Hard Lessons

When a couple students clacked away on their keyboards during a lecture earlier this week, I crossed to the dark side. “There’s no need to check the Net right now, so if anyone here is, I’d appreciate it if you stopped,” I told them.

But when the clacking resumed a couple minutes later, I kinda lost it. “If you must check the Net, please step outside,” I said, working to keep my voice level and avoiding calling them out by name. “It’s distracting to everyone else.”

They stopped. But the sullen expression on one of their faces seemed anything but contrite. If anything, it said, “how dare you.”

For other classroom veterans, this may be old hat. These kids are undergrads, after all. Some don’t want to be in the class, don’t even want to be in school. And odds are pretty good that they’ve gotten away with sullen looks and rudeness before, at home or in class.

To me, however, it’s all new. When I’ve managed adults, I’ve had to be blunt to set people straight. “Just do the fucking work,” I told one staffer through clenched teeth during a frustrating evaluation session. (Hardly the kind of encouragement HR folks would like. But he later did go on to be a prize-winning investigative reporter.)

Of course, I can’t say precisely that to the kids. Nor do I want to. Instead, I want them to be as excited about journalism as I am. I want them to get the message that what we do and how we do it matters. Pulling the verbal equivalent of a Sister Attila knuckle-rapping session doesn’t seem like a way to get them revved up.

In fairness, the dozen other students were paying attention. Some might even have been getting as jazzed about the topic as I was. When many spoke up at points, I knew I was getting through. (These Nebraskans can be far too reticent.)

And the work that many of these kids do is outstanding — some of it ready to run in just about any newspaper in the country. In another class this week, one on magazine-writing, the work was good, so evocative, and the emotion so potent that it moved me close to tears. No exaggeration. Really heavy subject.

It’s the problem kids, however, that I find hard to shake off. The same sullen-looking Net-checking student, in a later class, turned in work that missed the mark in too many spots. Drove me bats. But it was the student’s reaction — annoyance at my questions, instead of embarrassment at a lack of answers — that really stuck in my craw.

Other teachers tell me it’s a generational thing. Some of these kids have been told how great they are all their lives, one colleague told me, so who are we to question them? If we do that, it’s we who must have a problem, not they. Certainly there can be nothing wrong with their behavior. And checking the Net in class is everyone’s right, isn’t it?

My son tells of how one of his profs at Boston University blew his cool during one talk. A student was reading the newspaper as the fellow was lecturing. The prof walked up to him, told him to leave the class and never come back. He wasn’t welcome in the room. Kid never returned.

Bravo! Before this week, I might have thought the prof was coming down a bit too hard. I might have even believed the problem was that he was a bore who couldn’t keep the kid engaged. Now, I’m with the prof. And I wonder if I should have tossed the students out this week. I hope the day doesn’t come when I’ll have to, but I’ll be ready, ruler in hand.

Bit sad, you know.

9 thoughts on “Hard Lessons

  1. What would you do at an office meeting where many people brashly check their Blackberries?

  2. Haul out that ruler. Better, pre-empt them by banning the berries from such meetings.

  3. Since Alan Mulally arrived at Ford he has held weekly meetings that include every senior leader in the company — about 18 people. He has groundrules for the meetings. No BlackBerrys, no side conversations. He stops the meeting if anyone strays from the rules. He insists on straight-forward reporting of business results and early in his tenure he clapped when the first exec admitted to making a mistake. He actually got up from his chair and hugged him for being open. He allows no briefing books in the room, only undivided attention and respect for whoever is speaking. He runs a great and productive meeting that his leadership team has grown to respect and emulate.

    I say ban laptops and BlackBerrys and side conversations. If students don't comply, throw them out. Ask yourself WWAD? It works.

  4. Jeff,
    Ford's results suggest he's doing something right. Perhaps this is part of it.

  5. "Praise in public, criticize in private." That's what an old boss told me once, and I've made it a practice ever since. It's been my observation that, once you lose your temper in public in a work setting, you'll rarely recover–it takes a lot of work to get back to the even plane of mutual respect.

  6. A range of suggestions:
    1. Ban them. (all the time, some of the time)
    2. Allow them but require laptop students to be separate, e.g. only on one side, only in the back row.
    3. Design assignments where the students can use them in class, e.g. an internet scavenger hunt in small groups (active learning is good). Or, periodically, ask the laptop students to immediately follow up on something you are lecturing about ("As an example, can someone pull up the WSJ site and tell us the lead story?") Or, if you assign readings, ask students with laptops to have the readings up; call on them to read and discuss passages.
    4. Ignore them as long as they do not disrupt you or the other students. College is not grade school. [Do an anonymous survey in class asking whether other students are bothered by laptops. That could a) get you a true answer and b) alert students with laptops to the idea that they may be disrupting others]
    5. Privately speak to laptop students and explain your dilemma. They may not realize it and/or may be humbled by the Professor calling them out in private.
    6. Build in calling on students into your grading formula. Call on students when they seem to be surfing or emailing. See if catching a few off guard sets a new tone.
    7. State in syllabus and at start of semester that you frown upon surfing in class.
    8. (risky/mean) If you are convinced a student has been surfing, ask her/him to read back to you the notes on a part of the lecture in front of the class.

    Jeremy Pressman

  7. Jeremy,
    Thanks for your comments. Ignoring the Net-checkers might work in a large class, but not in a 13-student setting where no one can avoid the sound of their clacking. Also, in this classroom, every student has a computer on the desk, so banning laptops would make no difference.
    At the end of the day, the question is, are they in school to surf the Web or take part in classes, which includes listening? Yes, it's not grade school. The stakes and investment are higher, and there's no excuse for their behavior.
    Time for the ruler!

  8. I teach my classes in Emory's "writing lab," which is a rectangular classroom with 16 Macs, in a U shape along the borders. There's a long, skinny table down the middle of the classroom and I have the students sit at the table–which prevents anyone from logging on and surfing. I did have a student start typing on her laptop in a class recently and I casually, without stopping my lecture, walked over (I walk the class while speaking) and casually SLAMMED SHUT her laptop. It startled her and had the desired effect. No more laptops have been opened.

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