Saturday, February 23, 2013

"What Are We Supposed to Be Doing?" From Wylodmayer.

I have been prompted by discussion of a comment I made on an earlier post - particularly by Froderick's responses - to wonder what, exactly, are we supposed to be doing up there at the front of the classroom?

Between my own natural inclinations and the influence of some of my grad instructors, I formed the opinion that I bear no responsibility for shaping good habits, teaching effective study methods, or otherwise inculcating virtue in my charges. What do I know about these things, anyway? I wasn't trained in educational theory, and am quite sure that any attempt on my part to act as if I was would result in misadventure.

I'm an expert in Hamsterology, and I'm dealing with adults who want/need to learn about it, so I present the material and leave their fates in their hands. Anything beyond that is not my problem or proper concern. My students might suck at BEING adults, but, again, I have thus far regarded that as emphatically not my problem. I'm enthusiastic, and I WANT my students to learn, and I'm happy that the bulk of them seem to acquire at least moderate competency with the subject matter, but I had not - until recently, as mentioned - really thought about whether it would be permissible/required that I translate my inchoate wish for a classroom full of polite scholars into some kind of active attempt to reshape what louts populate my rolls into such sainted personages (probably because I felt it was a pipe-dream).

So here it is - what about the rest of you? I get the feeling, if Frod's any indication, that some and maybe most of you take a bit more of a pro-active stance toward the cultivation of scholarship and citizenship in your students. I've stated my position and sketched my reasons for holding it, but I'm keenly interested to hear what my fellow CMers think on this subject, and why. Maybe I'm missing something.


  1. Great discussion topic! :)

    Whether I "teach" study skills or classroom behavior depends on the classes that I'm teaching. For upper-division major classes, I'm less directive and more relaxed about classroom behavior, because those students have 'persisted' and have learned the conventions of classroom discussion, thereby providing little reason for guidance. My lower-division (particular developmental) classes, in contrast, are filled with students who have no idea about conventions of behavior or how to BE students. These are the GE courses that I teach, and in those, I'm more directive about what behavior is and isn't acceptable. I've also noticed that the more suggestions I offer on how to be better students, the more compliments I get on my course evals. It has to be done, however, in a helpful way so students don't think they're being condescended to.

    When I first started my teaching career 15 years ago, straight from being a TA, I noticed that students behaved as expected, generally, were respectful, and (thanks to there being few cell phones), no one was texting.

    About six years ago, however, I noticed a change in student behavior: they no longer knew how to BE students, had grown up with someone telling them what to do and how to do it, and were no longer the ADULTS I expected them to be. If I didn't direct them on what to do, they simply sat at their desks texting or sleeping (with no books or paper or writing utensils). They weren't learning how to behave responsibly because, for whatever reason (parents, lack of guidance in HS, students having a diff. view of what 'respectful behavior' is, lack of the ability to observe and notice what others around them were doing, and thereby comply with that behavior), they seemed unable to be responsible without guidance. These are the students I DO think need help to realize that they aren't being as effective as they could as students. And since students really aren't observant beings anymore (how many times has someone asked a basic question on which you've just finished giving instructions, or which they could figure out on their own if they simply observed what others were doing), I help them by pointing how how they, too, can use their common sense to figure things out.

    I think, too, that personal accountability is taught

    1. PS Ignore that last line where I lost my train of thought and forgot to delete it... :)

  2. Yes, you are missing something.

    What you seem to missing is every single complaint post written by the people who contribute to this blog where they relate, in delightful misery, how the obnoxious, little toad(s) in their class(es) did something completely incomprehensible and then was supported by a colleague (admin, fellow instructor, student support cog, etc.) who led the cherub to believe that the incomprehensible behavior was just, correct, and acceptable.

    In essence, not everyone has the good fortune to work at a place where they can treat their students like the responsible adults they are supposed to be. Instead, most of us work with college students who need to be TAUGHT (much as Contemplative Cynic eloquently relates above) how to learn, act professionally, and get the fuck out of everyone's way (including their own).

    Or else we all end up with rooms full of barbarians like the one encountered by Annie Oakley (and discussed 3 posts under this one). And some of us have come close to that. Ever have half a class rebel because you expected them to do what you were required to do in high school? It's not pretty. That's why syllabi are now the size of novellas.

  3. Philosophically/ideally, I'm much of the same mind as you Wylodmayer, but I think Cynic's got it right: more and more, we do have to teach them acceptable behavior (and it's not just the presence of the devices, though that doesn't help). The thought makes me very, very tired, since I feel like I'm already keeping more than enough balls in the air every time I step into a classroom as it is. But we have to teach the students we have, and right now, most of us seem to have the highly distractable not very well socialized not-quite-fully-adult (or perhaps just displaying the maladaptive/self-undermining behaviors that present-day adults also display) sort.

    1. Amen to all of this, CC.

      Texting is something I don't tolerate. If their laptops are open and they're doing something other than taking notes/paying attention, well, they probably won't do very well on the exams, and that's not my problem.

      However, I have developed handouts that address some of the most egregious problems (email etiquette, tech use), and those seem to be helping. I am trying to be more charitable in my attitude towards them, because once they know what the expectations are, most of my students seem to at least try to live up to them.

  4. I skipped that discussion on laptops/texting in class, but for the record I'm in the Frod/Academaniac camp: I run a tight ship, and those things disturb my concentration.

    I teach many required math classes for engineering sophomores--mostly men--and I've always preemptively assumed (male) teenagers are like wolves: they can smell weakness, and if you give a little room pretty soon they'll be running the asylum. So I don't give them a chance: I take particular care to let especially the would-be hooligans know I'm in control of the operation, and if you're not happy, the sooner you leave the better. Once that's established (and/or only the adults are left) we can concentrate on the business at hand.

    I've never had an open challenge, nor a student complaint about policy (other than "you're scaring us, dude" on the first day; he left early). And everything runs smoothly.

  5. I suggest you have a look at “Beer and Circus” by Murray Sperber, particularly the chapter on "the student-faculty non-aggression pact,” which discusses this at length. I wasn’t trained in educational theory either, but considering the results they get at the ed school, that may have been just as well.

    I was a freshman at a quasi-ivy R1. Research absolutely took priority over teaching, especially for introductory courses, and they never let us forget it.

    I took introductory calculus-based physics. Every week the prof would assign several physics problems as homework. The prof would never collect them, nor grade them, nor did he make solutions available. We students therefore had no feedback about whether we were doing them right. Even worse, we had little incentive to do them right, or do them at all.

    A recent poll showed that, of the students in introductory astronomy courses that had required textbooks that contained CDs or DVDs, fewer than 2% of these students ever put these into a computer, if wasn’t required. Although this course is different from intro physics, I’d estimate that statistic applies there approximately, too.

    I suppose that’s good enough in a field with limited applications outside of academia, such as apparently Hamsterology. After all, with the way academia is contracting, few students are ever going to be working in Hamsterology anyway.

    I teach physics for engineers. If they don’t learn what I have for them in that course, they become sources of danger to the public. I get pre-medical students, too. I therefore go quite a bit out of my way to collect and grade homework. I also provide my students with solutions and other timely and honest feedback on how they’re doing, the way I think that a responsible, adult professional educator with any pride should.

    This has a noticeable effect on how well prepared my students are for exams. It also takes quite a lot of time and effort on my part, and it cuts into time and energy I could be using to do research. But then, I have tenure, and I think my research is OK. If after all this my students still can’t demonstrate proficiency in physics, I award bad grades, partly as a warning to employers.

    Your inchoate wish to turn a classroom of louts into sainted personages probably is a pipe dream, unless you're Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" or "Good Will Hunting." I go for proficiency in the subject matter before us. Employability would also be nice, so I don’t hesitate to tell students to leave the classroom if they don’t stop texting, since very few employers like that.

    Also, I do teach at a state university, so citizenship does matter. I push that harder in my general-ed, introductory astronomy course, in an attempt to prevent the following that Carl Sagan observed in 1994:

    “Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and [chaos]…”

    Or as Henry Adams observed in 1862:

    “Man has mounted science, and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of men. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Someday science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide, by blowing up the world.”

    So, I take my teaching seriously, because what I do matters.

    1. I like your choice of prophets, Frod. They scare me a bit (as good prophets should), but they speak what appear to me to be important truths (and, as a humanist who tries to help students understand how knowledge is constructed in various disciplines, I feel similarly about what I do. The life-and-death consequences may not be as immediate as with physics, but the consequences for good citizenship, and a life lived with a degree of self-reflection, are real.)

    2. I have long held that all the humanities, taught well, have just as much life-and-death importance as what I do. I came to this realization when trying to decipher an inexcusably poorly written manual for a nuclear reactor, when I was serving in the U. S. Navy.

    3. Exactly, Cassandra.

      I have a huge amount of respect for the sciences and their impact on society, but nothing irks me more than scientists who imply that, because my students aren't going to make a living as Hamsterologists, there are few consequences for society if they can't do Hamsterology very well.

      This notion that what the sciences do "matters" and that what we in the humanities do doesn't really matter so much is incredibly short-sighted, and demonstrates precisely the sort of hubris that Henry Adams was warning against in his quotation. Adams was a man intimately concerned with the relationship between science and society, and with the ways in which our uses of science and our understanding of it reflected our broader ideas about human nature, politics, power, and social relations.

      For Adams, science was not simply some separate sphere of knowledge and understanding that "mattered" more than humanistic and social-scientific knowledge; the two areas were, for him, intimately connected. He understood that, in an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated society, the role played by science could not be detached from humanity and society, and he would have scoffed at the idea that one could be a responsible scientist without also being a responsible citizen and human being.

    4. @DA: The operative phrase here is "taught well." I'm not saying you're doing it, but for example when one claims that science is only an agreement among scientists, I'll point out what Gov. Brown means when he disparages academic novelty.

  6. I take a "Be here, now." approach to internet browsing and texting during class. I enforce a zero-tolerance policy for electronics (or any other distractions) because the students are like crack addicts who can't put down the pipe of their own volition. So I force them to. If you want the privilege of being in my class, you have to turn off your electronics.

    They overestimate their ability to multi-task, and have a pathological need to stay connected to social-networks/texts at all times. I see it as my job to create a distraction-free classroom that is conducing to sustained contemplation. Maybe this is paternalistic, but I don't fucking care. It's my classroom, and I know better than they do what level of attention they need to bring to bear on the material in order to master it, and to contribute meaningfully to class.

    And never mind the debate about whether they are adults. That argument takes as its premise the notion that adults generally behave well, particularly with regard to electronic communication devices. Been out in the world lately? Most Americans with smartphones are distracted boors whose behavior is rude and annoying at best and dangerous (texting while driving, e.g.) at worst. I reserve the right to make my classroom a quiet, focused, and respectful place that is conducive to good learning.

    Ten years ago I did not need policies on electronics to create a good learning environment in class. Now I do. For me to abdicate responsibility for controlling what sort of place my classroom is would be bad for everyone: me, my students, and my colleagues. And to abdicate that responsibility because the students "should know better" just doesn't make sense.

    1. "And never mind the debate about whether they are adults. That argument takes as its premise the notion that adults generally behave well, particularly with regard to electronic communication devices. Been out in the world lately?"

      Or at a faculty meeting, according to one recently told tale.

    2. @Surly, I completely agree with you, and for the same reasons. I have a blanket ban on personal electronics on my syllabus, and enforce it when needed. More generally, I take overt demonstrations of disdain for the lecture as a personal offense. I'm terrible at hiding how I feel, and react accordingly, in real time. The flakes get their revenge come evaluation time, so there's a price to pay. But better that than high blood pressure and a heart attack.

  7. Response #3:

    @Everyone: A lot of people seem to be missing the crucial distinction - I already engage in classroom management. I know how to manage a classroom. I am asking what reasons there are for engaging in it to certain degrees. The citizenship argument is only somewhat compelling to me, as I think the divide between parents and HS teachers on one hand and college instructors on the other is a crucial one, and have not yet been presented with reason to think otherwise. Surly Temple mentions below that she doesn't care if her policies are paternalistic, but that just begs the question or - more exactly - ignores it.

    My precise concern is whether the kinds of policies I'm talking about are paternalistic in a way that would argue against engaging in them. Obviously, I understand Surly's motivations, and as I have stated repeatedly, I am absolutely, foursquare behind a classroom where students do not distract each other - my question is, do I have the responsibility of keeping them from distracting themselves. I've heard from plenty of people who clearly take it that we do have such a responsibility, but none who have really attempted to explain WHY.

    The closest anyone has come is to assert that we have a responsibility to teach citizenship, but as anyone who has read my posts with any attention knows, I do not permit any behavior that distracts the class. With the caveat that I am open to persuasion on the question of whether quiet (if self-distracting) web-surfing (or the like) also distracts other people, I have never had, nor would I tolerate, a classroom full of "barbarians." I am inflexible on due dates, don't do make-up work or extra credit, and otherwise enforce the rules. With the exception of the dicey issue of texting/surfing, my students are required to behave in a way that I think any of the commentariat would agree constitutes good academic citizenship.

    So I suppose the question can be sharpened into two questions, thus:

    1) What, if any, argument is there for including a prohibition against texting/surfing in class under the description of "good academic citizenship" if we are to leave open the question of whether it is actually distracting to OTHER students (as a positive answer would make the question trivial)?


    2) While we obviously have a responsibility to regulate the behavior of students with regard to OTHER students (which is enough to allay worries of classrooms full of "barbarians"), is there any reason to think we have a responsibility to regular the behavior of students with regard to THEMSELVES?

    1. It's not just the practical reason of distracting other students or the instructor. Even more important to me is the message of disdain for the proceedings that's being broadcast. As @Surly implied, if they can't give the lecture their full attention for fifty minutes, they shouldn't be there (I don't take attendance, but there's always something on the tests that was covered in lecture, and nowhere else.)

      There's also a practical, self-serving reason behind requiring their undivided attention. You might say, well, if surfing or texting in lecture results in their failing the class, it's their responsibility and they know it. At my place, it doesn't matter. You can document misbehavior (skipping class, not turning in homework) all you want, I am still assumed to be at fault if my "success rates" are lower than others'. I actually don't care about teaching the little snowflakes how to be adults, but I do care about the sixty percent in the middle (referred to above) being made aware that their involvement is not optional.

      Very old-school, I realize. But lecturing is work, and their "job" for those fifty minutes is being university students, or at least making a show of it.
      It's more for me than for them, actually; it would be impossible for me to lecture competently otherwise.

    2. Your second and third reasons seem eminently sensible to me. If I were at an institution that tracked that sort of thing closely, and my students failed in greater numbers than others, it would absolutely make sense to impose rules to "save them from themselves." Likewise if it interfered with my ability to lecture.

      I'm less sure about the "disdain for proceedings" argument. I'm not sure it signals disdain if they do something I have explicitly stated is allowed, but, then, I'm not sure how much my own, localized pronouncements can override a general cultural assumption in their own minds that it does. So that is something to think about.

  8. Wylodmayer, if electronic activity doesn't bother you or the other students, then by all means, allow it. From what you say, it seems that you have an effective and well-run classroom. I don't think anyone is contributing to this discussion in order to impose his or her policies upon you or your students.

    To answer your question directly: I regulate my students' behavior with regard to themselves because I know that multi-tasking in class is not good for their retention and understanding of the course material. Why would I NOT do so? Presumably, I'm the one person in the room with some teaching experience. Should I be less effective as a teacher in order to prove to students that inattention leads to poor grades? Might I not reasonably decide to address the issue of inattention "on the front end" so to speak?

    Here's an anecdote: Once when I was a young, teen driver (very pre-GPS navigation), my father gave me a complicated set of directions to a house where a friend of mine was staying temporarily, several counties over. It was an area I didn't know at all, but he knew well because he worked nearby. At one point I was to go left on Whatever Street, and while he was watching, I accidentally wrote down "go right on Whatever Street." He saw me make the mistake but did not correct me. He decided that I needed a lesson on paying attention and writing things down correctly, and he was going to let me get lost late at night in a place I was totally unfamiliar with to teach me that lesson. I was lost and very scared for an hour or so until I sorted it out. When I found out what he'd done I was furious, and to this day I think that was a total dick move. It was a dick move that informed my attitude toward effective teaching, however.

    If I watch a kid text his way through class periods all semester only to see him bomb the midterm and the final, is he even going to learn the lesson I want him to learn? Will he make the connection to his class behavior, or will he shrug me off as an unfair b-word that he never has to see again? If my job is to be an effective teacher, isn't removing distractions that have a known adverse affect on learning the right thing to do? I'm not saying you're wrong to allow it, but you seem to be demanding a high level of utility in the policies of those of us with bans. Isn't encouraging good learning enough of a reason?

    1. So, encouraging these skills is an end unto itself, so to speak? There might be something to that. Maybe it's not a part of my job as professor as such so much as it a generalized epistemic responsibility? I'm not sure if that's what you were arguing precisely, but that's sort of where it led my thinking. In any case, if the upshot of this is that there's no percentage in NOT encouraging those skills, that IS something I'll have to think about, though I'm still not sure it counterbalances the intrusion on their autonomy. That's still a murky point for me. But thank you!

  9. I'm closing the comments on this because of complaints about two of the participants. The conversation has devolved, and I don't know how to say this any more fucking clearly than in the past, but when community members go after each other, it's not going to be tolerated.

    I'm fully aware that this might make the blog a place that people don't want to read anymore.

    Fine. I've been trying to kill it from the beginning.

    The RGM