Thursday, August 23, 2007

Managing the Classroom

In recent years, I've run into a problem in the classroom that has been around for a long time, but has a variety of new incarnations with the arrival of iPods, cellphones, and so on. I've never made a big deal in class when someone's cell phone rings, because I've forgotten to turn mine off at inopportune times as well. However, I've had students take calls in the middle of class and leave the room, text their friends, play games on their phones, and so on in recent years. Sometimes this distracts others (the calls), while other times it distracts only me (playing games). So, I've decided to institute a "Class activity" grade.

The following statement now appears on my lower-level course syllabi, in order to give me a little more power in dealing with recalcitrant students:

Class Activity

This portion of your grade will be positively impacted primarily by coming to class and making positive contributions to in-class discussion. Other positive aspects include e-mail discussions and office visits that demonstrate you are thinking about the material in a substantial manner. Ways that this portion of your grade can be negatively affected include your cell phone ringing in class, talking on your cell phone, texting, reading the newspaper, sleeping, or any other sort of disruptive class behavior.

It seems that the downside of this is that on the first day of class, it could set an adversarial tone. I try to avoid this by injecting some humor into the class when I discuss this aspect of their grade. I also tell them that I'll understand if their phone rings once in class, but if it goes on it will hurt this portion of their grade.
How do others handle this issue?


  1. One colleague of mine, when a student's cell-phone rang in class, answered the 'phone for the student saying, 'Yes, this is George's cell-phone, but I'm afraid he's just told me that he doesn't like you any more, and he never wants to speak to you again.' A very risky tactic of course, since it might have been a close relative ringing with important news. Another colleague turned up to class with a bucket of water, announcing that any cell-phones that rang during the class would be dunked.

    I've never used such extreme tactics myself; like you, I prefer a non-confrontational approach, leavening my policies with a little humour. But if a few teachers use terrorist tactics, or are rumoured to use such tactics, it makes it easy for the rest of us to be nice guys by comparison. You can now say, 'I was having an on-line discussion with other professors, and one tactic that was recommended was to bring a bucket of water to class. Well, I won't be doing that, but cell-phones ringing can be a problem, here's my policy...'

  2. i find that humor in this area is counterproductive. more effective to be firm, even on the "mean" side. and, interestingly enough, making a point of it is also counterproductive. i make one comment about it on first day while going through syllabus. it gets the msg across. in the rare case it happens, a firm comment directed towards the individual student works well to deter other students.

  3. Surely there's a difference between adversarial and firm. I mention it at the beginning of the semester and note that it is thoroughly disrespectful to me and to the class, and that I simply won't allow it. These are just sound ground rules for the maintenance of the kind of environment needed for successful pedagogy, and I think you can be very firm about your insistence on maintaining that kind of environment. Thus, so long as you are firm while making clear why the rules are necessary, and that you aren't just making rules because you're a dictator and enjoy the power of command (which would be adversarial), I don't see the problem. I must admit, like qtn, I'm not sure why the humor would be necessary, if you aren't being adversarial.

  4. What follows is not what I'd recommend doing, but rather a funny anecdote, and an example of what I wouldn't do. It uses humor and shock to get the point across, and probably provided a good story, but I suspect it wasn't the most respectable thing to have done.

    A lecturer for whom I was a TA arranged for a little joke to be done on the students in the class. Two students were in on the joke from the beginning, and aided him in doing it since they disliked the cellphone annoyance too. They provided the lecturer with a broken cellphone. The first student said that they would call the second student's working cellphone in class; the second student would then pull out the broken cellphone and start mimicking a conversation on it in class. The lecturer would say, "Please turn it off, you're being very rude"; the second student would then respond, "This is important, hang on" or something like that. The lecturer, by this time clearly riled at the snub, would come to the student's seat, take the broken cellphone from the student's hand, and smash it on the lectern. Well, it happened just like that, and the whole class was simply floored, shocked into silence. Then practically every last one of them started switching off their cellphones. The lecturer later revealed that it was a prank, and the students were all quite relieved that the lecturer hadn't actually destroyed someone else's property - and they got the point.

    I think this was funny, but all the same a rather extreme tactic to use to get across a rather simple point; cellphones are disruptive in class and annoying for everyone. I think the extreme tactic I mentioned above got results, but it probably also made the students think (temporarily) that the lecturer could be somewhat dangerous, and could fly off the handle at some relatively minor provocation. That's what I worry about when people adopt humorous or extreme tactics. I also worry that it lowers the bar for behavior that I think professors ought to set for students.

  5. Why use humour in these situations?

    When I first started teaching I found, to my surprise, that my students were scared of me, this was partly a matter of my German accent (I'm British, but Nicaraguans often mistake me for German). I do tend to the strict side in policies and grading, aiming to be firm but fair, but I certainly never set out to be mean, nor did I dream that anyone would find me intimidating. So now I deliberately try to project a warm and friendly attitude. That's why I try to inject a little humour into these things - but it's just a matter of personal teaching style.

  6. I agree that humor is not necessary, and as Ben points out, it is a matter of teaching style. My own reasons for using it include my belief that most of my students are a bit intimidated on the first day, many of them are first-generation college students, and often what seems firm to us as profs feels adversarial to them as students, rightly or wrongly. Admittedly, I am hyper-sensitive to this stuff in the classroom, and this is just my way of dealing with the issue.

  7. I also think that student self-policing can be powerful here. I've sometimes began the quarter by asking the students what sorts of policies they they are reasonable with respect to attendance, disruptive behavior, etc. Typically common sense carries the day, but this seems to help to get everyone on board with the policy and to remind them that disruptive behavior is not simply or even mainly offensive to me but is in fact a barrier to others' learning.

  8. At this point, I think there's nothing much an individual professor can do about phones in class. They're ubiquitous and even the best and most polite students can forget to switch over to vibrate or off. I simply tell students that they should turn off their mobiles before any class, unless they're expecting a life-or-death call, in which case vibrate and sitting next to the door is the proper option. The mortification of forgetting to turn off your J-Lo ringtone seems to do the rest.

    But I think Mike's larger question is going unanswered here. What does everyone think about including respect, politeness, and class activity in a student's grade? I know Chris and I have argued about this from time to time. I'm actually more of the opinion that while participation is a necessary part of learning to do philosophy in my courses, other things that Mike has listed under Classroom Activity should perhaps be dealt with in ways separate from the course grade.

    Disruptive behavior (and God help the first student of mine who tries to read the newspaper during class), thwarts everyone's ability to learn. De-incentivizing it by penalizing the grade tends not to work on students who really just want a passing grade. On the negative side, it can penalize the good student who misjudged his or her wakedness level, mobile phone ring state, or otherwise. Such behavior has to be dealt with by a pre- or post-class "professorial talk" in my opinion that attempts to conjure some sense of being a part of the university community.

    I prefer grades to reflect how much a student has learned in the course and use other measures for disruptive behavior.

  9. Unless prior arranagments are made, I do not allow any use of electronic equipment during class sessions. I simply make it part of my syllabus. I have never had a serious problem.

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  11. First, I just came across this blog, and so thanks for providing such a great resource for a young philosophy professor!

    On a practical note, my issue with cellphones, and classroom discipline in general, is that I'm afraid to institute any policies that I can't actually enforce. With a class of forty or more, it's often difficult to even know whose cell phone went off, and since it usually is one of the less conscientious students in the back row who never talks, I probably haven't figured out their name. I don't want to put myself in a situation where I say I am going to take off points if a cell goes off, when in practice I have no way of knowing whose it was, and even if I knew which student, I don't necessarily know their name... and I especially don't want to ask in front of the class whose cell phone it was and have them refuse to tell me!

  12. I often include participation as a small part of the total grade, and I do reserve the right to include "negative" participation as well as positive, but I have never actually done so.

    Re: Classroom civility--
    I point out the first day of class that I do expect them to show respect for one another, and that includes not being disruptive in class, as well as being conscientious in discussions. When I've had a student behave inappropriately in class (e.g. reading a newspaper, carrying on conversations), I pull them aside after class and QUITE firmly tell them that while I really don't care how rude they are to me, I will NOT have them treat their peers that way. Their classmates are paying as much for this course as they are and have the right to be able to learn in a pleasant environment. The few times I've had to have this conversation, it worked IMMEDIATELY. It seems that students are either just being careless, or only thinking about bugging me. When I point out that the people really being punished are their classmates, they seem to respond well.

    Re: Cell Phones
    I use humor. The first time a cell phone rings, I look up at them, startled, and ask, "Did I go into detail about my cell phone policy?" They say no. Now, I usually have a pretty good rapport with them by this point. I tell them, "My rule is, if you disrupt class by allowing your cell phone to ring, you owe it to your classmates to provide some entertainment, so you should dance to the ringtone. Since I forgot to mention this before, I'll let it go this time, but that's the rule from here on out." The students usually find this pretty funny, and subsequently I usually only hear a partial ring before the student moves swiftly to turn it off. (There was one class, though, which demanded enforcement. I would suggest to the offender that he offer them a quick "cabbage patch", and I would do it with him.)

  13. Now that I'm nearing the end of the semester, I've had some time to reflect on how to handle this issue, especially the use of cell phones for texting and the like in class. I'm moving to the view that grades should just be based on tests, papers, case studies, and participation, where participation includes showing up and being actively involved in the class. I think the best way to handle the other issues of classroom behavior are to simply deal with it as it arises, after pointing out what is expected on day one. Thanks for the many points and perspectives raised in response to this post.


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