Classroom Decorum

How far should I go in imposing behavioral rules in my classroom? I have a new thought on that–new to me anyway, which is that the classroom is my professional environment, and I have the legitimate authority to make it professionally conducive for my own benefit.

I’ve had multiple on-line discussions about this, and it’s clear that I’m far apart from some other people on this matter. I take attendance, for example, which some people think is outrageous in college–after all, they’re adults, and if they want to waste their opportunities, too bad for them. I’m very sympathetic to that idea, except my experience teaches me that the students aren’t really adults yet, at least not for their first two years (and in my upper-level classes, attended primarily by juniors and seniors in my major, I don’t always take attendance, other than to keep an eye out for those who become conspicuous by their absence(s)).

I also have argued that requiring attendance (and that students arrive on time), banning texting, requiring students to resubmit emails that fell short of basic professional standards, etc., is a legitimate effort in preparing students for the working world. Some have asked whether that is actually what I should be focusing on, and whether that distracts from the substantive education. I think it is one of the things I should be focusing on, and that rather than distract from the substantive education, it enhances it by forcing students to take the whole process more seriously, and also by minimizing disruptions in the classroom that detract from other students’ learning environment. I’ve also said that I wouldn’t necessarily do this if I was teaching at a community college, or a large public university, but because the students at the private college where I work are paying such a premium price (or their parents are), it’s the responsibility of us faculty to give them some benefits they wouldn’t necessarily receive at those schools. (Then again, I’m sure that there are faculty at those schools who do impose such rules, and do seek to professionalize their students, and if I worked at one I might find myself acting just as I do here.)

But more recently, I have realized that there is another reason for me to make such demands on my students, which has nothing to do with their benefits, but mine. I want them to act professional because I want my work environment to be professional. I spend a large portion of my time at work, and it’s conducive to my well-being if everything runs professionally. I am happier and less stressed. This is my career–I think I’d be a fool not to try to make my work environment conducive for my own happiness. That assumes, of course, that I’m not doing it at others’ expense, but I think it’s clear enough that no harm comes to students from these requirements.

Some would argue that the students are my customers, paying my salary, so who am I to be giving orders to them. But there are enough examples of businesses that set certain standards for their customers. Fine restaurants that require a jacket and tie for men and dresses for women, for example. Or a lawyer who tells his client, “you will put on a button down shirt and tie for your court date.”

I don’t want to overdo the emphasis on professionalism. I know people who think the term means to be cold, distant, and uncaring about how your decisions affect individuals. I’ve even been on the receiving end of that kind of pseudo-professionalism. I’ve had enough friends who were/are business executives to know that’s not professional at all. I believe it means in large part to treat each person cordially and fairly while demanding the best they’re capable of doing. Oddly, I’m not at all by nature professional. I’d far rather be barefoot and wearing shorts than put on dress shoes and a tie (which always makes me feel like I’m choking if I actually snug up the knot the way you’re supposed to do). But I do because I think it works better in my classroom. Students see me acting professionally, and that makes it easier to get them to act professionally in response. And that makes my job much more pleasant.

Not everything needs to be justified by whether it provides benefits to others, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact them. And I’m satisfied that developing a beneficial work environment for myself is a legitimate goal.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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9 Responses to Classroom Decorum

  1. James K says:

    I had many classes a university where attendance was not merely taken, but it actually contributed to the grade. In fact this was more common in high level courses than low level ones.

    The reasoning went that in high level papers a large part of the course’s value came from discussion with the other students so if you didn’t show up you were adversely affecting everyone else’s education.

    I’m also similar to you on the subject of professionalism, though for me it’s more contingent. While shorts and a t-shirt are more comfortable for me generally, I’d be very uncomfortable wearing them to work. By wearing dress trousers and a shirt and tie (I even wear waistcoats) I feel like I’m at work, and that helps me keep a certain mindset at the office. Though I will say that I knot my ties in such a way that they’re comfortable.

  2. Mark Boggs says:

    Not to be too cynical, but the kids who care won’t mind. The kids who think it’s all a pain in the ass just for them to get a “stupid piece of paper” so they can get a job are pretty much finding any requirement to be draconian and off-putting. That’s probably too much focus on the extremes, but my expertly acquired anecdotal evidence seems to support this. And maybe I’m just a masochist, but the teachers who were the hardest are the ones I enjoyed the most.

  3. I think the principal and most important justifications for regulating classroom decorum and attendance are the way doing so helps the student learn “professionalism” or helps the classroom experience (i.e., stops distracting behavior, ensures fairness for those students who show up on time). I tend to think creating a better workplace for the instructor should be only a secondary reason. (I’m not saying you’re not saying this, only somethings that I believe to be true.)

    When it comes to attendance requirements, there are two principal reasons I use them. First, people coming in late is distracting to students. Second, whether attendance is officially required or not, I tend to let regular or irregular attendance into my calculation of students’ grades, especially when a student is on the borderline between two grades. By making the requirement explicit, I alert students to what I am already doing.

    I think my student base was somewhat different from Mr. Hanley’s (I am not teaching at the moment). A large proportion (though not a majority) were non-traditional aged students: some were in their 30s or 40s and others, while maybe in their 20s, had a lot more experience in the non-academic world than I had at their age or even at my age (some were veterans who had served in Iraq, for example). Because of this fact, I sometimes had second thoughts about tut-tutting when it comes to attendance and tardiness because I could expect most of these students to be professional (i.e., show up on time, have good excuses for occasions when they don’t show up or turn in something late, be willing to take the consequences when they don’t have “good” excuses).

  4. D. C. Sessions says:

    RE: attendance.

    Every meeting I’ve been in for the last twenty years or so took attendance, if only for distribution of the meeting minutes. The same applies to classroom attendance, even if it’s not a strict part of the grading: a student who claims “you never told us …” is then confronted with the fact that she cut the class where it was announced or discussed.

    As someone who paid out of pocket to send two of mine out of state precisely for the benefits of a smaller university, I’ll endorse the “what are they getting for their money” analysis, too. The students, after all, aren’t necessarily the “customers,” the people writing the checks are and especially at a SLAC that’s almost never the student. One of the things that students (at least should) get from a SLAC or other small university is that the faculty take a personal interest in the students. Which (this parent observes) includes noticing that a student is headed into the ditch before getting stuck in the mud — and that means paying attention to class attendance.

  5. Re: who’s the customer and is it good to think of students as customers

    I tend to think it doesn’t make much difference as to who is the customer (i.e., the student or the parent) because it is possible that both could have bad expectations. I have heard stories of parents calling instructors about their (adult) children’s failing grades, only to be told (and rightly so, in my view) that the school cannot share information on the student without that student’s authorization.

    When it comes to students (or whoever) as customers, I think it’s a question of what is being purchased. I suggest–and I think most agree with at least 90% of this–that students aren’t purchasing a grade,* but they are lessons in whatever discipline they are studying and collateral lessons (practicing writing and, perhaps, training in being “professional”).

    *I actually do tend to think that at least at public universities, people are in a sense “purchasing a grade” because there seems to be an understanding (at least in practice) that if a student jumps through x number of hoops (and doesn’t cheat), then he or she will get y grade worth z credits toward graduation. I’m not sure this is wholly a bad thing in that I would like to try experimenting with

  6. D. C. Sessions says:

    I’m not sure this is wholly a bad thing in that I would like to try experimenting with

    Damn. Interesting topic in social psychology ($DAUGHTER’s subject, but the question is not her research interest.)

    Would you set up two sections, one with an algorithmic “do this and get this grade” plan and the other with a “work you butt off and you’ll learn as much as I can possibly help you learn” plan, or what? The experimental design would appear to be somewhat challenging.

  7. Would you set up two sections, one with an algorithmic “do this and get this grade” plan and the other with a “work you butt off and you’ll learn as much as I can possibly help you learn” plan, or what? The experimental design would appear to be somewhat challenging.

    Yikes, I actually intended to erase that sentence about “experimenting.” However, I posted it, so fair’s fair.

    If I did this experiment, I would do so without any control groups, except if one could count the other classes I’ve already taught as “control” groups.

  8. D. C. Sessions says:

    $DAUGHTER and I have discussed (idly) setting up a “contract” grading system, where the student is somewhat in charge of hir objectives for the semester and is graded on achieving them. It’s an interesting approach, which I’ve seen used in some classes, but it’s more work for the instructor.

  9. Michael Heath says:

    Love the rules and the reasons. I think I would have when I was in college as well given that I soon realized cramming was for losers; that if you had a systemic approach to your workload which for me had me always reading prior to class and then actually showing up.

    As someone else stated, the serious ones will have no problem with it and the unserious will be more clearly identified.

    My only bitch about “too much” was a class in economic history and German I that were both three credit courses each with the workload of five. When you’re working your way through school that can be hell. I dropped the German and gave up on the hope of learning a second language in college. I couldn’t figure out how to do it, work, and finish in 3.75 years even though I took summer classes after both my sophomore and junior years.

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