Be Hard to Get Along With

Brian Taylor

October 23, 2013

Last month, The Chronicle published a column called "Don't Be Hard To Get Along With," written by a faculty member who chastised academics for setting needlessly strict rules in the classroom. "When we are implacable as faculty members, we are not teaching our students how the world works," the columnist wrote. "We are just being jerks."

A fellow professor in my earth-sciences department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte sent me the link and remarked, "Apparently I am hard to get along with" (my colleague is not). A quick poll of fellow faculty indicates I teach with a bunch of jerks (I do not—well, mostly).

The column, written by Anthony Aycock, an adjunct instructor of English at Campbell University and a full-time legal librarian, questioned why faculty members don't allow late work and makeups on tests, refuse to answer repeat questions, and get annoyed by students texting in class. "Rigid rules, no second chances—those are less prevalent in the real world than we imply in our classroom codes," he wrote, "whose actual impact, I fear, is to make us hard to get along with."

I was midway through the article when I made the disturbing discovery that I was not reading a parody but instead a message put forth by a professor who teaches in an academic world far different than my own.

I am hard to get along with, especially when student behavior in my classes affects the potential for learning by other students. Issues of classroom decorum are frustrating when they represent a lack of respect: No, I won't allow you to openly read The Hunger Games during my lecture. Behavioral issues become more problematic when they influence the learning of others or create an unfair advantage for the perpetrator of the egregious behavior. You missed an exam? And you want to take a make-up after I've reviewed the exam during the following class?

Aycock argues that we should be patient with students who ask questions that have already been answered. I was faced with that situation recently: A question was posed, and I answered. That was followed by a second and third asking of the identical question. The latter two inquiries were made by students who were distracted by their smartphones when I was responding the first time. That situation is far too common and represents a small but significant waste of class time, and, in that moment, I'm afraid I wasn't entirely easy to get along with.

Best of luck holding the attention of 180 nonmajors when you spend half the class repeating yourself. Yes, the final is cumulative.

I must confess that during a class last semester, I was a jerk. Fifteen minutes into lecture a student left the room, went to the a food truck located on the campus, had a picnic lunch (it was a beautiful day), returned to class a half-hour later, and asked me multiple questions about material he had missed. I wasn't able to placate him.

Issues of student decorum in the classroom have grown in quantity and substance during my 15 years in teaching—to the point that students have recently posted large signs in the lecture halls reminding fellow students of what does and does not represent proper in-class etiquette (e.g., no multiplayer, first-person shooter games during lecture; really). This is not the responsibility of the students—it is that of the professor, and it represents a minimal level of professionalism to ensure a proper learning environment for all.

Finally, in a world where my university is encouraging me to "friend" my students on Facebook (sorry, I'm your professor and not your online friend, and I'd like to avoid blurred lines when determining something as black and white as grades), Aycock presents a disturbing image of the professor not as a teacher/scholar, but rather as a teacher/counselor/employee of the students.

"Rigid rules—no second chances—those are less prevalent in the real world than we imply in our classroom codes." I read that sentence to my wife, a CPA who has extensive experience working for Big Four accounting firms on her résumé, and she sighed. One of her largest complaints of recent graduates is that they have little respect for deadlines and often require repeated instructions to complete the simplest of tasks. In her office, "don't we all have to be told some things more than once" doesn't lead to a smile but rather to a performance review. Note to future graduates: Do not text-message during such a review.

When I started my academic career I thought it was possible to be a patient, professional teacher while still being rigid enough to maintain a nondistracting and effective learning environment in my classroom, all while still appearing to be easy to get along with. Growing issues of decorum challenge that balance, but I'd rather sacrifice the latter to preserve the former.

Scott Hippensteel is an associate professor of earth sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.