Friday, October 29, 2010

How to Get Along At School!

This is an actual exchange that took place on my college's listserv. Hundreds of people  had a chance to read the following emails, which came about after another instructor had posted some rather tame ideas about how to deal with too much texting and phone use in class.

I've read them now a number of times and just keep thinking I must be being "Punk'd." I understand that some people are just assholes, but I rarely see such public displays of it. Anyway. I can't wait for the next division meeting when I can introduce these two to each other. I will do it VERY SLOWLY, though, since that seems to be a crucial step to making one's point - as discussed below.


Message #1
From Lester to the Humanities Listserv:

In the last five years, I've rarely had a problem in my classes about texting or phones--once the first phone goes off. I know it is going to happen, and I wait for it.

I simply stop my lecture, walk VERY SLOWLY over to the offending student, look down, and say,  "No, no, it's all about you. You are special.  We will wait."  I fold my arms, burn a hole through their head with a stare, and wait while they crawl under their desk.  No kidding.  Humiliation still works.  Points off for attendance, grade reduction, none of that, at least for me, is effective. But the entire class remembers that first student who got lased. And word gets around. They also know I bend over backwards to be fair to them, so they know they have it coming.  Of course, if it is YOUR phone that goes off, well, then, never mind.

But I warn them on the first day of each new semester that if a phone goes off in class that they will not like my response.  I don't tell them what I'm going to do.

If I'm showing a film and they try to text, I pause the film, walk VERY SLOWLY to the light switch, flip on the lights, then repeat the above process.  They are absolutely horrified.  Even the jock-type guys.

In fact, most of them have come up to me after class and have apologized.  I even ran into a student working at Hastings a year later who told me they double-check that their phone is off before their classes begin.

So, phone control is rarely a problem.  Peer pressure is still the best preventative I've found.  No one likes to be singled out.  Anyway, it works for me but may not for everybody.  I'm hardly original in this approach.  Unfortunately, I learned it first-hand nearly 60 years ago, from Mrs. Whiteman, my 1st grade teacher.  Just the thought of her, walking VERY SLOWLY toward my desk, still makes me slightly queasy.

Message #2
From Warren to Lester (& the Listserv)

Perhaps I've missed something here, but why would anyone want to reproduce queasiness and humiliation in a classroom?

Message #3
From Lester back to Warren (& once again, the rest of us.)

Why, yes, I believe you have missed something.  In the adult world, where some of us reside, it's called accepting personal responsibility for the consequences of one's actions.  And here's how it works:  Humiliation is the price one pays for not following the rules; queasiness is your body telling you that you've just screwed up.  It's that simple. And once students learn that, improper behavior disappears.  I hope this explanation demystifies the process for you.  If not, perhaps a visit from Mrs. Whiteman will clear things up.


  1. Lester has it right. If you were smart, you'd nominate him for Dean of Faculty.

  2. You know that word that we were debating a few days ago, the bad one, the one we said we wouldn't call each other for a little while? Well, Lester is one of those. BIG TIME.

  3. You go Lester. If I am close enough to the offending cell phone, I will reach out my hand and ask the student to give it to me. Then I answer it: "Professor Archie's classroom. How can I help you today." Lester's right, it only happens once.

  4. I'm not sure about the very slowly part though. That seems a little too dramatic.

  5. It's the humiliation pedagogy that makes it creepy for me. And the implication that only he lives in the adult world where these lessons are so plain.

  6. When I was in the U.S. Navy, I learned that a particularly effective way of enforcing discipline is collective punishment. In other words, when one sailor screws up, all the sailors in his unit get punished, too.

    Can you imagine what would happen if you tried that at a modern American university? The cries of, "It's NOT FAIR!!!" would resonate all the way to the president's office.

  7. I have to be honest that I find my cell-phone offenders are people who can generally handle some humiliation, and I have answered their phone for them ala Archie. It's often my athletes, people with whom I usually have a pretty good rapport, and it's often their coaches which is HILARIOUS.

    Also, the one horrible moment when mine rang? Someone in my class got to answer it. Imagine my mechanic's surprise.

    Lastly, though, I'm not sure that I would email an entire list-serve with this technique. I strongly suspect it works for me because of my personality, but I don't know that I would recommend it to other people. I also know that I wouldn't do it in my REALLY BIG lecture class because that's too much embarrassment for anyone, really.

  8. I don't want to meet Lester but I wouldn't mind meeting Mrs. Whiteman.

  9. I'm with Archie, save for the 'very slowly' part it seems like a pretty good approach to me. Everyone gets embarrassed once in a while, it's probably not going to kill them.

  10. If Mrs. Whiteman is going to return from the dead to keep me in line, I'll stay in line. Brrr!

  11. @ELS: I hate to tell you, but this is how adults spoke to children, before the 1960s when kids almost took over the world, and certainly did take over culture and education, particularly with their anonymous evaluations of teachers by students. I find his tone very refreshing: I wish we could use it more often, without the inevitable complaints to the deans who inevitably cave in every time, to which we are so accustomed these days. Oh, education wasn't perfect back then, but it sure did work a -whole- lot better than it does now. Or do you refuse to take your kids to get vaccinated, because you don't like to hear them cry?

  12. You know, we've all got to fit our repsonses into our classroom personae. Since I did not choose Cast Iron Bitch as my persona (not because it's a bad one -- it's not -- but because I could not really make it work alongside my actual personality) I am certian that if I tried this they'd hate my ass because it would not fit thier notion of who I am.

    When their phones go off, I stop what I'm doing and dance. They all have musical ringtones, after all. I shake it. I boogie freely like a boogie-ing thing, even though -- or perhaps, especially because -- I am a frumpy fortyish mom wearing very boring clothes. And then I joke about how 'no one wants to see that, so please. for everyone's sake, ringers off.' It works, and it works without any longetm rancor. But attacking the problem with ridiculousness would not work for everyone.

    One of the things I like about this place is that we can throw out ideas so that folks have a lot to choose from. I think, though, that a lot of debates about whether this or that would really 'work' evolve from differences in personality and context, rather than an iron-clad set universal realities about what 'works.'

  13. Lester's right, all the way. And if you can't get into his method, just deduct points for phone usage, make it obvious in front of the class, and move on with life. I deduct points, they know I deduct points (they usually know!) and it works.

  14. Garrity: Nicely put.


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