Iowa Nice, “Civil Attention,” and Student Engagement

Recently, I was talking with a colleague at another institution about the phenomenon known around here as “Iowa nice.” Neither of us is native to Iowa, so we were both told about the “Iowa nice” mindset when we began our positions in Iowa colleges. The phenomenon actually has its own Wikipedia page, where it’s defined as “a cultural label used to describe the stereotypical attitudes and behaviors of residents within the U.S. state of Iowa, particularly in terms of the friendly agreeableness and emotional trust shown by individuals who are otherwise strangers.” In general, Iowa Nice is a good thing. It’s nice to live in a place with the idea that one should observe basic niceties and be courteous with strangers, or the general expectation that one is expected to help one’s neighbors in need.

But, my colleague and I agreed, there is a downside to this Iowa Nice thing as well. It’s easy to become complacent and ignore problems right in front of us if we’re too busy telling ourselves how nice we are. In the classroom setting, my colleague wondered if students were reluctant to engage with difficult topics, or were hesitant about appearing to challenge or disagree with their peers or the instructor, because they were steeped in the culture of Iowa Nice. Rather than rock the boat, the default choice becomes sit politely, pay attention, and hope nothing causes a ruckus. For people like my colleague (who moved to Iowa from New York City) and me (I moved here from Boston), this is something new. We’ve seen students who are checked out, or who don’t want to engage, or just look at us blankly when we ask a question to the class. But many of our students here can seem quite hesitant to do anything which might be interpreted as confrontational or challenging, which can be a real problem when trying to foster a robust class discussion–or, to be honest, any class discussion at all. So are the blank looks in our classes the result of Iowa Nice culture, or from other issues like not reading or not knowing how to initiate participation in a discussion? I don’t think there’s necessarily something that makes Iowa college students different from students across the US, yet my colleague and I have been struck by how some of our students can be so agreeable–even as they refuse to participate in discussion.

Shortly after that conversation with my colleague, I began reading Jay Howard’s book, Discussion in the College Classroom, and was delighted to find a better explanation for what we had been grappling with. In the first chapter, Howard–a sociologist by training–discusses what he calls the sociology of the classroom. In particular, he argues, there are specific norms that govern how we act not just in the classroom, but in any social structure. For example, when using an elevator, the norm is that every passenger faces the front. If, when the elevator doors open, there is someone standing with their back to you, perhaps you’d wait for the next one–this one is too weird. So it goes with the classroom; both we and our students operate within what Howard calls a “negotiated structure,” where both our and our students’ expectations play in important role in shaping the dynamic. In particular, the reluctance to transgress the boundaries of those norms can powerfully circumscribe students’ responses to various aspects of our pedagogical approach.

One of the most important features of the classroom dynamic is attention. Howard suggests that, in the eyes of our students, the classroom is an “unfocused environment,” one in which they can absorb input and information, but do not necessarily have to marshal the cognitive resources to be active participants, or even leaders, within that environment. But as faculty, we want our students to see the class as a “focused environment” instead, where they are directing both attention and energy into the task(s) at hand. However, the default norm for our students is what Howard calls “civil attention.” Our students look like they’re listening to us; they’ll nod their heads occasionally, or chuckle at one of our jokes. But, he continues, they won’t maintain that eye contact lest they actually be asked to do something, and when we ask a question in hopes of starting a discussion, it’s as if they haven’t been in the room at all. Students are creating the appearance of paying attention, but they are not actually doing so–at least not at the levels necessary to meaningfully interact with the material or anyone else in the room. “Civil attention” is thus where students adhere to the established norms, as they see them, but resist when we try to get them beyond those norms.

This insight resonated profoundly with me. Maybe it wasn’t “Iowa Nice” so much as some larger set of assumptions that was work here. Who among us hasn’t been baffled by the class that seemed like it was engaged, only to turn surly and silent when we tried to initiate a discussion? In particular, Howard’s explanation of “civil attention” helped me account for what seemed like resentment from my students when these sorts of situations occurred, almost as if they were asking how dare you ask me to actually do something? I was comfortable here! But diagnosing the problem is only half the battle. Now that I know the implicit norm in which my students are working, how do I change it? Or can I change it? The good news is, yes, these norms can be altered. As Howard argues, since the classroom is a “negotiated social setting,” we can always re-negotiate the norms by which it operates. But the bad news is that sometimes this can take a lot of work, and encounter significant student resistance. Disrupting norms is never easy. In next week’s post, I’ll discuss some of the insights Howard has about this process of re-negotiation, and some of the strategies he recommends to reframe the classroom as a focused (as opposed to unfocused) setting.

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Finally, the next time we have a ceremony opening something on campus, I propose we do the ribbon-cutting like this:


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