Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In Control

When teaching at a university or college, how much are we 'in control' of the classroom environment and how much can we (reasonably) control? Much has been written and said by professors about the issue of cell phones ringing during class, and I believe there may have been a mention or two of students reading campus newspapers, listening to music, text messaging, playing Sudoku, and so on. In a large class, some of this kind of activity is inevitable. When I teach a large class (> 100 students), I don't worry about it as long as the ancillary activities don't bother the other students.

In a smaller class, these same behaviors become more difficult to deal with. They also become more rare, but they do still occur. In the language class I am taking, for example, one student checks her cell phone and sends text messages every few minutes during the entire class, even though there are only 7 students in the class. I try not to sit next to her because her constant fidgeting with the cell phone is distracting, and I frequently wonder what I would do if I were the instructor of that class. As far as I know, the instructor has never asked the student to put away her phone.

In a not-large class I was teaching today for a colleague who is out of town, a student sitting in the middle of the class was reading the campus newspaper. That didn't bother me, although I thought it was ill-advised considering that I knew that this student was failing the class, which is required for his major. (And yes, even though I was a substitute, today's material will be on the exam). What bothered me was that he was holding the newspaper vertically, so when I looked out at the class, I could easily read the newspaper from the front of the not-large room. I stopped my lecture, walked over to him, and said that it was fine with me if he read the paper, but he should hold the paper flat on the desk in front of him, and not upright. I said that I feared that if I got bored during my own lecture, I might start reading his newspaper, and that would be rude. Everyone laughed and he put the newspaper away.

A colleague of mine was recently severely criticized in her teaching evaluations because she asked students not to eat in the front row during class. She understood that some students work or have classes earlier in the afternoon and might not get to eat until this mid-afternoon class. She objected, however, to the loud crinkling of bags and the smell of potato chips while she was teaching, and preferred that students sit further back if they had to bring food to class. This was clearly viewed as an attack on students' inalienable right to eat potato chips in the front row during class. Maybe those students needed to be in the front row because they would have had a problem seeing/hearing the professor if they sat elsewhere, but they never said so. They said nothing, then wrote scathing comments in the teaching evaluation. It seems like this problem could have somehow been worked out amicably, but instead the situation just seems to have made everyone angry.

Anecdotes such as these make me wonder how much we (professors) are really in control of the classroom, and how much we can be. Do we have the right to ask (or demand) that someone put their newspaper away, or lay it flat, or not eat potato chips, or not check their Facebook page during class? Some of these activities are more disruptive than others, but if something is not really disruptive, but just annoying, what can we do?

I know that some professors include lengthy descriptions in their syllabi of what is allowed/not allowed in the classroom. The current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses syllabus content, including this example: "Students are expected to arrive on time, not to leave early, not to wear caps inside the classroom, and to follow traditions of decorum and civility."

Thou shalt not wear caps? Can a professor really prohibit someone from wearing a cap just by saying so on the syllabus? I can't imagine putting things like that in my syllabus. How about this?: "You may read a newspaper in class, but you may not hold aforementioned newspaper at an acute angle greater than 20 degrees as measured from the horizontal."

I prefer to go the classic route: try to make the class as interesting and stimulating as possible, deal with any classroom issues with patience and humor, and not worry about the rest. Sometimes that philosophy doesn't work, but mostly it does.

23 comments:

Propter Doc said...

What would the students do if you ate a bag of potato chips in your class, stopping every couple of slides to send text messages or check your facebook profile or blog comments? How would they react if you read a campus newspaper while they were talking about some group task instead of wandering around offering assistance? Your teaching recommendations would be dreadful. Students must learn that there is a certain standard of behaviour that must be followed in lectures. They are not special cases, it is not OK to do these things and it is also not necessary to include the rules of decent behaviour in a prospectus. Students should have learned this sort of thing long before university and every instructor that lets them away with it just reinforces the notion that these behaviours are acceptable when they are not.

stepwise girl said...

I have encountered the mobile phone problem, which seems to have reached unbelievable proportions. I found it bad enough to make a special appearance during the practical session telling them it was not correct to use their mobile phone during it, for calls or texting. A couple of weeks later a student in the front row in the lecture was very obviously texting under the table during class. I said nothing (short of a undramatic humourous comment to make) but thought it was unbelievable how even after asking them to behave with their mobiles this was still happening. The thing I do not let away with is constant chatter. I teach small groups (~20 max) and have a couple of chatter-gigglers and this is just unbearable. I have to stop in about 2 out of 3 classes for this. Although I have to admit that I did not realize how irritating this gets until I was myself lecturing...

chall said...

I never really understood the concept of being in class and then doing completely other things than trying to follow the lecture/learn something.

I think it is a given that you are supposed to be quiet (not messing with a bag of chips/talking to a friend/using your phone with beepbeep sounds etc) but then again, I am not totally surprised that this "decorum" or manners as I call them - might be shifting due to the genereation of the students. Just writing this makes me feel very old, and I am just about 30....

I told my students that if they wanted respect from me I assumed they would treat me and the class with respect. Especially their fellow students since they were trying to listen etc.

If you need to leave the lecture early I would presume that you are in the back/on the far side of a section to minimilize the disturbance for both the prof and your fellow students. After all, it is common courtesy to behave and think of others. Sometimes though, I feel like an old hag saying "your people of today are so involved in themselves and worrying about thier rights so they forget about others".

then again, I might be a tad bit cynic and old.

W said...

propter doc:

I don't think she is saying they should get away with it, but just tackle it through a less forceful approach (patience and humor). But I do think this recommendation is tricky, because I can imagine many professors not having the luxury to be patient. And I shudder at the thought of them trying to be funny to tackle the issues. If they turn out to be unfunny, then it may backfire and make them look like they are even less in control (and out of touch with the students).

Incidentally, The best professors I had were also those who used the direct approach "If you want to eat/ talk/ read/ mess around do it outside of this classroom. And don't bother coming back till the break." whenever someone was messing around. It was so effective that he could instantly silence a room with +100 students just by stopping his lecture and throwing a stern look out to the audience.

But even that can backfire I guess. In one extreme case (to me anyway), there was this student who walked in 15 minutes after a +100 students class started. This professor (who was a colleague of the stern professor) stopped his lecture and told the student to get out of the class. Uncompromising, the student replied with a "no" and merrily placed his butt on the front row. After a number of "I am telling you to get out of class" to "No" exchanges, the professor eventually backed down and continued his class. That was a big ouch for his reputation I guess. I've always wondered what the stern professor would have done, if it had been him. Heck, what could have been done? Physically throw him out? Highly unlikely. Perhaps somehow get his student ID from the class and see to it that he pays it in some other way? That sounds unlikely, too. At least officially, that is.

Anonymous said...

Those front-row students might be able to hear a little better from a little farther back if the lecture didn't have to compete with their symphony of crunching.

Anonymous said...

We have the right to ask a student not to attend our class any more. We can enforce that right by calling campus security. That is about as "In control" as it gets, in my opinion. We also have the right to cancel class entirely if students do not behave, and the right to leave the room ourselves. With those tools, if we put up with anything that interferes with teaching, it is by our own permission. What interferes is bound to vary, but I can't see any teacher putting up with something that distracts from the purpose of being in the classroom.

Southern Grad Girl said...

From the perspective of someone still in grad school and not far out of undergrad, I agree with you, FSP. I've done the newspaper crossword in class, and I've had night classes in which I had to eat. In every case, I've sat in the back and distracted no one.

I guess I feel like students are adults by this point, and if they want to do something that may prevent them from learning, they're allowed to choose to. As long as no one else is distracted, I'm fine with it.

Your strategy makes a good point because in the super interesting class I ate dinner in, I was still very involved in the discussion. In the super boring class, I did the crossword and didn't listen to the man sitting down in front of the classroom droning on and on. His evaluations were hurt by his teaching, not helped by him letting me do something else.

students beware said...

many students these days are just plain rude, but what's worse than students reading papers or texting is that many of them have a sense of entitlement that they bring with them to the classroom. i don't care if you got all A's during high school. this is not high school! you have to do your homework and you have to do it well and guess what, there are others who are smarter than you and who work harder than you.

here's a tip for all you students reading this...some teachers do what FSP does by making a joke when the newspaper is being thrown in their face during lectures, others yell and scream and throw students out of the class when they aren't attentive (one of my professors does this), but i don't do either of those. instead i take note of those who are not paying attention and then i lower your participation grade considerably at the end of the semester. do you really think that participation grade is a cushion for you? no! it is a cushion for me with which i can give you all of the points if you are polite and attentive or i can give you zero points if you are rude and crude.

EarlyToBed said...

Classroom management skills are part of being an effective instructor. My techniques have definitely evolved so that rude behavior is either not possible, or it is reframed so that it is not rude.

I try to run my small classes like workshops--where students are free to work with each other, alone, with me, with the TA, etc. in dynamic groupings. Lecture materials are brief interludes from the real work of the class. In this context, a quick break to answer a cell phone, or a coffee run is completely tolerated.

Larger classes are harder. I try to provide a good show, and even suggest that students bring popcorn. Students eat, do crosswords, nap, etc. Mostly it doesn't annoy me too much. I have a colleague who has a draconian policy of taking points away from the whole class if one person's cell phone rings. Peer pressure really works in that class.

Although students' snacking in class does not bother me, I inadvertantly put an end to it once by freezing a student's breakfast in liquid nitrogen as a demonstration.

Average Professor said...

This is my philosophy, too: I prefer to go the classic route: try to make the class as interesting and stimulating as possible, deal with any classroom issues with patience and humor, and not worry about the rest.

Plus, from time to time I have been known to do some light email-checking during faculty meetings, read a journal article during boring spots in a talk or presentation, etc.

I figure if I can't make it worth the students' time to pay attention and get engaged in class, then I shouldn't coerce them to do so just because of how it makes me feel. If it's a distraction to the other students (or, in the case of the vertical newspaper, to me) that's a different matter and one that I'll act on.

Michelle Crowbars said...

As a student, it doesn't usually bother me if other students are texting under the table, as long as they have their phones on silent and their keypad doesn't make that annoying clickity-clack noise. (I did have the misfortune one day, in a big lecture hall, to be sitting right next a guy who kept chatting on his sidekick. The constant motion involved with the flipping and unflipping of the screen became very distracting.) I think the texting in the front row would only annoy me because of the disrespect involved, not as an actual distraction.

As for the food thing, most lecture halls on my campus have big signs outside of the door that say 'no food or drink', so that is pretty easily enforced if the professor wants to push it. The only classes I've ever eaten in were, again, big lecture halls where I could have a buffer of at least several seats between myself and anyone else.

Personally, I don't understand the point of reading the newspaper during class. My personal favorite is when I look over at someone's desk and they're doing their calculus homework during a bio lecture, or something like that. Why go to class at all? So few classes even take attendance grades that it doesn't seem worth it.

I think you get the amount of control that you demand. You can't control whether or not students actually respect you, but you can control what they do in your class. I don't see any reason why a professor would be, strictly speaking, out of line for telling students not to wear hats (especially during a test) or not to eat/read/whatever during class. It's all a matter of what's appropriate for the size of the class (and also perhaps the difference between a 100- or 200-level class as opposed to a 400-600-level class), and how far you're willing to go to enforce your own rules.

ARL said...

That's a big problem in the US. In my country, the professor is way above the student, he/she can do whatever they consider appropriate in order to maintain an ordered class. If there is no eating in the classroom, they will take the food away from you, try to physically fight and you are in even more trouble, going from failing the class, to being kicked out of the university, to being thrown in jail. While some people believe this is extreme, I tend to agree with the way things are handled in my country. The way I see it, not everyone deserves to go to college, but if you made it so far you should recognize the gift you have been given. The least you can do is behave. If you don't like it, maybe professional life is not for you.
I have TA'd in the US, and things are veeeery different. Usually my students like me, and then follow the rules, but when that doesn't happen problemas arise I can't usually do much. That sucks for the rest of the class, but oh well, let's thanks the overprotective american academic system for that.

Academic said...

I think you hit a nerve FSP of all of us who teach! I taught at a place where there was no discipline suggestion whatsoever. The only tool I really had was their grade. It makes it challenging when students are electing for hard classes. Generally I would interrupt them to start class with a "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm wanting a conversation with x students involved in it."

Kim said...

Although students' snacking in class does not bother me, I inadvertantly put an end to it once by freezing a student's breakfast in liquid nitrogen as a demonstration.

That sounds like a particularly effective technique.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't care less about eating and drinking in class as long as it's not distracting to others. I go easy on tardiness and early departures as long as it is not habitual. (My classes top out at 30 students, so I do notice if the same student is always late.) People have lives beyond college, and I'm fine with that.

However, although my classes are highly interactive discussions, I do not grade on attendance or participation. My syllabus states clearly that if students are present in the classroom, they are to be engaged in class activities. Anything else is inherently distracting and disrespectful. I've never had a problem because students who don't want to be there are free to leave at will. If I ever did instruct a student to leave -- and I would do that if he or she were repeatedly disruptive -- I would back that up by calling security and having the student escorted out if necessary. We have a policy about disruptive students. Seems foolish to give an instruction in front of the entire class without a plan to ensure it is carried out.

Female Science Professor said...

Is that policy on your syllabus? (and/or any other information about in-class behavior?)

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

As an undergrad I once brought dinner into a TA-run section, only to have the TA tell me I couldn't eat. I had just played some sports, and if I didn't eat then the dining halls would close (and my dinner would get cold) so I objected. He railed against me for a while, and then set it to a class vote. The class, knowing that they too might someday like to eat in section, voted for me, and the TA I think lost some stature for having given up authority like that.

In retrospect, I feel bad about putting him through that. But probably not as bad as I felt hungry at the time.

Anonymous said...

The fact that the policy exists is noted on my syllabus along with the URL that allows the policy to be viewed online. There is also a section in my syllabus on classroom decorum that states essentially what I described above. I think the reason this has worked for me for the last ten years is that I don't frame it as punitive, and I focus on the effects on the whole class. It's about respecting your classmates, not about deferring to me just because I am in charge. If you choose to be in class, be engaged. If you're so tired you need to go home and take a nap, I understand.

Anonymous said...

I hope falling asleep isn't considered as distracting as cell-phone usage these days. I used to find staying awake in a semi-dark classroom with the professor talking, especially male voices, (in other words, 80% of my courses) put me to sleep. Upper level courses were easier to stay awake with the smaller classrooms with the lights all on and with desk-like seats instead of comfy theatre seats. I found that lighting and seating arrangements made a huge difference as a student and as a TA. And for those lab experiments where students left their cell-phones out and accidentally spilled some acetone on them, well I told them too bad... I had already warned them at the beginning of term to leave their sidekicks in their bags. There's more than enough to keep you busy during labs than worrying about the latest text message or call.

Anonymous said...

I believe there's a sense of entitlement (often unwarranted) among many of today's students. This gives them the feeling that they can act howsoever they want in class.

Back in the day, we went pretty much to every meeting of every class, more or less sat up straight and paid attention as best we could ... partly because we or our parents had paid good money for us to be there and we'd better get something out of it.

These days I think a lot of students figure "heck, I paid my tuition so I can come or not on my own schedule - unless something comes up like a firend in crisis, or my job or something - and I'm going to pretty well get comfortable when I'm there, wearing, eating, and staying connected any way I want. I paid to be here. You entertain me, and give me a good grade in the end because I tried really hard."

Where is decorum? Where are manners?

Sigh.

mareserinitatis said...

I can handle people eating in class. (I've done it myself, and several of my classmates have classes back to back for several hours.) I might jokingly ask them to share with the rest of the class, but it doesn't bother me. I also understand having a hard time focusing if tired and trying to do something to keep awake. (Been there, doodled my way through it.)

But I don't understand folks who do something completely unrelated to the class. I guess it's fine as long as it's not disruptive to the rest of the class. It does seem awfully rude, though.

What irks me is when people do their homework during class. Normally it's just a pet peeve, but last semester I was teaching labs, some of which were in a computer lab. Students would frantically be typing up their report while I was trying to lecture, and no one could hear me over all the noise. I finally told them that labs were due at the beginning of class. If they weren't turned in before I started lecturing, they automatically got a "late grade" (i.e. 50%). I told them why, but I'm sure that didn't make me seem any nicer.

undine said...

Eating in class doesn't bother me, nor am I bothered by caps. Unless they want to be asked many, many detailed questions about the text, however, they had better put away the newspapers and the cell phones for texting.

Nevyn said...

I don't mind people eating in my class, so I don't fret much about it, and I assume my students are adults and have a good reason if they are late once in a while, or need to leave early. In my syllabus the policy is stated that they should be nondisruptive if they need to arrive late, and if tardiness becomes commonplace I will begin keeping track. After a certain number of tardies, I will drop them. (I can do this in the community college, but not the university.)

When people's phones go off in class, I find I can't get angry at the student - I almost never remember to turn off my phone when I go places. So I have a different way of dealing with it: I get very happy, and make comments about "smelling cookies" or saying "I like chocolate chip". That's because my syllabus has a line about the Cookie Rule for cell phone disruptions - your phone goes off, then you bring cookies for everyone in the class. They don't have to be home made, and in fact, I'm ok with brownies or other treats as well. Depending on the room/building we either eat them in class, or between lecture and lab. This policy goes for me as well, and I have brought cookies for my classes more than once because of this rule.

I really don't mind cell phones going off any more. I get my cookie fix from students. This semester I had a rash of cookies for the first three weeks, and suddenly they figured it out, and now I'm craving cookies. I might have to bring my cell phone to class, and get someone to call me soon. ;-)