Friday, January 08, 2010

Codes of courtesy

by J J Cohen

No I'm not talking medieval chivalry here, I'm speaking about classroom behavior. Teach long enough and you'll face someone or some small group who derive pleasure from disruption. Such misbehavior can be quite serious (restraining order, anyone? It happens, I can tell you from my experience as chair), but most of the time antics and shenanigans are simply annoying, breaking the rhythm that a good class relies upon. Dr Virago posted a bit about the topic recently; the discussion and its comments are well worth your reading.

I've faced the issue infrequently. I've usually solved the problem by speaking to the student privately -- or sometimes, if it is egregious, stopping the class so that everyone is focused upon the perp and saying, slowly but firmly, "Could you and I speak immediately after class today?" Once or twice I've had a sleeper, in which case I usually walk over to the person and stand in front of them while lecturing. If they don't wake up, I stop until they do, look at them, and then continue. The second time it happens I use my "Could you and I speak immediately after class today?" line. I've never had to do this more than once.

Recently, though, I began teaching a large lecture course, ninety students. The potential for distraction in a classroom that large is immense, especially because many have laptops and several are not actually all that interested in the course topic. So I composed a prophylactic code of courtesy and incorporated it into the syllabus. I read the code to them on the first day of class, and remind them of its contents during the third week, when we are well in our routine. I stress to them that I wrote it not to be punitive or because I am distrustful, but because I care so deeply about the course: I give the class my all and I want it to be one they always remember, and I need the students to be as committed to me as I am to them. That is, I stress its positive effect and play down its school marmishness.

I will paste my code of courtesy below, but let me ask: how do you handle disruptive behavior? do you include a code of courtesy on your syllabus? does it work? do you ban laptops?


Code of Courtesy
Arrive on time with your cell phone silenced. Bring the appropriate book. Give the professor and your TA your full attention. Do not chat, text, or surf the internet. Remain in the room until the lecture or section ends. Conduct yourself in a manner respectful to all present. Never hesitate to ask a question, to express a doubt, or to request clarification.


ken tompkins said...

Here is a link to a booklet I wrote some years ago which, until recently, we handed out to beginning students each term. I'm afraid it is a bit dated now and badly in need of an update.

I was moved to write it not from observing any violent disruptive behavior but, instead, from small things like walking in late, eating in class, students claiming they had contacted me when they hadn't, etc.

I strove for an informal style because formal statements weren't getting through.

So, no claims of an incredibly effective document. It's just our modest attempt to assert that, as faculty, we do have rules and expectations and, so there will be no doubt, what those are.

The link above is to a pdf for download.

ken tompkins

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That is quite a detailed book. I love its informal tone -- makes for very entertaining reading. Do you think its circulation has had an impact on student behavior?

Unknown said...

For a long time, I tried my best to ignore students who had, for different reasons [and usually representing a party of one or a small minority] checked out [asleep, surfing the internet on their blackberry, texting on their cellphone, etc.], partly on the basis of, "they're paying for this, and if they don't want any 'product' for their money, that's their decision," and also because I figure you just give all of your teaching energies to those who are 'present,' so to speak, and don't worry about the rest. The problem is, some students can become intrusive upon the other students' attention with their behavior and it becomes harder to ignore, and in one spectacular case, the conscientious students in a 400-level seminar I was teaching approached another teacher who they knew was my close friend to *beg* her to *force* me to put some kind of kabosh on the disruptive students--3 of them--who were talking to each other whenever I and other students were discussing a text and who also did a lot of noisy eating and drinking--my personal favorite was when they decided to sip their Mountain Dews, quite loudly, through straws fashioned from giant pixy stix. Since they did not asphyxiate in the process and also go into sugar shock, I had to do something about it, in the manner of JJC's "can I talk you after class"? All 3 were English Education majors so I just kind of asked them, "so, you want to teach, huh? you're setting a great example, etc." They were dutifully embarrassed, but I felt mortified even having to do this with them. I have not yet resorted to a courtesy paragraph in my syllabus [except for a line saying that if you don't have your book, you're counted absent], although I have forbidden laptops in some courses [which seems perverse, in this day and age, but then we just say, hey, this is a technology of the book class-haha]. I have thought about adding a courtesy clause, and I like Jeffrey's. I often give a little talk early in the semester about what it means to be "present" in one's life and to assume that every moment is an opportunity for something to "happen" that you might not have anticipated and generally, to not waste time just filling up time in a classroom--be in the moment as much as possible, even when you think you couldn't possibly get anything out of it, *and*, if even that posture doesn't work [because, let's face it, sometimes the university classroom is *not* where it's at], then get out of the building and explore the world in a more active way. I have never had a student leave to look for work on a shrimp boat or anything like that, although I sometimes wish they had. Just as, *I* sometimes want to leave and get a job on a shrimp boat. Seriously.

Some disruptions you *have* to deal with; at my university I have a reputation for being more than accommodating with special needs students and so our office that processes those student always steer them into my classes. My favorite was a student who had a form of Tourette's where he occasionally felt the need to get on the floor on his back and spin around, all while talking. After a while, it just became part of the usual rhythm of the class. Seriously.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Eileen, you've stressed something important to me as well, the reason why ignoring disruptive behavior is not necessarily a good strategy: it undermines the ability of the other students to concentrate and be present in the class. The code of courtesy isn't for my well being: it is for the class as a whole.

As to disability, that is something different altogether. I've had students with impulse inhibition issues, as well as many many other kinds of visible and invisible disabilities. Most of the time when there is an impact on the class the student him or herself has suggested letting everyone know via email what to expect. It has never amounted to a big deal.

Then again no one has ever mixed sugary caffeinated sodas with sugary powdery candies in my class before ...!

Myra Seaman said...

I'm thinking perhaps Eileen's students were simply experimenting to see what might possibly account for their professor's incredible energy and focus.

This is actually something I have trouble with myself, wanting not to really believe that a student is texting, for instance, and had planned to be much more direct about my expectations at the start of my classes this semester. Now I'm realizing there's space on my syllabus for the Code, Jeffrey--and that simply stating my expectations to them on day 1 is obviously insufficient. Thanks for highlighting this issue.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks, Ken, for that! It was fun to read, and I only wish it were general to all institutions.

I'm definitely getting more proactive about disruptive behavior this semester. Texting has been annoying me, so now my syllabus, rather than spelling out penalties for texting, or demanding that phones be put away, just says that anyone I see texting gets called on. I think embarrassment might be a powerful tool.

this blog series might be VERY helpful.

Rick Godden said...

I've begun putting a technology section on my syllabus, where I tell students that they can use laptops for notes, but there will be no IMing or web surfing (this is, of course, tough to police). I also have a policy for cell phones. I also stress active participation on the syllabus.

Like everyone else, though, I still have some problems with disruptive behavior. My tactic when someone seems to be talking to another person, I'll ask one of them "Do you have a question?" They're often embarrassed and stop. If they're texting I'll tell them directly in front of the class to put it away. The most egregious case was during a seminar-style writing course, when a student, sitting right next to me started texting. Best of all, he was texting his MOTHER.

I used to be afraid of quelling disruptive behavior, but I've managed to develop an easy-going, somewhat informal style in class, so that if I do call out someone, it has an extra sting to it.

theswain said...

I, surprisingly enough, have little difficulty or disruptive behaviors. Not none, but few.

My strategies are:

First, make the students responsible for their own behavior. I have no attendance policy: this automatically cuts out anyone who comes to class to sleep, read something else, text, etc. I don't care if they're there (not true, but....), so if they want the participation points, they are told that they not only have to be present, but must be engaged: otherwise drop the class now.

Second, I tell them something about me and my background.

Third, I tell them right away that being rude to me in class by texting, being disruptive in some way, etc is a very bad thing to do since I have the gradebook and what they get does affect their future, whether just next semester or further down the line. I am up front: the last person the students in my class want to be rude to or piss off is me. I will dock them a full grade step as I see fit for inappropriate behavior in the classroom.

I've only had to follow through once. An otherwise good student seemed to feel that because she was smart or pretty she could get away with anything, and I had to constantly police her for talking in class, disturbing others, texting, taking calls, etc. Nothing made it into her head: until she received her very poor grade for the class. When she confronted me that she'd received very good grades on the tests and papers and I told her that if she checked the syllabus she'd find a statement that said disruptive behavior would cost and being rude to me in class would result in reduced points....word got around that as long as you respected me in class, I was pretty alright. I've had no problems since.