It happened a few years ago, but history professor Tamara Hunt remembers it like yesterday. While laying out the ground rules of a take-home exam for her university class, a student suddenly confronted her: "This test is too hard," he blurted out loudly from the front row. "You shouldn't be asking us this stuff. You have to change it."
Momentarily stunned, Dr. Hunt recovered quickly by telling her 15 students their only option was to take the same test in class. The group chose to take it home. The young man sat sullenly.
Another professor recalls how she recently had a student "get up during class and walk out right in front of me - twice." Still another had to tell a student, also seated up front, to quit spitting tobacco juice into a can on his desk.
Minor indiscretions? Perhaps. But griping, chatting, laughing, sleeping, eating, reading newspapers, foul language, spitting - even outbursts at fellow students and professors - are all part of the incivility that surfaces in American post-secondary classrooms, educators and students say.
Of course, rude behavior in class has existed to some degree in higher education since the university's origins in 12th-century Europe. Back then, students shuffled their feet or threw pebbles at professors who did not keep their attention. Yet some suggest that low-level "classroom terrorists" may be more prevalent today as increasing numbers of students arrive ill-prepared, undermotivated, and with expectations out of sync with the norm for a college classroom. If problem behavior is growing, higher education will either attempt to educate students in spite of disruptions - or regroup and insist on a baseline of classroom civility, observers say.
"Obviously the majority of students come into class ready to learn and behave well," says John D'Amicantonio, librarian at California State University at Long Beach. "But there are a growing number of students who come into class with a different perspective on how to behave."
The possible explanations for rudeness range from a short-attention-span "sitcom mentality" to a corporate-style approach to higher education that pulls professors off their pedestals and gives students a feeling of being in control as consumers.
Though he teaches no classes, Dr. D'Amicantonio has heard all the horror stories. From 1993 to 1998, he chaired a faculty committee formed to remedy a campus trend toward incivility - including students coming to class late, leaving early, bringing children, eating, sleeping, and just generally indicating they did not want to participate or listen.
Dust-up at Dartmouth
Such cases pop up in some surprising places. Earlier this month at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., for instance, a cheating scandal in a computer class revealed some rampant rudeness. Students said they had been openly disrespectful to the visiting professor in the run-up to the cheating incident.
"We were blatantly rude to him," Jennifer Greene, a sophomore, told The Boston Globe. Students said they read newspapers and passed around pornographic magazines as the class devolved into an atmosphere of noisy conversations and jeering at the professor.
The professor, Rex Dwyer of North Carolina State University, could not be reached for comment. Several Dartmouth officials said the behavior in this class was not typical of how students treat visiting or faculty professors. Ed Berger, dean of faculty, stated for the college paper that "this is a unique situation in almost every way.... There was absolutely no reason to expect there was going to be anything like this."
Losing control may not be an everyday occurrence, but a number of professors worry about it more than ever.
"My students are polite on the surface to me, but I can't say that would be the case if I wasn't pretty tough," says H. Charles Romesburg, professor of forest resources at Utah State University in Logan.
Large classes seem to be more likely than small ones to create opportunities for sleeping and reading, he and others say. The gender of the professor also sometimes affects student behavior. Dr. Romesburg, for instance, notes that his female teaching assistant had trouble with his classes until he informed them that she, too, was empowered to lower their grades for insubordination.
Still, Romesburg says he does everything possible to prevent confrontations in the class. He lays out strict ground rules at the start of the course and assigns seats to learn names. Students can't just get up and leave expecting he won't know who they are. "Avoiding a classroom confrontation is really important," he says. "In this state, students have the right to bring guns to class."
Though relatively rare, serious confrontations do happen. Scott Glotzer, who until last year taught history at William Paterson University in New Jersey, witnessed one in a computer-science lab. "One of the professors was sort of conducting a workshop, and one of her students came in the door just screaming at her," he recalls. "She was trying to calm him down, telling him they could work out a way for him to turn in the assignment. He just stormed away."
It is more common for students to grouse over grades or express the feeling that a professor's demands are unfair.
Marta Stone, associate professor of Spanish at Quincy University in Illinois, says students may often see themselves as mistreated consumers rather than young scholars being required to struggle and thereby grow intellectually. "There's a distinct feeling," she says, "that 'I'm paying my money and I want a degree in exchange. It doesn't matter how I act.' "
Roger Davis, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Kearny who is conducting a multiyear study into the roots of student incivility in class, agrees.
"If students arrive with a strong sense of identity as a customer, then in today's environment they have rights," he says. "They're not supposed to be hassled. They're supposed to be kept happy. So you may show up with that frame of reference because that's what the admissions-department literature tells them - but then part of the college environment is to challenge your core beliefs...; then you get upset students."
On the other hand, some suggest that the rudeness problem is overblown and may be mostly professors' fault.
Timothy Juntilla, a professor of English at Cerritos College, a two-year institution in Norwalk, Calif., is upset that "alarmists in the academe" exaggerate the problem. And news-media spotlights on certain incidents, he says, may frighten away good teaching talent.
"The real question is what are these professors doing to cause these students to react," he says. "Sure there are going to be a few lousy students screaming and throwing stuff that have to be removed. But if others are showing up late every day and talking all the time - you have to ask yourself: 'What am I doing to allow this behavior to continue?' "
Sam Minner, a professor of education at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, also says he hasn't noticed any growth in the small percentage of students who cause trouble.
Professors on the periphery?
What Dr. Minner does see is a "power shift" going on in higher education.
"In the old academic model, power was vested with the professors," he says. "Now knowledge is much more broadly distributed throughout society. Students have many alternatives to gain that knowledge, so the relationship with the professor becomes more tangential."
Dr. Davis at the University of Nebraska agrees there can be a tendency among professors to "student bash." But he and two colleagues have been studying student and faculty attitudes and have found that the groups are speaking different languages.
"Students often just don't know what's going on after they arrive at college," he says. "There's a cultural disconnect, as if they're being dropped in a country with a foreign language." So, while he agrees with Dr. Stone that students are increasingly arriving with consumerist views, he also sees a failure on the part of universities and professors to actively acculturate students during orientation and in the classroom to their new learning environment.
'Sink the sub'
In large lecture classes, or in required courses with a visiting professor, Dr. Davis says, the result can be something akin to what sometimes happens in K-12 classes on the day when a substitute teacher shows up: "sink the sub."
That may be what happened at Dartmouth recently, Davis speculates, referring to the high-octane class of 178 students, dozens of whom were charged with cheating. (The charges were later dropped because it was unclear which students had taken answers to an assignment off an unsecured Web site. That the answers were posted prompted some students to accuse the teacher of trapping them.) "Intellectual ability doesn't necessarily mean students automatically understand the difference between academic and high school culture," Davis says.
The need, says Minner, is for professors to do a better job communicating, get better training in teaching techniques and classroom management, and let go of the expectation that everyone in a class automatically will give them their attention.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society