Going to the Bathroom

Terry Caesar remembers when students dealt with bodily functions after class -- and considers their unwillingness to wait today.

March 4, 2005

The other day I had my composition students in groups, ready to "peer edit," according to the latest pedagogy. Suddenly one student just got up, and started for the door. I glared at her. "Just going to the bathroom," she airly explained. I did not reply.

Wrong. I should have said or done something. We cannot have students wandering out of our classrooms at will. That way lies -- what? High school? Or do they ask permission from the teacher first in high school? Elementary school? This is where they are presumably taught to ask, and certainly where they must learn to discipline their bodily functions.

Most likely my student did not have to go to the bathroom. She just wanted to stroll a bit before bending to the task at hand. Another student might have been more aggressive, in order to demonstrate her dislike of the task, if not school itself. But in any case, what to do? If doing nothing seems wrong, shouting at the student to sit down does not seem right.

I have always thought of the bathroom as marking the moment of discipline in the college classroom. Any student mention of the bathroom, whether in good faith or not, becomes as impossible to deal with as it is inescapable. When students do anything in the classroom that merits the exercise of faculty discipline, professors are on their own. The easiest thing for everybody to do is to look the other way. There are few rules, unlike those in place for elementary, middle, and high school teachers.

Even if a student asks permission to go to the bathroom, what I want to reply is, "Don't put me in the position of having to answer such a question." But of course the teacher, as a teacher, is precisely in such a position -- on every educational level. Some provocations we professors acknowledge. Some we do not. Let the bathroom represent one we do not because it has to do with our authority over the student body.

This authority is at present elaborately monitored when it comes to sex. However, the prohibitions and penalties regarding sex are strikingly in contrast to their absence regarding anything else having to do with the student body. How can we explain this? After all, we can readily acknowledge that, outside or inside the classroom, no body remains entirely still, stable and quiescent.

It seems to me that on the college level we are all expected to be intellects. Hence, the discipline we exercise over our desires is ultimately no different than that we exercise over our bodily functions. Nonetheless, there is a difference, and that difference becomes quite dramatic in a classroom, which is, after all, the basic scene of instruction in formal education. The necessity to go to the bathroom disrupts this scene.

This is another way of saying, it seems to me, that the classroom can be disrupted. In practice, it matters how, and so the student who talks or mutters, rustles paper or puts his or her head down on the desk, may not be as bad as the one who interrupts a lecture without raising a hand, spreads out and slowly eats a whole sandwich, or leaves the classroom and returns repeatedly. In principle, though, any disruption calls for some response from the teacher.

What makes going to the bathroom so distinctive and uncomfortable is that, while still disruptive, it partakes of some necessity that is socially if not pedagogically acceptable. In most other cases, the professor can understandably lift a cry to the heavens, bemoaning how university life used to be, before hordes of student barbarians broke through the gates, with their plastic slurppies, their taco chips, their baggy clothes and their baggy values. But the bathroom we have always with us.

Do we not? The trouble is, if we have, why do I not remember a student ever leaving the classroom to go to the bathroom during my own college years? (Much less sleeping or eating.) Once during graduate school I remember a student was asked to leave, because he would not stop talking to the person next to him. He left immediately. The rest of us could not have been more shocked than if he had got up suddenly and squatted in front of his chair.

During my more than 30 subsequent years as a professor I remember a few students pleading bodily necessity in asking permission to leave. The first was a male, who basked in his boldness after he asked. I told him, "sure, you can go, but don't come back." Then it seemed he didn't have to go so urgently after all. I insisted, saying that I couldn't live with either his urethra or his anus on my conscience. The rest of the class laughed. Those were the days.

The rest of the students who pleaded have been more serious, more apparently stricken, and all female. Is the moment of the bathroom in fact a gendered one? It appears to be. Males are expected to exercise control over their bodily functions as an expression of being "male." Are females not expected to exercise the same control so strenuously, as a contrary expression of being "female"? Of course, whether or not this is true, female students if they either want to or must leave class can usually draw on a degree of mystified male latitude for anything to do with menstruation.

We return to the body, the repressed question of discipline in the college classroom, and what, if anything, to conclude. Other than recognizing the question, there is, I would argue, nothing to conclude.

Different professors will respond in different ways to classroom disruptions, and even to the same disruption represented by going to the bathroom. Some responses will be better than others, and some will probably always be hapless. So be it.

Certainly more rules and regulation about student behavior in class or teacher responsibility to discipline that behavior will only result in universities becoming more like high schools than they are. Already the specter of the assistant dean haunts college halls like the principal or the superintendent, and students recognize this. The more clever know that they can secure a hearing in the dean's office about virtually anything to do with their teachers.

The other day I heard of a teacher who is being e-mailed by one of her students from the previous semester. The student is demanding an explanation of her grade, and has stated that she will go to the dean if a satisfactory justification is not forthcoming. Presumably she knows that the institution (a small liberal arts college) requires that in such cases the student must first meet with the teacher and the department chair, prior to a meeting with the dean.

Of course the student wants her grade changed. The surprising thing is this: she wants it not an A- but an A. When I last heard, the student was still e-mailing, while the teacher, in order to avoid the chair, not to mention the dean, was considering just changing the grade, to hell with it. How to hear this and not long again for the days when, well, when students, even college students, asked permission from their teachers to go to the bathroom? But those days are gone.

What we have now is a cultural dispensation where the precious space of the classroom has been breached by everything from television monitors to Subway sandwiches and cellphones. At local levels, in specific ways, it still might be possible to dispute, contest, or restrict the circumstances. But not their larger authority. One may as well try to wish away e-mail, if not assistant deans. The route from inside the classroom to outside (and back again) is firmly and irrevocably in place inside higher education.

The bathroom now has a role, albeit a minor one, in this place. Why worry about it, from the student point of view? If you are in class, and you have to go, just go, or use it as an excuse to go. Meanwhile, there may be an air of nostalgia from the point of view of a teacher about the very idea of a student asking permission. Perhaps I said nothing not only because I felt so baffled by the student who just got up the other day. I may have suddenly felt wistful. The very idea of "disciplining" her in some way, once so distasteful, now seemed utterly charming and even sweetly poignant.


Terry Caesar is the author or co-editor of seven books, including three on academic life, the most recent being Traveling Through the Boondocks.



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