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Madeleine Elfenbein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. You can find her on her website and on Twitter at @maddy_e.


Porcupine from Flickr.jpg


When I first started teaching college students, I was pretty sure I knew how to handle them. It was clear enough to me that I knew something they didn’t. Whenever we sat down together, I could feel myself bristling with sophistication, erudition, coolness, and high principles, along with a fervent desire for my students to recognize and emulate my finest qualities. I was so ready to teach those kids; I just needed them to abandon their self-regard and submit to my charisma first.


My desire for recognition from my students made me feel a lot less cool than I wanted to feel, and it sat rather uncomfortably with my commitment to a participatory classroom. All I wanted was for them to experience what I had gone through at the hands of my own best teachers. My mistake was to imagine that I could will that experience upon them through pedagogical pyrotechnics, as if the magic could happen all on my side.


What makes for a good classroom experience? I’m fascinated by the cycles of enthusiasm and resistance that give the student-teacher relationship its peculiar charge. Without that charge, the pedagogical circuit doesn’t complete, and you all end up bored in the classroom. But the pedagogical charge itself is a bit dangerous. On one end of the spectrum, we get teachers and students who love each other too much, routing all that energy through the wrong circuit and breaking the flow of ideas. On the other end, the circuit can break when things get so intense that students back away.


It wasn’t until my first encounter with Robert Boice’s 2000 classic Advice For New Faculty that I began to reflect on the different ways the pedagogical circuit gets broken and how to fix it when it does. I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for Boice’s unusual wisdom as a scholar-practitioner of academic life. Boice contends that scholars work better when we work in brief, daily sessions, undertaken in a spirit of patient moderation and with a sense of playful detachment from the results of our efforts. It turns out that a similar spirit of playfulness and moderation is just as useful in the classroom.


Boice dedicates one of the chapters of his book to addressing the disruptive behaviors, or “classroom incivilities,” that mar the teaching experience of so many young instructors. He’s talking about those students who come to class late or not at all, who don’t open their books or take a single note in class, who never raise their hands except to ask a derailing question. But he also means the less rankly offensive stuff: the sighs, confused looks, slumped postures, and other distress signals that students send up when they’re not following along.


Based on years of sitting in other instructors’ classrooms, Boice observes that instructors who are female, non-white, or otherwise “nontraditional,” to use his twentieth-century word, have to work harder than others to prove their authority in the classroom, and are much more likely to encounter skepticism and hostility from their students. This is beyond question. Even so, he insists that instructors as a whole, even the “nontraditional” ones, have more power than we realize to set the tone of their classrooms.


To begin with, Boice observes, gently, that “classroom incivilities often start with teachers’ own incivilities, however unconscious.” When we stalk into the classroom with a frown, avoid eye contact and chitchat, and immediately “get down to business,” we may think think we’re being cautious and professional, but Boice suggests we’re also being uncivil. When we mock our students for grade-grubbing, use guilt or shame to motivate them, or communicate disdain for our students’ tastes and enthusiasms, we don’t win any extra professional respect. And finally, when we speak too fast to be understood and deny students the opportunity to ask questions, we communicate an indifference to their learning that is perhaps the most uncivil attitude a teacher can express.


The teachers who do these things are usually not jerks; they’re often just shy, preoccupied, or defensive. Boice wants us to know that there are other ways to teach. Here is a short list of things I’ve learned from Boice about how to moderate incivilities – my students’ and my own – and have more fun in my classroom.


1. Model kindness. What does this mean? For starters, be nice. You may think you’re friendly to your students, but do you “demonstrate immediacies” with them, as Boice would have you do? Do you smile at them, address them by name, lean toward them when speaking and listening, and generally express warmth and enthusiasm for their input? (You won’t know for sure unless you record your class.) Boice believes that these immediacies can be taught, which is reassuring. What is less reassuring is his disregard for the fact, noted by the historian Martha Hanna, that plenty of instructors may have good reason for avoiding certain kinds of “immediacies.” If your authority in the classroom is in question, you’ll want to use your discretion to decide how nice you can afford to be, and then allow yourself to be that nice and no nicer.


2. Talk to your students. Alright, you say, but how? Pre- and post-class small talk is nice, but not obligatory. I like Boice’s suggestion to make at least one visit to your office hours “a firm yet congenial course requirement,” in order to give yourself a chance to exchange some friendly words with every single one of your students. I was skeptical of the idea at first, only to discover that I enjoy it quite a bit, and I’ve found it a valuable source of intelligence about what’s working in the classroom and what’s not. Particularly with those students who normally rely on classroom incivilities to communicate their alienation, these interactions are wonderful for relaxing the tension and negotiating a separate peace: they can let you know what’s going on with them if they want, and you can let them know that they’re welcome to earn a poor grade in your course without incurring your personal rancor.


3. Be transparent and predictable. Students really like to know what’s going to happen next. Do them a favor and write out a clear syllabus (full of warmth and enthusiasm, if you can muster it), with clear grading criteria and expectations for class participation. Write it as though you assume they want to do things right, not as though you expect them to plagiarize, malinger, and maliciously forget to double-space their assignments. Remind them when things are due, and give advance notice before you hand back something you’ve graded. Avoid nasty surprises.


4. Don’t overprepare. This is a kindness to yourself as well as your students. After resisting this teaching for some years, I’ve come to appreciate the truth that long hours spent writing out detailed lesson plans are a waste when they lead you to deliver rushed lectures that your students can’t follow. It’s more efficient, and more fun, to design flexible teaching plans that allow your students to help set the agenda for each class, if only by soliciting their questions in order to respond to them.


The model of teaching that emerges from Boice’s book is less glamorous and euphoric than the visions that filled my head when I sat down with my first batch of college students. And yet, although some part of me sighs and puts its head on the table to hear myself say it, I suspect it’s a lot more effective. It’s gotten me past the focus on my own performance and more interested in what’s going on with my students. What sorts of sophistication, erudition, and high principles are they bristling with? In a Boicean spirit of playful moderation, I can’t wait to find out.


What are your experiences with classroom incivilities, and what techniques have you used to deal with them?

[Illustration from The Wild and Woolly Animal Book by Nita Jonas, illustrated by Dale Maxey, 1961, from Flickr user Elizabeth, used under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0]

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