A Ku Indeed!

Students Behaving Badly

Posted in Pedagogy by Chris on October 17, 2007

When it comes to non-exemplary student behavior, I think I’m a pretty tolerant professor. Most students don’t fall into the “problem” category, but some do — it’s inevitable. Much as students think you don’t see them or what they are doing, I can see when people aren’t paying attention, or doodling, writing notes to each other even reading a book for another class. My general motto is this: if you aren’t being public about your bad behavior, I won’t make a big deal out of it.

But sometimes people do make a public spectacle out of what they are doing. And that’s where my tolerance ends.

There are lots of ways that this can happen, but I wanted to take a second and ask a question about just one of them — using technological devices in class. This takes a lot of forms: using a laptop to surf the web, or update your Facebook, or using your phone to text your buddy in the next building.

I just won’t allow any of that, even if it means that I have to stop the class and make a big deal out of it. My reason for this is simple. You paid for an education. If you don’t want to actually receive one, that’s unfortunate, but if you pay me for the donuts I’m paid to make but you refuse to eat them, there’s not much I can do about it. But the way I see it, that’s all you paid for — nothing more. You don’t pay tuition to have a right to do whatever you want in a class. You don’t pay for the right to undermine the learning environment in a classroom. Two reasons: one, other people in the class may actually want to learn, and they’ve paid for that privilege. Second, it’s rude to the professor, and your tuition doesn’t entitle you to the right to be offensive to the instructor.

The second point I’ll put aside and focus on the first. When a person whips out their laptop (say) and surfs the web, it sets up a public disruptive atmosphere in the class. It makes a public statement by arguing out loud: “I don’t care, and neither should anyone else.” People can see what you’re doing, and you’re flaunting it. It’s like you have a flashing bright red light on top of your head indicating to everyone “look here!”

In this instance, the student has crossed the line from tolerable bad behavior to intolerable bad behavior. For successful education to take place, the student must respect the teacher and the class as a whole (which includes the other students).  And that’s a large scale issue — the classroom as a whole must display respect for learning for it to successfully take place. When students are inciting other students to bad behavior (which is really what that is, or at least creating a friendly environment for other disruptions), it makes it difficult for a teacher to effectively teach, and it makes it difficult for good students to learn (partly because they are trying to ignore the person with the laptop or the phone, and partly because they are trying to learn while not seeming like the “geek” who actually cares about learning something).

All this seems pretty straightforward to me. Oddly enough, the point of this post was not to go on a rant about badly behaving students. Instead, the rant is directed at a different bunch of people, who in my opinion should know better: teachers themselves. What I mean is this: I’ve found over time that there are lots of teachers who think that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with such behavior. What does it matter if you surf the web? Text your friends? Many teachers seem to think this is completely acceptable and they see no reason to put a stop to it. “It’s their money” some argue, as if maintaining the right collective learning environment wasn’t their responsibility.

People like me, they say, are making much ado about nothing. Many say things like “when I was an undergrad I read the newspaper in class, too.” Really? To me that just means that you were a bad behavior student once, and now you’re a bad behavior tolerant professor.  Just because you were a bad student once doesn’t make that behavior acceptable. But to them, it’s no skin off their nose.

I’ll be honest — I can understand a bad student thinking this. But another professor? Really? I’m just not even sure how to get my head around it. It seems inconceivable to me. I don’t know how to make sense of it. I’d be interested to hear from students and teachers on this. What do you all think? Is public bad behavior acceptable in the classroom? Does a teacher have an ethical obligation (that’s what I see it as) to put a stop to it? Let me hear what you have to say!

Okay, I’m done with my rant.

(I won’t even get into what Confucius would say about it — it’s too obvious!)


3 Responses

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  1. L. Bull said, on December 1, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    Amen. In law school I was amazed at the attitude of the other students and the professors. School, for many of the students, was a time to buy baseball tickets and chat with their friends over IM. The professors seemingly didn’t care – despite the fact that many students were engaging in inflamatory and racist dialog directed at other students while in class using the school’s WiFi and generally disrupting those around them.

    When a group of concerned students approached our torts prof about this, she replied that there was nothing she could do. I’m unsure if this was due to some university policy or from the prof’s own reticence.

    To the students who exhibit this behavior – WTF? If you just want to hang out and party, drop out for a few years until you’re ready to at least put forth a modicum of effort. Otherwise, you’re wasting the prof’s time, your classmates’ time, and your own. And wasting money to boot!

  2. Michael said, on January 2, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Do you allow laptops generally during the class?

  3. Chris said, on January 2, 2008 at 2:28 am


    Hey — Happy New Year!

    No, I don’t allow them at all in lower division classes. In upper divisional ones I don’t mind, because I know that the student is using it for class-oriented purposes. But in lower divisional classes I can’t rely on that, and I don’t want students disrupting the class while they surf Facebook or their email while I’m lecturing.

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