Behavior Problems (Not Only Among Students)

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

August 29, 2012

As we begin another semester, many of us are finalizing our syllabi and making decisions not only about what we will teach, but also about how we will manage students' behavior problems. If the articles and comments in The Chronicle are any indication, such problems seem to be on the rise, driven in part by technology.

As faculty members, we often debate whether we should ban laptops and iPads as we see students spending more time in our classrooms on Facebook than they do taking notes. We wonder how to deal with texting and cellphone calls interrupting class. At times, we even wonder whether we are teaching in middle school, as students pass notes or openly gossip during lectures and discussions. I often hear professors bemoan where their students learned such bad behavior.

I have a theory, but it will not be a popular one: Perhaps students learned it from watching us. Maybe someone is secretly videotaping how faculty members behave at our own meetings, and showing it to our students.

I've mulled that theory awhile, but it occurred to me once again during my university's round of presemester meetings this past week, as I saw faculty members act exactly the way students do.

I watched faculty members work on syllabi for their fall courses instead of paying attention to the presenters or participating in the discussions. Just as students put off doing homework until the last minute and try to finish it during class, these faculty members had ignored their course preparations for months. And why spend your last few days of freedom getting ready for class when you can do it during a faculty meeting?

I saw professors tinkering with manuscripts that they were preparing to submit to journals or conferences, while others were editing papers for the journals and/or collections they oversee. I watched faculty members use technology to distract themselves from what was going on in the front of the meeting. With the advent of the iPad, it is easy to appear as if one is taking notes when, in fact, one is playing games or checking e-mail. We have no idea which of those our students are doing as we stand before our classes.

In the same way, I saw one of my colleagues playing Sudoku, but she was sitting near the back, so there was no way the presenter could see what she was doing. Another faculty member checked his e-mail every few minutes. Still others surreptitiously checked Facebook and e-mail on smartphones, believing they could not be seen by those in charge of the meeting. I have yet to be at a campus meeting that has not been interrupted by the ring of a cellphone, but I keep holding out hope.

My favorite moment comes near the end of our meetings, as we were asked if we wanted to push through to the end of the agenda or take a break. Like our students, we cried out to finish the meeting, so we could get out and get back to what was really important in life. We were told to stand and stretch, but not to leave the room. Half of the faculty members left the room—to get something to eat or drink, or to use the restroom. About half came back.

Looking around the room was like looking at a night class at a community college where I used to teach part-time. The numbers dwindled with every break. We were in that meeting for only 10 more minutes, but I know that faculty members need every moment in the middle of August, perhaps to prepare their syllabi.

To be fair, I did see a few diligent faculty members—the ones who were clearly interested in what was going on and were even taking notes. There were not many of them, but they did exist. In fact, anytime there was a list on a PowerPoint slide, I saw more people check back in to the proceedings and write down what was on the slide, whether or not it was important. Some of the diligent faculty members were taking notes on iPads. I suppose they could have been faking it, but knowing them as I do, I believe they were actually taking notes.

Now, some of you might be crafting a response to my observations here already. You will say that the speakers obviously were boring or were offering irrelevant material. Perhaps the topic was of interest to only a small group of people. You will suggest that the speakers had poor presentation skills; perhaps they read PowerPoint slides filled with text to a room full of people with advanced degrees, as if the attendees could not read it themselves. Or you will complain that the information could have simply been sent in an e-mail that faculty members would definitely have read when they were in their offices or on the beach, on their own time. Maybe you learned those excuses from your students. Or maybe they learned them from us.

Readers might be wondering what I was doing during these presentations. Was I, in fact, the perfectly attentive student that I have criticized others for not being?

I am proud to say that I was taking notes, of course.

For this essay.

And I was thinking how much I am looking forward to teaching a room full of students rather than faculty members.

Kevin Brown is a professor of English at Lee University, in Tennessee.