Leopards in the Temple

Dealing with "unacceptable" student behavior is difficult, Terry Caesar writes, because the concept is so hard to define.
June 12, 2006

Awhile ago a colleague mentioned to me a moment 10 minutes into one of his  classes. He was still trying to establish the framework for a discussion when suddenly one of the students stood up and strode to the front. As he walked right in front of him, the student paused and asked, "is there any assignment?" My colleague was startled -- as much by the casualness of the question as the question itself. Before he could manage an answer, the student had resumed walking. In another second or two, he was out the door.

Had this happened to me, I would have been very upset. What utter rudeness! It's as if the classroom was a Cineplex, and the class a movie in which anybody in the audience was free to exit at any time. But the classroom is in fact more akin to a stage, and the class a play, starring everyone, whose performance is live and unique, each time. But my colleague wasn't particularly upset. He just shrugged and resumed his address to the rest of the class, which didn't appear to be especially unsettled. Perhaps they had seen worse. My colleague certainly had.

That's the trouble with trying to define a disruptive action. There will always be the spectacle of something worse. Moreover, one person's disruption will not be another's. An inescapable cell phone suddenly goes off in class? At most a minor irritant to me. Yet I've heard others hold forth as if it were the sound of a gun. Students sleeping? I'm just grateful they're not talking. But I know professors who can't ignore them because the sleeping may as well be expressing an intentional rebuke against the class.

And what about outside of class? Inside, the terms of disruption are relatively clear, if only because the classroom presents such a formal, rule-governed structure. Outside, though, the terms become as disputatious or otherwise vexing as a student who was supposed to show up for an appointment, but didn't, or who is sent an e-mail message, but didn't (he or she says) receive it. Such students may be troublesome. But they're not disruptive, unless their behavior outside the classroom begins to trickle into their behavior inside the classroom.

In such instances, the very term, "disruption," undergoes a transformation into something rich and strange. The result is often confusing. Last semester I knew of a woman who chanced to learn that a student of hers had been bad-mouthing her to another colleague. In class, this same student was in the habit of whispering to others around her. It was annoying but not disruptive. The whispering only became disruptive after the woman learned of the bad-mouthing (some of it apparently public, during the colleague's own class). But in this case "disruption" characterizes not individual behavior but character.

We have all had students whose continued presence in our classes demands more tolerance than we have it in us to extend or more patience than we want to give. This semester I dropped a student for excessive absences. She went to the program coordinator to protest, lying about the number of her absences and then insinuating I had made a prejudicial comment to her. Did I care to monitor her (the coordinator asked) if she is switched to another class? I was delighted to say, no. Impossible to say what a sheer relief it was to be done with the student, whose behavior was a noxious brew of haughty attitudes, missed assignments, and disingenuous excuses. Finally, she was the problem.

Sometimes I wish professors had a "Rate My Students" Web site with the audience and clout of RateMyProfessors.com. Our complaints to each other about our students or our commiserations among ourselves never quite suffice. But then of course few students stand before us with the vivid singularity we do to them, and none possesses the authority any one of us has to establish the day-to-day protocols of a course. So best to let them have their site, as long as we can retain some purchase on what we deem to judge as their disruption.

Trouble is, this may no longer be possible. Two reasons. Neither has directly to do with the dynamics of disruption as I've been discussing them, and yet both, I believe, are decisive. First, the very existence of e-mail contests the boundaries of disruption. Heretofore, the difference between behavior inside and outside the classroom may have been less mutually exclusive, frequently vexed or even occasionally undecidable. E-mail, however, simply dissolves the difference. Indeed, in a very real sense, e-mail constitutes for students a licensed disruption. Everybody is theoretically free to post messages to their professors anytime, about conceivablyanything, and in language free of written codes or conventions.

That many of these posts are about obvious or trivial questions is widely lamented. In effect, the time it takes a responsible professor to reply to them is arguably already in excess of the time -- just that -- it used to take to deal in some face-to-face fashion (including scheduling  office conferences) with disruptive students. That some of these student posts contain criticism or even curses is perhaps less widely lamented, or possibly even known. Physical presence, in any case, provides no real precedent for the student who condescends, patronizes, or otherwise insults a professor in an e-mail.

Is it somehow more serious for a student to do this in e-mail, rather than in person, during or after class? How liable, much less actionable, is something offensive a student e-mails to a professor? Who is in place to arbitrate such questions? One thing for sure: administrations in the new Cineplex, market-driven dispensation don't want to deal with them. So assistant deans are created, on the model of Customer Service Representatives at Wal-Mart. And into the very idea of punitive action against disruptive students are built so many hedges and qualifications that disruption -- at least that limited to the classroom -- is effectively defined away. The result? These are the best of times for disruptive students, whose actions have, first, been routinized as never before and then, second, bureaucratized.

I suffered this past semester an example of how the process now works. A student registered late in one of my classes. She e-mailed to inform me of her existence, in the process praising both her own high standards of integrity as well as mature sense of responsibility. Alas, neither one prevented her from being tardy or even absent once she began attending class. When present, she would ask occasional literal-minded questions that only revealed how awkwardly she fit in with the class atmosphere. You could tell the class didn't like her. I hoped the class couldn't tell I didn't either.

One day the student again came late. Of course she had not had the benefit of the first meeting, when I told the class I couldn't help myself: tardiness felt disruptive to me, albeit of course some days more than others. This particular day was one of those days. As I strove to try to establish the foundation for a particularly delicate interpretive avenue, suddenly the student blurted out, "is this going to be on the midterm?" No hand up. "We can discuss that after class," I snapped, "And besides, you were late again." The student didn't snap back. She just nosily deposited her book into a bag, stood up, and left the room.

What constitutes disruption anymore? For me, such an exit. I contacted my coordinator and asked how this action might constitute grounds for dismissal from the class. Advising me not to try to enter the bureaucratic maze, he declared that excessive absences constituted a cleaner basis to get rid of the student. When I mentioned her next absence would qualify, under my guidelines, as stated in the syllabus, he offered to e-mail the student to this effect. I agreed. He did. Perhaps nobody was surprised a day later when he called to tell me that the student had decided to drop the class. He added that her e-mail reply to him was toxic enough about me that he had better not forward it.

A couple of things can be noted in this story. One, it is framed by e-mail. (I'm not sure if the original disruption would have been extended or redefined had the student sent her last e-mail to me.) Second, my particular example of disruption, as characterized in the student handbook,  is ignored in the face of more extreme, collective kinds such as  seizing control of buildings or assembling unlawfully. In effect, the act of a student stomping out of a classroom silently sinks into the legal framework, there to be lodged somewhere in a hapless pool of possibilities including wait-till-it-happens-again, pass-it-on-to-the-chair, and hope-the-student-never-returns. The consumerist model is unusually tolerant of such possibilities.

What intrigues me about this particular example is a final thing: the difficulty of extricating disruption in the day-to-day structure of teaching from business-as-usual. Has it not always been the case  that the "disruptive" student has finally been difficult to distinguish from any other kind of student, including "the well-behaved" one? After all, anybody is capable of a moment of rudeness, inattention, or lack of poise. Best to try to shrug it off. Granted, some kinds of students make this more difficult to do, because their irritating behavior is more protracted, heedless, and dramatic. What to do about them? It's never been easy to decide. My argument, though, it's that it's never been harder in the first place merely to posit the very category of disruption itself.

One of Kafka's great aphorisms runs as follows: "Leopards break into the temple and eat the sacred host. This happens again and again. Soon it can be calculated in advance and becomes part of the ceremony." Let disruptive students be those leopards. And in order for the comparison to work, we must further grant the classroom its analogy to a temple. Trouble is, the analogy doesn't hold anymore. Now the temple is wired; even leopards can log on. Moreover, it's utterly in the hands of priest-administrators who have become never more eager to welcome anybody inside. Granted, leopards are, well, disruptive. (Some students never change their spots.) But the temple "community" should all make every effort to tolerate their behavior as contributing to the general well-being of the ceremony itself.   


Terry Caesar's last column was about collaborative learning.


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