Things Have Changed

“I’m not a communist,” I said cryptically to a class the other day after I’d come in and sat down. I stopped talking as if I intended to leave it there and began to take roll silently. “But…?” a sharp young guy said. His peers seemed ready to let such an odd declaration go by without comment.


May 10, 2011

“I’m not a communist,” I said cryptically to a class the other day after I’d come in and sat down. I stopped talking as if I intended to leave it there and began to take roll silently. “But…?” a sharp young guy said. His peers seemed ready to let such an odd declaration go by without comment.

I thanked him for engaging and explained that I do believe large-scale economic forces cause disruption in unexpected places, including creative writing classrooms, and I alluded to a rash of inappropriate workshop comments and hurt feelings in another section, for which there was little explanation. Then I reminded them all of my expectations for workshop behavior and of university resources available to them, such as the counseling center, the health center, and the Dean of Students Office, if they felt stressed or overwhelmed for any reason. We’re here to help them succeed.

It’s been a semester of weird behavior, even compared to past ones. I’ve written comically about disruptions in the past because they turned out to be nonevents, but they’re not often funny at the time. One student, years ago, acted so strangely and hostilely that I felt he was capable of classroom violence, but I was shut down by my direct boss for lack of actionable evidence. As I headed into the small, windowless, cinderblock room where I taught, I told a friend on the phone that I had about a 40% chance of being killed that day, and I meant it. Mostly it made me angry at the university, which left me no recourse but to do my job—with no combat pay—and hope for the best.

Disruptions this semester were nothing like that, but their details were unusual for my classroom, which if I do say so myself is run with rigor, insight, and sometimes intensity, while maintaining a professional, respectful atmosphere. There’s something about my age, appearance, demeanor, and experience that have kept outbursts, tardiness, electronic-device use and other problems to a minimum. But these and other problems have increased in the last couple of years, by which I mean there have been two or three events a semester, up from pretty much none for the decade before that. I can't help but think that hard times, uncertain futures for college graduates, and national debates about what college is even good for contribute to bad behavior.

Teacher concerns here about disruptions have always been handled within the department, which is to say not at all, and policy statements, guidelines, or information on the nature of students as a whole are virtually nonexistent at higher levels.

(Just off the top of a Google search, policies or discussion on classroom discussion at Louisville, College of Charleston, SUNY-Buffalo, Michigan State, Northern Illinois, and Virginia Tech. If there is one such document for the whole uni here, I’m not aware of it.)

Nobody wishes for campus-wide problems, but it was actually something of a relief to hear officially that disruption has been on the rise here and across the country for more than a decade, and my own recent run-ins a tiny part of the whole.

The admission came when our Dean of Students Office called in a speaker recently to conduct an unusual off-site session titled, “Classroom Management: Preventing and Intervening with Disruptive Students In and Out of the Classroom.” The speaker was a lawyer who worked in conflict resolution at two other institutions and taught law.

He said he’d forgotten to bring important PowerPoint slides that showed graphs of the dramatic rise of disruptions in recent years, so he waved his hands wildly to indicate statistics really, really changed a lot. He blamed the Millennials for this rise and was there to speak on the legality of dealing with them. He said—I kid you not—that the problem was due to everyone getting t-shirts at track meets, whether they won or not. There were no handouts of substance.

His own persona was bullying—he apologized for his sarcasm—and he called himself “at best, a benevolent dictator” in the classroom. In his explanation of classroom management he boasted of doing things (demanding a student’s buzzing phone, answering it, and telling mom curtly that she’s interrupting his class) that made me think he’s lucky tenure exists, though it might still get him his own feature article one day in the pages of IHE.

Yet I was interested in his insistence that this was a generational issue, brought on by helicopter parenting, social media, and other cultural and technological changes that left students unprepared to know how to act once away from the structure of home. (I was reminded of a long discussion recently with a dean who described his college’s awareness that mental disorders are better diagnosed than ever before, and drugs more helpful and available to treat them, but that students who’ve always had mom or dad to remind them to take their meds are on their own for the first time here.) The speaker said Millennials have an enormous sense of entitlement and don’t understand how to fit into a discourse community because their social skills are stunted by Facebook, texting, and video games. What they need is structure and retraining in social behaviors, he said, and everything about our classrooms should provide that, starting with firm rules listed clearly in syllabi, and instant but calm addressing of behavioral issues when they happen.

His talk was of most use when he provided specific case studies, including one in which a student at another institution had a psychotic break that nearly ended in violence, and which might have been prevented entirely if other students, teachers, facilities workers, and administrators who knew individual parts of his problem hadn’t chosen to stay silent or felt incapable of intervening due to worries over privacy issues. The speaker talked about his own department, which he called The Conflict Office, having a “bigger picture” of student behavior over time that individual instructors could never have, and he pleaded for periodic “benign e-mails” from instructors with problem students rather than the single apocalyptic e-mail alluding to weeks of an ongoing problem.

To my understanding, we’ve never had such an office to turn to. The Dean of Students Office, which hosted this event, usually advertises itself as a resource for students, not instructors:

The Dean of Students Office implements a variety of programs and services to assist and support students in achieving academic and personal success. The Office provides important educational and developmental opportunities, serves as student advocates, empowers students to be successful, and promotes students’ rights and responsibilities.

But I saw this speaker’s session as an important step to helping me do my job better, so I asked the dean of that unit, who was in attendance, what we were meant to do about benign e-mails. He welcomed me to contact him directly. A week later I had a student who was so upset and inarticulate that I had to ask if he meant to hurt himself, and with a single quick e-mail to the dean, the student received help from two places and is not only alive but functioning.


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