Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tighten up or chill out? The classroom balancing act

I've been thinking about Steven J. Corbett and Michelle LaFrance's  "It's the Little Things That Count" over at the Chronicle.  Corbett and LaFrance have a lot of suggestions, and probably like most of us who read the article I divided them in my own head into good ones (a.k.a. things that I already do) and iffy ones (a.k.a. things I would not do).  For most of these, the fine line between do and don't probably depends on your classroom persona: how much is you, and how much is too much?
  • Good advice: Get there early to talk to students linger so that they can talk to you after class [to which I'd add "as long as you're not hogging the classroom and keeping the next instructor waiting"].  A little too much, maybe: asking students about a "hot" YouTube video and playing it as they come in.  That might work if you have a process-oriented rather than a content-oriented class (writing class vs. literature) or if it relates somehow to the subject matter--and you'd be surprised at how much does relate--but not as a general rule. 
  • Ask about their lives: maybe good advice, within reason, but don't pry. 
  • Good advice: Perform with a positive attitude, or, as Harry Richman tells us, "leave your worries on the doorstep." Absolutely. If you have energy and a good attitude, they probably will, too, and if they don't, it's not for lack of trying. Not to flood the post with videos, but think about what Judy Garland sings in Summer Stock:  "Forget your troubles, come on, get happy." 

  • Email the students back asap. Yes--within reason.
  • Adjust the thermostat. Would that we could! The thermostat is usually a purely decorative object in any classroom I've seen.  One time I asked someone from maintenance about an overly hot room and mentioned that I had turned the thermostat as low as it could go. He confirmed that, yes, indeed, that had no effect on the room temperature, which was actually set somewhere else ( I'm guessing somewhere in time-travel land by my elderly, frail great-grandmother, who during her last years wore cardigans in 90 degree heat). 
  • Surrender control of the class sometimes.  Yes.
  • Allow students to eat and drink, wear headphones, check their cellphones, and leave class early.  One of these things is not like the others.  
    • Eat in class? I don't care.  Some of them do everything but lay out a linen tablecloth with their lunches, and if you teach at noon, you're bound to get some of this.  They're done in 5 minutes or so and then they have the energy to participate in class. 
    • Wear headphones [edited to add: just during tasks that require concentration. Thank you, Dr. Crazy in the comments] and check their cellphones or laptops (because we all do it, right?). No, I don't, and I don't expect them to, either. I've tried classes both ways, and the cellphone/laptop classes are less engaged with the discussion.  They just are. 
      • Think of it this way: when's the last time you saw a game of soccer or basketball where players were free to stop dead in their tracks and check their cell phones in the middle of the field?  A classroom discussion is exactly that kind of fast-moving game, except that there isn't a losing side, and if you're in a game where the conversational ball is being tossed around, you'd better be ready. 
      • It's not too much to ask that we're all in the same mental as well as physical space for 50 minutes or 75 minutes a few times a week. 
    • Leave class early? If there's genuinely nothing left to do, maybe instructors need to plan their classes better, although during writing workshop days students can leave if they've finished what they were supposed to do.  The problem is that if this happens a few times, they start factoring that into their expectations for the class. Class time becomes something to be measured and maybe cut down, as if it's a punishment rather than an opportunity. 
Your thoughts?


brydget said...

I'm with you on eating, I sometimes even encourage eating when it is around midday. I don't mind cell phones as long as its not obsessive or intrusive. Headphones are a complete no go in my mind.

heu mihi said...

I mind cell phones. I don't check mine in class (or when I'm in a conference presentation, or in any other situation where I'm expected to pay some degree of attention). It's about manners, but also discipline. It will not kill students (or any of the rest of us) to shut down the electronic distractions for a little while; in fact, it will do us some real good.

Or I'm just a 37-year-old fogey. Either way, the policy stands.

Flavia said...

This is some weird advice. Absolutely no on cellphones and headphones and leaving early--or indeed leaving too frequently in the middle of class (I'm always amazed by the kid who leaves midclass EVERY DAY and doesn't think I notice, until I take him aside.) Food is okay if it's not smelly.

I don't get to class too early, since I don't know what to do with myself, but a couple of minutes, sure, and I might ask if everyone's weekend was good or how their Halloween was. If they want to have a long conversation after class I generally encourage them to come to my office hours or email me (though chatting for a minute or two is generally okay).

nicoleandmaggie said...

I've come to the conclusion that some things that work just fine with tall white guys do not work so well with short cute women. (And there are places where you can adjust the thermostat and it does something?)

That said, getting to class 10 min early does work wonders for students liking you (so thanks, Boice!) And low blood sugar is no good for anybody (my students cheered this semester when I said that I didn't care what the rules were for that particular classroom, I wasn't teaching an 8am class unless they could drink coffee and eat breakfast).

I prefer to wait to respond to email. That why they don't get all irritated when I actually can't respond to email right away. Just like you said with letting class out early. Something rare, and only when it makes sense (ex. a group finishes their in-class assignment early), or they get irritated when they have to stay the entire time.

And definitely agree with you on the rest!

Dr. Crazy said...

For what it's worth, I clicked over and read the original piece, and some of the things that you questioned seemed to be slightly different in the original.

Example: the authors noted that headphones were for self-directed activities - so let's say you are having them do some in-class writing for 20 minutes or something, is there a problem with them having headphones on while they do it? Probably not, I'd say. Now, it's also the case that I've NEVER had a student do this, and I would never VOLUNTEER that they could do it. But in the original piece, I didn't feel like they were saying students should be allowed to wear their headphones all the time or when the class was working together.

Example 2: The advice about leaving class early seemed to me about letting the class go early if you as a prof had covered the day's material, rather than forcing the students to sit there to the bitter end either listening to repetitive or unnecessary lecture or forcing them to do some other kind of busy-work. It did not seem to be about letting students just leave whenever they wanted to, nor did it sound like they were saying letting class go early should be a standard thing. Whatever the case, since tenure, I'm much more likely to just call it a day if we're done 5-10 minutes before the end of a class period. And when I let them go early I present it as a gift of time during which they should go get reading done, begin work on a paper, or individual students can use the time to talk to me.

undine said...

Quite right, Dr. Crazy--I had misstated the earphones use idea and will correct the original post. About the letting class go early idea, though: I don't favor or use busywork to keep students the full time, but if there are more than a couple gifts of time in the semester, students can come to expect it. It's an unintended consequence but a consequence nonetheless.

nicoleandmaggie--I'm with you on the breakfast and waiting a bit for email thing. Again, as with the letting students go early, it's about managing expectations.

Flavia--the general questions sound like a good compromise. I"m comfortable with those but not the "where are you from?" and more personal questions unless the students bring those issues up themselves. Some people can pull off that additional level of personal interaction (though I can't).

heu mihi--if you're a fogey, I'm another. I don't check my phone in those situations because: manners and respect, as you say.

brydget--I was wrong about the headphones, as Dr. Crazy pointed out, but isn't it interesting how none of us minds eating but we all would mind that?

nicoleandmaggie said...

I've had (2, in different years) ADHD students request to use headphones for in-class work and haven't had a problem with it. I don't know if they made music or just silence though.

Dr. Crazy said...

"About the letting class go early idea, though: I don't favor or use busywork to keep students the full time, but if there are more than a couple gifts of time in the semester, students can come to expect it. It's an unintended consequence but a consequence nonetheless. "

I don't disagree with you there. And, in general, I think it's important that one prep one's classes (and design one's syllabus) so that you are giving them adequate material to use class time to the fullest. I tend to be very intentional about the ways and days on which I decide to cut class short. It's also the case that I think I take some leeway with this because we have a 16-week semester, which I frankly think is WAY too long (semesters were 12 weeks at my PHD institution, which was perhaps a bit short, and 14 weeks at my undergrad and MA institutions, which I think is just about right. 16 weeks, plus finals week, in the fall is a LONG slog, and I'm ok with a few short classes in a semester to make that less onerous. Again, though, I think being intentional about it is crucial. It shouldn't just happen by accident.