Too Many Dissonant Notes

February 10, 2005

"You're always picking on us," said one of the two female freshmen I was escorting out of class. Her eyes were focused somewhere in the vicinity of my left earlobe, and her mouth was set in what I can only describe as a classic pout.

I had caught the students talking to one another during a midterm test, yet rather than appearing sheepish or apologetic when I ejected them, they betrayed a combination of hostility and resignation. And while the incident marked the end of their time in the music-history class I had been teaching at a large private university in Queens, N.Y. (both students voluntarily withdrew from the course soon afterward), it also marked the low point in a seemingly endless cycle of frustration and puzzlement that had dogged our relationship from the very beginning of the semester.

My previous teaching experience, and my own education, at a string of private high schools, elite liberal-arts colleges, and major research universities had shaped my assumptions about the respective responsibilities of professors and students.

I was there to dispense information, to inculcate habits of critical thinking, and to serve as an all-knowing guide to the course material. My students were there to listen and absorb my generous gift of knowledge with an air of respectful gratitude. Or so I thought.

But the university where I now serve as an adjunct assistant professor is not like the institutions where I had previously studied and taught.

Educators at colleges and universities in Queens often use the word "urban" to describe their student populations. In many other parts of the country, "urban" would simply be a euphemism for "black." In Queens, the most ethnically diverse borough in New York -- a place where more than 170 languages are spoken, and nearly half of all residents are foreign-born -- the situation is more complex. While the neighborhood in which my university is located does happen to have a large African-American population, my university attracts an extraordinary range of students.

And that's in large part why I wanted to teach there. As a jazz pianist who was trained as an ethnomusicologist, I've spent much of my career exploring the music and cultures of people from around the globe. I've conducted fieldwork among West African immigrants in North America, done research on traditional drumming in Ghana, performed South African and Indonesian music here in the United States, and spent almost as much time boning up on anthropological theory as playing the piano.

Not surprisingly, I'm drawn to ethnically diverse environments. But my previous teaching experience had been at small liberal-arts colleges with precious few minority students on their campuses, and even fewer in their surrounding cities. There, the kids who turned up in my classes on Asian and African music were, almost without exception, affluent, suburban, and white. Ironic? Yes. Exciting? Not so much.

So when my wife and I moved to New York several years ago, we purposefully decided to live and, if possible, work in Queens -- not just because it's relatively affordable by New York standards, but because it contains such a kaleidoscopic range of humanity.

Looking out over my classroom, I can see young men and women of every race and ethnicity, every educational background, and every socioeconomic stratum.

And that's the problem.

Taken as a group, we share almost nothing in the way of standards and expectations about education. Many of my students attended overcrowded, underfinanced high schools staffed by overburdened teachers who lacked the resources to prepare their students fully for higher education.

Many students come from low-income households and work long hours to pay their tuition, commuting from home to class to work and back again. And many are the first in their families to attend a college or university.

The culture gap across which we gaze at one another is particularly large when it comes to first-year students who have not yet been acculturated to a university setting, but it remains evident with more mature students, as well.

Yet despite my much-vaunted sensitivity to cultural difference, in my first semester on the job, I somehow managed to miss the fact that all of those cultural factors would have implications in the classroom.

I walked into class expecting everyone to buckle down and do as much work as required, background and extracurricular concerns be damned. I expected them to appreciate the difference between high school and university, and to know how to behave in a college classroom. And I never took a moment to articulate, much less examine, any of those expectations until they were challenged.

They were challenged pretty quickly. To be fair, most of my students were fine -- just the kind of "good kids" my department head had assured me they would be.

My two midterm exiles, however, were a breed apart. On a good day, they buried their heads in the wireless laptop computers the university had provided them, making their presence known only by the telltale sounds of instant messaging and e-mail notification. On a bad day, they laughed and chatted throughout my lectures and musical examples, distracting their classmates -- not to mention their professor.

I initially responded with an occasional "Ladies, please," accompanied by a meaningful glance, hoping they'd eventually come around on their own -- inspired, as it were, by the example of their fellow students, and by the sterling example I myself was setting as a scholar and teacher.

When I finally took stronger measures -- banning the use of laptops in class, scolding them in front of their peers, and informing them privately that the portion of their grades allotted for participation would suffer if they didn't shape up -- they were less chastened than annoyed, rolling their eyes and chafing at my awkward attempts to play the role of classroom disciplinarian.

By the time the midterm exam was upon us, I had pretty much given up hope of reaching either of them. And I have to admit, I was relieved to see them go.

My department head, whom I had kept apprised of the situation, was both understanding and supportive. At least they had left of their own accord. Problem solved. But I was left wondering how I might have handled the situation better in the first place.

Imposing iron discipline from the start, rather than getting tough late in the game, might have helped. But like many academics, I'm not particularly good at playing the heavy.

Better yet, I might have taken the time to make explicit the implicit contract that most professors feel they have with their students, and clearly defining the consequences (grade penalties, dismissal, whatever) of breaking our shared compact. It's a tactic I formerly used when teaching elementary school, but had dismissed as overkill at the college level.

Needless to say, I'm no longer so sure about that. Had I more clearly articulated my own expectations and assumptions -- both to myself and to my students -- I might not have been caught so off-guard by the troublesome twosome, and would certainly have been much better prepared to nip any potential problems in the bud.

Although we tend not to think in such terms, the smooth functioning of our classrooms requires both students and teachers to abide by a set of largely unwritten rules. Like the larger societies in which they are embedded, our compact groupings of students and teachers depend upon invisible systems of social control to avoid descending into chaos. Trouble ensues when individuals are unwilling to abide by those rules, or when they are simply unfamiliar with them.

After all, as any anthropologist will tell you, a taboo only works when everybody knows what it is.

Alexander Gelfand is an adjunct assistant professor of music in the fine-arts department at St. John's University in New York.