the public sphere?
Now, as a group
(Un)Civil Discourse
(1) Identify two comments that use uncivil discourse. List the comments below. Underline the words that you
perceive as uncivil. Write one of your examples on the board.
(2) Why are these words uncivil?
(3) List one of the words you underlined and describe the connotative meaning of the word. What emotions
are associated with the word?
(4) Using one of the examples, rewrite the comment using civil discourse.
Civil Discourse
(1) Identify two comments that use civil discourse. List the two comments below. Underline the words that you
perceived as civil. Write one example on the board.
(2) Why does your group think the words are civil?
(3) List one of the words you underlined and describe the connotative meaning of the word. What emotions
are associated with the word?
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