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.
6 months ago