Thursday, September 15, 2005

Whisper, whisper, giggle, giggle

Perhaps I should feel glad that I managed to make it four weeks into the semester before the chit-chatting students reared their ugly heads. I teach "large" (to me, anyway) classes of around 40 people. Apparently the folks sitting in the back and along the sides believe they've developed some special powers that allow them to be invisible, and consequently, I surely can't see that they're whispering to each other, giggling, and/or writing notes in each other's notebooks.

These are first year college students, so many of them are traditional college age (community colleges are full of 19-22 year olds these days because of students' financial constraints) so many of them haven't yet adjusted to how a college classroom works. But part of me says that's just an excuse -- isn't polite and respectful behavior something they should exhibit regardless of the location? So I've recently been pondering how to deal with this issue. (Thanks to New Kid on the Hallway for a great post about the Packer-Uppers.)

I've found that the chatters fall into two groups: 1) good students who are talkative during class discussion but just don't sit still and concentrate during lecture. So I'd hate to totally alienate them and embarrass them by making a big fuss and throwing them out of the room. With these folks, 95% of the time it works when I take them aside after class, explain the impact of their behavior, and ask that they stop it. They're good kids, and they listen. If they stray during the semester, giving them the Evil Eye during lecture usually brings them back into the fold, or I'll have another conversation after class. Group 2 is composed of students who only attend because they have to. I know they are not doing the reading because they habitually fail reading quizzes. They are not taking notes. They're just punching the time clock because attendance is required. They chat to pass the time and because they are not engaged in the class. The Evil Eye is only a temporary fix.

[A good friend of mine from graduate school adds an excellent twist to the Evil Eye. Not only is she unafraid to throw them out, she'll stop lecturing and say in a very loud voice, "Bob! I notice you're talking. I assume you have something to tell us about the economic crisis of the 1890s. Can you share it with the class?" She says it works like a charm. ]

Since this is a perennial problem, I make a big deal out of it during the first day of class and I threaten to kick them out of class for the day and not count their attendance. Since I require attendance, I have pretty close to 100% of the students there each day, so obviously they care about getting attendance points. The problem is: I'm not sure I have the guts to go through with it. I'm sure this comes back to some deeper psychological issue for me... fear of making a fuss, fear of being labeled a "bitch," etc. I also feel partially paralyzed by the issue... I feel sort of stunned that anyone is behaving this way in the first place! And, of course, by not following through on my threat I risk losing credibility.

In the past I've usually relied upon the combination I mentioned above (personal conversations + the Evil Eye) and that has generally solved the problem. But maybe I'm just short of patience this semester, but today I resolved to cut off the behavior at the pass instead of making individual interventions. But since I'm not likely to go through with my stated plan of throwing them out (unless, of course, they were really disruptive... even though I'm a Midwesterner, I do have my limits!), I realized I should come up with something else that felt more natural to me.

So today I tried something new. I told them that I had two announcements. One was that I was generally impressed with the class and their work thus far (true), and two, that I was becoming increasingly frustrated with a small minority of chatters, most of whom I'd spoken to on Tuesday either during or after class. [The timing could not have been more perfect, since in mid-speech the worst offenders of the Group 2 chatters were talking away... so I stopped talking, pointed at them, and said "THAT is what I'm talking about."] So I explained that while I still intended to enforce my throw-you-out policy, I realized that throwing them out would solve the problem for me, but not solve the larger problem for them, which is that they're not taking good notes during lectures and are putting themselves at risk for failing the class. So instead of throwing them out, I will now be coming to class every day with a paper assignment based on the lecture topic for that day (I worked up a generic topic I can use for every lecture, printed out a bunch of them, and waved them around as I talked.) I explained that chit-chatters would be given the required paper assignment, due next class. So hopefully this was a savvy way to revise my original policy in the guise of a larger pedagogical goal.

I think it worked! The usual chatters were silent. More notes were taken. And my semi-hard-ass routine didn't squelch the others, who asked more questions than usual today. So we'll see how it plays over the long haul... I vow to enforce this policy by actually handing out the paper assignment if needed.

A related tangent: in the past, this issue prompted me to learn another Fundamental Law (see previous post) about teaching. This is a lesson I learned last spring, namely: Don't Make Assumptions, although, of course, this post is full of them. Anyway, I had a student (we'll call her Debby) who was in both my USII class and my Women's History class. In Women's History, she sat near the front and was an A student. Prepared, respectful, engaged. In USII, she ignored most of what happened, and clearly wasn't engaged. She did enough reading to put herself in the B range, but she clearly was capable of more. In USII she sat in the very back row, next to a guy (we'll call him Andy.) I couldn't tell if they were girlfriend/boyfriend, or just friends. Well, I assumed that he was being a bad influence on her, and that she was altering her usual behavior to somehow please him. He was a similar student -- earning a B but could have been doing better, and he also gave the impression that he was not engaged.

One day (on which Debby was wearing bright yellow silky lingerie -- another rant from my past!) I lost my patience. She sat in the back row with her face in a book (granted, it was the book from my women's history class and she was doing the reading assignment, but still -- rude.). And he was sitting there, giving me what I perceived to be hostile body language (you know the pose, sitting back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest, etc), as he listened to the lectures without taking notes. I was talking about something horrible like prisoners of war or genocide and they started to laugh. I interrupted class to find out what was so funny, and that shut them up.

So I pulled them aside after class and said, "Frankly, I'm not sure why either of you bother to come to class. Clearly you are not engaged in the class. You don't take notes. You don't regularly do the reading, and today you sat there and read a book from another course. That's going to have to stop." I figured she'd be meek and embarrassed about her behavior, and that I'd get attitude from him. Just the reverse!

She immediately went on the defensive and said the only reason she came to class was "for the attendance points" and that it wasn't any of "my business" if she wanted to sit there and read something else because "she's paying for this." Once I emerged from the shock these statements caused, I explained that it was simple respect that she pay attention in class and she would have to exhibit respect or be asked to leave.

He, on the other hand, apologized profusely, admitted their laughter was inappropriate but explained why (something to do with his father still being in 60s protest mode, so while it was still inappropriate, it made something close to sense), and said that he really felt awful about how I'd mis-read him, and that he loves the class and thought we had a really nice repoire going. You could have knocked me over! A few hours later he sent an e-mail to apologize again, and told me that he would hate for me to assume that he's only attending class for the attendance points. So after that I called on him more often, he became more engaged, and he still keeps in touch via e-mail. For example, he sent me an e-mail this summer about the revelation of Deep Throat's identity.

So while I'm now on the offensive against the chatters, I try to remember that behind (almost) every chatter is someone who really wants to be a good student.

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