Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Remedial civility

William Pannapacker, who writes a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education under the pen name Thomas H. Benton, teaches English at Hope College, a small, private liberal-arts college in Michigan. His most recent column, "Remedial Civility Training," should be required reading for everyone in academic life. Here's an excerpt:

This is not about the simple rules governing which fork one should use but about norms of behavior about which nearly everyone used to agree and which seem to have vanished from student culture.

There are the students who refuse to address us appropriately; who make border-line insulting remarks in class when called upon (enough to irritate but not enough to require immediate action); who arrive late and slam the door behind them; who yawn continually and never cover their mouths; who neglect to bring books, paper, or even something with which to write; who send demanding e-mail messages without a respectful salutation; who make appointments and never show up (after you just drove 20 miles and put your kids in daycare to make the meeting).

I don't understand students who are so self-absorbed that they don't think their professors' opinion of them (and, hence, their grades) will be affected by those kinds of behaviors, or by remarks like, "I'm only taking this class because I am required to." One would think that the dimmest of them would at least be bright enough to pretend to be a good student.

But my larger concern here is not just that students behave disrespectfully toward their professors. It is that they are increasingly disrespectful to one another, to the point that a serious student has more trouble coping with the behavior of his or her fellow students than learning the material.

In classrooms where the professor is not secure in his or her authority, all around the serious students are others treating the place like a cafeteria: eating and crinkling wrappers (and even belching audibly, convinced that is funny). Some students put their feet up on the chairs and desks, as if they were lounging in a dorm room, even as muddy slush dislodges from their boots. Others come to class dressed in a slovenly or indiscreet manner. They wear hats to conceal that they have not washed that day. In larger lectures, you might see students playing video games or checking e-mail on their laptop computers, or sending messages on cell phones.
Professor Pannapacker's column jibes with recent conversations I've had with students who've told me how difficult it's become to be a good student and how fed up they are with their classmates' surly attitudes.¹ Reading this column makes me glad that I added a "decorum" paragraph to my course syllabi some years ago. It's grown more detailed over time:
The atmosphere in our class should be serious -- not somber or pretentious,‭ ‬but genuinely intellectual.‭ ‬No eating,‭ ‬talking,‭ ‬sleeping,‭ ‬wearing headphones,‭ ‬doing work for other classes,‭ ‬or other private business.‭ ‬Cell phones‭ ‬should be turned off and‭ ‬kept‭ ‬out of sight in our classroom.
That paragraph seems to cover everything -- for now.

¹ These accounts are about classmates in other classes, not in classes that I've taught.

"Teaching Remedial Civility" is available to readers without a Chronicle subscription:
Teaching Remedial Civility (Chronicle of Higher Education)
Alas, the Chronicle has placed this immensely useful essay behind its firewall. [September 10, 2009.] The essay is out from behind the firewall: Remedial Civility Training. Thanks, Chronicle.

It’s back behind the firewall again.

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