by the anonymous author of “The Raised Hand”
I’m beginning to think I should have become a corrections officer rather than a teacher. I’ve been a faculty member at UC for 14 years and recently have encountered student behaviors unlike anything experienced during the early part of my career.
Several weeks ago, one of my students began texting during a collaborative group activity, and I had to ask her to put the phone back into her book bag. This was fairly astonishing as she made no effort to hide her behavior. The very next class, I saw her texting again, this time during a lecture. I emailed her immediately after class reminding her of the statement in the syllabus about the appropriate use of electronic gadgets and asked that she cease and desist! She did not respond to my email; however, I have seen no recurrence of texting this quarter. While I feel it would have been appropriate for her to respond to my email with an apology, or at least to acknowledge my request, I am, nonetheless, grateful for the behavior change.
Last quarter, the behavior dilemma was not resolved quite so successfully. Long story short, I “caught” a student using his laptop for non-course related activities on two separate occasions. He insisted that he was using the computer for taking notes. Without going into details, I can assure you that he was not taking notes. At my request, the student did not open his laptop for the remainder of the quarter. Two weeks after the end of the term, a colleague stopped by my office to inform me that a student had posted a fairly negative review of me on one of the rank-your-professor websites. And sure enough, he published a blazing treatise describing my unjust behavior under the post title of “Look Out! Whacko Prof!”
My student evaluations have always been excellent. I feel as though I try to establish a community in the classroom based on mutual respect. But these recent events are now causing me to question my abilities, not to mention my career choice. While my colleagues support my contention that incivility in the college classroom is on the rise, I don’t want to be one of those who is forever talking about the “good old days” when students were respectful! And I do wonder at times if it’s “just me.”
You. Are. Not. Alone! In fact, a full decade ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on this very topic. It is available online, and I encourage you to read about some of challenges others have experienced: http://chronicle.com/colloquy/98/rude/background.htm
Certainly, technology is providing us with new challenges, not the least of which is determining how we should use it. As a culture, we seem to have accepted that it’s OK to take phone calls in most public places at almost any time. However, the rules for cell etiquette are still evolving. For example, last September I attended a funeral during which the minister’s cell phone rang as he was in the midst of giving the eulogy! Several months later, I attended another funeral, and there were four, yes, four cell phones that erupted at four different times during the one-hour service! And note my word choice-erupted! We’re not talking vibrate, here; we are talking full-blown ringtones including one of the most deafening versions of Für Elise that has ever emanated from a cell! More astonishing is that one of the call recipients, who had curiously chosen to sit near the front of the church, actually answered the call! (Fortunately, he left the service to talk.) Certainly, I would like to think that in most of these situations, adults simply forgot to disable the ringer. But four times?
There is no doubt that the ubiquitous and portable nature of cell phones and laptops has made them perfect props for acts of incivility; however, we cannot blame the technology for its misuse. Much has been written about the possible causes of what is perceived as an increase in displays of disrespect and oppositional behavior in the college classroom. Some suggest that the millennial student has differing expectations about the college experience compared to those who came before: they view the time spent in academe merely as a means to an end-that is, as a preparation for a job rather than as an opportunity to engage in the intellectual enterprise. A college education is viewed as a product for which they pay, and as customers, the student is always right! Others suggest that institutions breed this behavior by providing large classes that seem cold and impersonal while at the same time failing to make students accountable for only the most severe conduct infractions.
As faculty, we have little control over the political, economic, psychological, cultural, or sociological origins of classroom misconduct. We can, however, implement evidence-based practices that may forestall incivility or assist us in managing disruptions when they do occur.
*Instructor Behavior. Students can spot hypocrisy a mile away. Clearly, if we expect students to demonstrate courteous behavior, we can do no less. Arriving to class early, being prepared, expressing an interest in students as individuals, using respectful language, responding to concerns in a timely fashion-these set the tone for the development of respect and appropriate behavior.
*Student Code of Conduct/contract. Most instructors include a statement in their syllabi referencing the UC Student Code of Conduct as it relates to cheating. It may also be helpful to provide a statement describing expectations for respectful behavior. This comment should include a brief explanation of how discourteous behavior affects one’s peers, e.g., negative impact on learning, or negative impact on the instructor.
Your students may be more willing to adhere to a code of conduct that was drafted by them. On the first day of class, consider facilitating a discussion in which students suggest ground rules for civil behavior. Recall that most students will be as frustrated by misconduct as are you! Take notes during the discussion and prepare a statement to distribute at the next class meeting. Some instructors take this activity one step further by converting the statement into a contract that students sign.
*Instructor Presence. Clearly, most faculty members wish to establish a positive learning environment for their students. However, this must be accomplished while maintaining an appropriate level of authority. Interestingly, it has been found that female faculty experience higher levels of incivility than do males (see Miller & Chamberlain  for a discussion of this issue.)
No matter one’s gender association, research offers the following suggestions for establishing authority in the classroom:
—Stand rather than sit
—Identify oneself as “Professor” or “Dr.”
—Refer to one’s research, but only when appropriate
—Use a more powerful voice, especially if one tends to speak softly
—Use examples from one’s experience that are relevant to the topic at hand; not divulging very personal information
*Instructional Strategies and Presentation. How often have you pulled out your Smartphone during a meeting to check your email? And did you really need to do so? Let’s be honest-students aren’t the only ones who find things to do when they’re bored.
While using more effective teaching strategies and presentation skills does not guarantee success, you may find that some of the following suggestions will not only result in increased attention and reduced incivility but may also lead to increased learning among students.
—Try to be as enthusiastic as possible about your topic when lecturing and during discussions. Lectures should also be well organized.
—Make eye contact with students.
—Use visual aids effectively. (See http://cte.uwaterloo.ca/teaching_resources/teaching_ tips/tips_activities/using_visual_aids.pdf)
—Be cognizant of student’s 10- to 15-minute attention span. Consider incorporating interactive-lecture strategies. (See http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/interactive/what is.html)
—Adopt learning strategies that enable students to take a more active role in their learning-strategies that have been shown to result in more meaningful learning. This topic will be the subject of another column this year, but in the meantime, I recommend these resources:
Adams, S. (n.d.). Quick before it dries: Setting the stage for active participation from day one. Available online: http://www1.umn.edu/ohr/teachlearn/resources/guides/quick/index.html
Honolulu Community College Teaching Tips: http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/ intranet/ committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/teachtip.htm
Numerous active learning presentations are offered through CET&L throughout the year. Check the list here: http://www.uc.edu/cetl/bestpract/wrkshp_ schedule.html
How to Manage Problem Behaviors When They Arise
*Maintain your composure and respond appropriately. And yes, it can be difficult to do so. Count to 10, visualize yourself on a desert island, breathe deeply-whatever it takes. Frankly, most of the students in your class will be sympathetic to your situation, and perpetrators will gain little support from their peers.
Additionally, the punishment must fit the crime. Let’s say you have a small group of students in the back of the classroom who are talking. Obviously, your first reaction will probably not be to banish them from the room. Pausing in the midst of the lecture while gazing at the perpetrators may be a better response, and most students will understand your non-verbal message. If the offending behavior continues, you may then want to consider alternative responses such as that offered in item #2.
*Remind students of your conduct statement and/or the class-generated ground rules. If necessary, review them with the entire class. If students continue to demonstrate disruptive behavior you can:
—Talk with them after class in the hall or meet with them in your office
—Send emails reminding them of their responsibilities
*Avail yourself of campus resources when necessary. If you feel that you or your students are threatened in any way, contact the campus police at 911. If the situation is not an emergency, but you wish to obtain advice from a trained professional, you can talk with the UC Counseling Center by calling 556-0648. Their website is: http://www.uc.edu/cc/. It is also important to alert your department chair and to follow any established departmental policies related to student conducts issues. Do not feel that you are being too cautious!
In addition to these general guidelines, there are numerous strategies you can adopted that address specific infractions such as arriving to class late/leaving early, demanding grade changes, and cheating. I recommend Nilson (2003) as a resource.
Obviously, these are merely suggestions. There is no doubt that even the most effective, talented, knowledgeable, and respectful instructor will face incivility from time to time. And, by the way, don’t complete that application for the UC Division of Criminal Justice just yet. While it’s a most admirable career choice, the fact that you have expressed concern about your teaching tells me that you have not chosen the wrong profession!
References and Resources
Miller, J., & Chamberlin, M. (2000). Women are teachers, men are professors: A study of student perceptions. Teaching sociology, 28, 283-298.
Nilson, L.B. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Anker Publishing.
Websites addressing incivility in higher education:
—Once each quarter during 2009, this author will provide a response to your questions about teaching and learning. During the summer quarter, the CET&L will solicit your responses to a question we pose via the faculty list serve; and we’ll invite the winning response to write ”The Raised Hand” column for the next academic year.