Some professors threaten to confiscate students' cell phones if they go off during class. Laurence Thomas has his own approach to classroom distractions. If the philosopher at Syracuse University catches a student sending text messages or reading a newspaper in class, he'll end the class on the spot and walk out. It doesn't matter if there is but one texter in a large lecture of hundreds of students. If you text, he will leave.
Last week, when a student in a large lecture -- in the front row no less -- sent a text message, Thomas followed through on his threat (as he had done just a few days earlier). And he then sent the university's chancellor, his dean, and all of the students an e-mail message explaining his actions and his frustration at the "brazen" disrespect he had received in class. In the e-mail, he noted that the student who sent the text message is Cuban, and that last year, two Latino students had started to play tic-tac-toe during his class.
While Thomas noted that white students are also rude, he expressed frustration that -- especially as a minority scholar himself -- he would be treated in this way. "One might have thought that for all the talk about racism and the good of social equality, non-white students would be particularly committed to respecting a black professor," Thomas wrote.
Thomas followed up with a second e-mail, noting that at least one parent of a student had complained about two classes being called off. "Everyone has to understand that respect is a two-way street. I respect you, as I endeavor to do and you respect me. My experience has been that confronting students directly and asking them to stop has virtually no effect. I walk out to underscore the importance of what this means to me," he wrote.
The e-mail went on: "Now, I do not know how this will unfold. But I will either not teach the course PHI 191 in the future or I will simply resign from Syracuse University. But what I will not do is tolerate such brazen disrespect for me. I am an old fashion individual in that I believe in principles of right and wrong that transcend every race/ethnicity and sexual identity. Ethnic diversity has become the gospel of Syracuse University. I maintain that ethnic diversity shorn of respect is utterly vapid. The respect that I demand of you stems not from arrogance or any sense of self-importance but from my unfailing commitment to your excellence. And when talk about all else blinds us to this reality, then the classroom becomes empty and meaningless."
The incident has set off a debate at Syracuse -- and multiple e-mail messages from the professor to his class, which have since been forwarded widely at the university -- about what steps are appropriate for a professor to assure respect during a class, and when the mention of race is appropriate. Thomas, who has published widely and won awards for his teaching,  has many fans on the campus. But many are disturbed by last week's events and the opinions posted on the Web site of The Daily Orange  run all over the place.
One person sympathetic to Thomas posted: "You have no idea what it's like trying to teach people and do something positive for them, only to have them completely ignore you and disrespect your work by sending text messages or playing tic tac toe during class. It's ridiculous. Not only is it clearly affecting this man's work, but it is affecting the students that he is trying to teach as well."
One student took a far more critical view: "We the students are the customers, the consumers, the ones who make the choice every day to pay attention or not. I pay approximately $30,000 to go here, whether I text in class or not. Laurence Thomas gets paid whether his students text in class or not. Does he think that this is the first time this has happened on any college campus? Had he acted like nearly 100 percent of the other college professors in this country, he would have shrugged it off and continued with his lecture, which he is getting paid to do. His deterring of the class and exit from the lecture only serves to highlight is own selfishness, as he will get paid while his paying students are having their time and money wasted. He needs to get over himself here."
Syracuse's chancellor, Nancy Cantor, has spoken out repeatedly in her career about issues of diversity and civility and the ideas of campus community. But a spokesman for the university said that Syracuse would have no comment on the situation. The spokesman also said that the university would not answer general questions, such as whether the university considers it acceptable for professors to walk out on classes because of the behavior of a single student.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Thomas described his perspective on what happened -- and why he responded as he did. First, he stressed that he warns students of his policies at the beginning of his courses (and comments in the Syracuse student newspaper confirm this). He also said that he feels he has no choice but to go with a group response. He also said that he carefully prepares every class session, even picking out appropriate music to play to go with his lectures. He doesn't take his responsibilities lightly, he said.
"Back in the day, a professor could have gotten into a student's face and said 'don't do such and such.' You would be up for a lawsuit if you did that today, and if student says no, there is a stalemate, and I look like a fool." With a female student, he added, a professor could be accused of sexual harassment.
"If you walk out, you make a statement," he said. And in the past, the statement has generally made the point, he said.
Thomas said he applies his policy to text messaging or opening a newspaper in class. He is more tolerant than some professors of a cell phone going off, saying that he realizes that everyone forgets to turn off the phone sometimes. He also said that in a large course -- this introductory class had nearly 400 students -- it would be possible for many students to text without getting caught. But the student last week -- and the students whose ethnicity he mentioned from an incident last year -- all sat in the front row.
Many have wondered how he happened to know the student's ethnicity and why he remarked on it. Thomas said that before class starts, he chats informally with students and that on the fateful day last week, he was talking with a group of students about politics. He made a reference to the fact that he didn't want the white students to feel that they couldn't be honest with their views even though he is black. The student who later texted during class was with the group of students Thomas addressed, assuming them to be white, and she shot back "I'm Cuban."
Thomas said that in noting her ethnicity, and that of other students who have prompted him to leave class, he was simply being factual. He also said that he realizes that people may have backgrounds that are or aren't visible and that are or aren't relevant. He noted in his e-mail to students, for example, that he is both black and Jewish and that he understands that he does "not have the 'Jewish' look."
He wrote: "Something has gone terribly wrong when a student can become indignant about being mistaken for white (her physical appearance to the contrary notwithstanding), and yet be utterly oblivious to her brazen disrespect for the black professor who is lecturing fewer than 15 feet before her. After all, text-messaging is very intentional behavior. One cannot unthinkingly engage in text-messaging."
In the interview, he said that there was nothing wrong with making an "observation" about the Latino students whose behavior bothered him. He noted that, in the past, he has also walked out of class on account of the behavior of black students and white students. He said that he was in no way suggesting any correlation between Latino background and rudeness.
Despite his second e-mail to students, in which he implied that he might face job difficulties because of the discussion of his conduct, Thomas said he had no fear for his job. He said that he hasn't been approached by any of his superiors and doesn't expect to be sanctioned. "Since I'm a tenured professor, you'd have to show criminal behavior or gross negligence," he said.
At least one national expert on dealing with classroom misbehavior thinks that Thomas went about it the wrong way.
Gerald Amada is the author of Coping With the Disruptive College Student: A Practical Model and Coping With Misconduct in the College Classroom: A Practical Model, and gives workshops on these topics at colleges all over the United States. His books were published in the 90s, before cell phones were permanently attached to most students, but he said that in his workshops, he hears constant complaints about students who receive calls or text during class.
Asked about the idea of walking out on a class when a student sends text messages, Amada said: "It's a horrible strategy. There is something inherently wrong from a moral standpoint with collective punishment. It's punitive. It's unreasonable because it holds all students responsible for the behavior of all other students. It's not legitimate."
Amada said that while he understands the frustration professors feel, "there's only one person in that room who has the bureaucratic, legal, and moral authority to establish discipline -- and that's the instructor." He said that he would have no problem with an instructor telling a student who is texting to leave the class. If the student refuses (or even if the student complies), the instructor should write up notes with the student's name and report the student (assuming the instructor has made this a clear rule at the beginning of the semester).
Telling a student to leave "may not be easy or pleasant," Amada said, but it's fair.
Another bit of advice Amada offered: In writing up reports about students who send text messages or refuse to leave when asked, only include what's relevant. Making reference to a student's race or ethnicity can lead to lawsuits and prevent a disruptive student from being punished, Amada said. He goes so far as to say that if a professor happened to be a psychologist and believed a disruptive student had a psychological condition that related to the disruption, he would urge the professor not to speculate about that condition, but to file a report detailing the behavior.
"What's relevant to discipline is what the student did," he said.