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Rutgers to launch program promoting politeness

Still your thumbs, put a lid on the road rage, and mute the cell phone. Rutgers University is getting ready to make nice.

Still your thumbs, put a lid on the road rage, and mute the cell phone. Rutgers University is getting ready to make nice.

The school's New Brunswick campus this week launches Project Civility, a two-year initiative intended to explore politeness and mannerliness and to foster respect among members of the state university's community.

"For me, living together more civilly means living together more peacefully, more kindly, and more justly," said Kathleen Hull, a Rutgers faculty member, who is helping to coordinate the effort. "This includes good manners, yes, but so much more."

It is a prudent time to consider what is appropriate behavior, and not just at Rutgers, according to Hull, who began her scholarly research of the subject following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"There's been a polarization of the country and a moving away from the center in politics that has contributed to difficulty in having civil dialogue," said Hull, who teaches a popular course on the topic.

In May, during a graduation speech at the University of Michigan, President Obama remarked that one way to keep democracy healthy "is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate."

Not that Rutgers is particularly uncivil. But it is a big place, Hull noted, and it can be a bit impersonal, even anonymous.

"I'm hoping, through the program we've got, we'll be a warmer, closer community," she said.

Pier M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor of Italian literature, will launch Project Civility with a lecture at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Student Center. Forni, who is a civility expert, directs a similar initiative at Johns Hopkins, and his work has helped launch like-minded projects around the country.

"Civility, good manners, and politeness are not trivial because they do the everyday busy work of goodness," said Forni, who also will lead a panel discussion and workshop Thursday.

They are "a form of benevolent attention to others," he said.

Civility - behaving decently; not pilfering that piece of pizza from the office refrigerator; and controlling the urge to fire off a nasty, unsigned e-mail - is related to ethics, he said.

None of those behaviors is unique to the academic setting, of course. But Forni, who was taught manners by his mother growing up around Venice, Italy, said he has heard from college officials that some students seemed unaware of what was appropriate in their new setting.

"Devices of mass distraction," as he calls them, are a particular source of disruptive behavior: leaving class to take a cell-phone call, surfing the Internet or watching an online show instead of paying attention to an instructor.

"It's not respectful of the teacher," Forni said, "but it's also a way of not learning."

In addition to technology in classrooms, future discussions will focus on civility between the genders, sportsmanship, bullying, respect for the environment, good and bad campus-bus behavior, and multicultural interactions.

Scott Lazes, a Rutgers journalism major, set out to capture some of that for a documentary he shot that will be shown Wednesday.

He found his subject to be anything but static, especially in a place as diverse as Rutgers.

Civility is "relative," Lazes said. "What may seem civil to one person may be completely rude to someone else."