Saturday, January 17, 2015

Making Kids Act Adult. From Prof. Chiltepin.

I have a freshman class, a requirement, and one I actually enjoy teaching. The material is fun, the discussions can be downright energetic, and I'm damned good at teaching it.

On Wednesday, Text-thumb Tyler spent the whole class on his phone. The whole class. I called on him. "Tyler, what do you think the mangoes might symbolize?" Nothing. He shrugged, barely looked up from his phone. I foolishly moved on.

And then, another complaint from a student. She came to my office today and said "I really like the class, but those three kids in the back won't shut up. They keep making snarky comments about the readings and you, and it's distracting. Why do you let them do that?"

I thanked her and said I'd handle it. But the answer is, I let them do it because it was invisible to me. I keep forgetting that I'm teaching children, because I signed up to this job to teach adults. So when they act like children, they're often just beneath my notice. But yeah, they're interfering with other people's learning, and so I have to put a stop to that.

But how the hell do you do that? Say "You get a demerit?" I mean, in real life, their behavior just gets them labeled assholes. What's a way to get adults to behave like adults? I have no idea. I'd be interested to know how you handle such things. Everyone around here either commiserates "but what can you do?" or offers really insulting advice ("well, maybe if you exhibited more respect for them as people, they'd return the respect." Sure, asshole).


  1. I guess a lot depends on the class size. If you're talking about an auditorium of 200 it's obviously a lot different from, say, 10 students.
    Other things that would affect the way I'd deal with it include how far the semester has progressed, and the layout of the room itself. I'd see a difference if they were trying to be a distraction on purpose, or the room was small enough that anyone not on task would be a potential issue for dedicated students.
    Over the years I've done everything from boot people from the room to just having a quiet word: I don't think there's a one size fits all solution.
    If this kind of thing isn't already covered by your syllabus or uni policies, you can either approach the three of them or make a general announcement regarding disruptive behaviour.
    How bad are these guys, PC?

  2. I do think there's a pretty good standard solution. Come down hard on disruptive students early in the semester and in full view of the whole class. To the texter: "Tyler. Put your phone away." And then wait and stare at him until he does. To the snarky talkers in the back: stop talking and stare at them until they notice or another student nudges them. Then stare some more until they squirm.

    I also have on hand some pre-filled-out forms for student conduct violations; it has blanks for the names and dates and a checklist of common disruptive behaviors taken from the code of conduct. If I've done the staredown thing, then right before the next class I quietly ask to speak with the offender(s) and walk with them out to the hallway, forms in hand. Other students notice and start buzzing. Outside, I say that their behavior last class was disruptive and that this is their only warning. "Next time, I will sign this form and send a copy to the Office of Inquisition. You will be dismissed from class and not allowed to return until you have met with the Dean. If that causes you to miss a test, there will be no make-up. Is that clear? Good."

    The entire class looks up and then away as we re-enter the room.

    Usually that's all it takes. I've never had to follow through.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. We have a policy that says we can kick students out of class for distracting behavior (that's not the wording of the policy; I can't recall the exact wording), failing to follow instructions or policies of the course, and such. The policy includes a warning, and then dismissal from the course if the behavior continues.

      I do what Proffie Galore does with the stare-down or going and standing next to the offenders until they realize they ARE being obvious before implementing further measures, though.

  3. For a few years now my syllabi have included `no use of cell phones or laptops during class, no texting'. I enforce it selectively, depending on mood. Sometimes I just tell the offender to stop it or leave (early on, visibly and embarrassingly, as PG does). If it's just one person, or occasionally a cell phone vibrates, I don't really care. That person, of course, will most likely get an F. You see, with about half the class I usually have to look hard for a reason to let them get by with a C, instead of failing them.

    This year I've introduced another twist to my intro class (there! New addition to the syllabus.) Every lecture includes at least one quiz problem, which they have about five minutes to do and turn in. The problem relates to the material I'm lecturing on; typically I'll work an example, leave it on the board and tell them to do a very similar one (they are told in advance what the section is, and that they should read it before class.) The people texting (or otherwise not paying attention) have no chance, and it forces them to come to class.

    So everybody who does come is on their toes, and learns. The downside is that attrition (formal and informal drops) can be large in my sections. Enrollment is about half that of other sections (almost all taught by non-TT instructors), and my summary scores in student evaluations for lower-division courses are low (with a response rate of about 40%). I'm tenured, but even then I'm given an incredible amount of grief over this by department heads and other administrators. So it can be done, but there's a cost. The majority of my tenured colleagues choose to let things slide and not pay the price.

  4. A real-life solution won't work because, in real life, one doesn't get labelled--one gets fired.

    As a prof or instructor, one doesn't have the authority to kick someone permanently out of a course, though that is often exactly what's required. I've taught classes where, if I imposed discipline, the brats went to a departmental administrator and "tattled" on me, whining that I was being a meanie to them. Of course, the twerps were allowed to not only stay in those classes, they continued. The administrators did nothing to back me.

    In one example, my own department head decided to have an in-class session with one group of detractors. During the discussion, I mentioned that I was annoyed and irritated that some of them kept yapping, even though I reprimanded them for it.

    His answer? "Some people have sensitive ears." Thanks for cutting the floor out from under me, you jerk.

    1. QMV, you were in an unusually dysfunctional situation, even for modern academe. I know, since I was in a similar situation when I was a junior, untenured, Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor.

      Things are different now. I got tenure ten years ago, put in a stint as department Chair, and have long run one of the more productive research programs. I also do plenty of administrative rubbish, being selective that it at least be rubbish that matters, for example watch out for the young-uns’ interests by serving on the hiring, tenure, and promotion committees, and essentially do much of our lazy, deadwood department Chair’s job for him, unpaid. My department and school rely on me. I therefore can exercise the nuclear option: tell the students flat-out to stop their disruptive behavior that is mentioned specifically in the syllabus. (Now 18 pages and counting!) If they won't, call security and have them removed, in handcuffs if necessary.

      Mercifully, it has never gone that far. As in real life, avoid the nuclear option. It screws up lots if you do press the button.

      Proffie has a good solution, but Peter K points out possible pitfalls. Another thing I do is to use SARCASM. (Gasp!!) On the first day of class on Thursday, I was given the excuse “I pay to be here, so I should be allowed to do what I want!” I replied, “I am paid by the state of California, and it’s not in the state’s interest for me to turn out incompetent engineers!” The next time I saw this asshole with his laptop open and told him to shut it or leave the classroom, he tried the old “But I NEED this class to graduate,” whereupon I fired back, “You can always take this course at another university!” I know, this fool’s “thinking” is so clich├ęd, I now have the answers memorized.

      A hopeful sign here is that he came up after class, apologized, and shook hands with me. Before dealing with him, though, I made him wait until I’d answered a whole bunch of questions from fascinated students, since I’d brought some cool demos of electric generators, electric motors etc. The message is that students who want to learn get priority. I hope our little first-day dust-up keeps us all keenly focused on the material, me included.

      When I was a talented 15-year-old acting up in Algebra II class, the substitute teacher whose limits I was testing pointed out that I was only hurting myself. This made sense to me, so I stopped, and proceeded to learn lots of algebra. You can try this, and point out that he's not just hurting himself: the flickering of his screen is distracting other people. Still, I find this argument doesn’t work as well nowadays as it did with me, in 1974. If my student pulls any further crap, that’s it: I am stapling his dick to the floor (TWITCH! TWITCH!), and leaving him there throughout the semester, as a warning.

      It’s much like handling a vampire. It’s not enough just to brandish the crucifix: you have to brandish it bravely. I know, it’s not easy. God have mercy on us that we have let it come to this.

  5. I've had to realize that no advice can be helpful if your administration won't back you. It starts there.

    All to often, we face discipline if we don't manage our classrooms. Yet when we actually do, we are disciplined for that as well. P and not P.

    I wish they'd make up their fucking minds.

    1. What drives me batshit loco is when students do this, too. We may not challenge them because the customer in them won't stand for it, but they will also slag you for being "wishy-washy."

  6. I too am very fortunate to have administrative backup. My deans actually are focused on the quality of education and support all reasonable attempts at discipline. Quarter Wave Vertical and others are in some nightmare teaching universe that makes me very pissed off on their behalf.

    For the record, most of the time I deal with cell phone users very quietly as I move around the room during in-class writing and problem solving. I escalate only for extreme rudeness like the OP's Tyler.

    Frod's quick sarcasm has me in awe. I have to keep my internal censor fired up lest I go over the line. But I have used something from CM, directed to the entire class: "When I see a student looking down at his hands moving in his lap and he's smiling, I sure hope it's a phone down there." A glance at the guilty party shows he knows it was meant for him, and he puts it away.

  7. All thoughtful comments.

    One more suggestion to add: positioning. If your lecture style allows you to move away from the chalkboard, stand in the middle of the class to talk sometimes. Get a remote for the powerpoint and stand right beside or behind Tyler to talk for a few minutes.

    My document camera can be swung around to point at the class. You can put them up on the screen sometimes. If you can find an excuse, that's interesting too, like putting a mirror on your fridge to diet.

  8. As of the past semester, I have added the following statement to my syllabi. Feel free to use it.
    We are adults. You are expected to be on time. Class starts promptly. You should be in your seat and ready to begin class at the scheduled time. Class ends promptly. Please refrain from packing up your things early, as it is disruptive to others around you and to the instructor.

    You are expected to be civil to your classmates both in class and in the (LMS) environment. Although disagreements are a normal part of college discourse, discourteous behavior will not be tolerated.

    Students who sleep, text, conduct repeated side conversations, are chronically late, or engage in any other behavior deemed detrimental to classroom atmosphere may be asked to leave class for the day, and may be required to schedule a meeting with the instructor and Student Affairs personnel in order to return to class.

    This is for the protection of the learning environment for all students."

    FWIW, I teach mostly writing and my courses are capped at 24. I can move easily around my room, and have stared down one or two texters in recent years. I like ^Three Sigma's suggestions!


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