Do You Really Want to Be the Rules Sergeant?

I just can’t resist wading into the discussion started by Anthony Aycock about classroom management and its two subsequent replies, the first by Scott Hippensteel, who advocates that faculty should “be hard to get along with,” and Rob Jenkins’s subsequent response that “you don’t have to be a jerk” to be a good professor.

I’m quite interested in teaching discussions for a variety of reasons. Before I became a full-time administrator nearly nine years ago, I was an English professor for 15 years, and for nine of those I was the chair of two departments at different institutions. I’ve taught between 40 and 50 sections of composition to students ranging from highly accomplished first-years at a selective public university to those who graduated without much distinction from struggling public high schools in the rural Deep South. I have also taught another 20 sections of various general-education courses and 35 or so upper-division and graduate literature courses, and a smattering of honors courses and others not strictly in my discipline. I have had, therefore, a wide range of classroom experiences, some great, a few terrible, and many pretty good.

In the last 15 years, though, I have also had the “opportunity” to deal with student complaints about faculty and faculty complaints about students in my various roles as chair, dean, and academic vice president. I have seen a number of disputes in many permutations—bad classroom behavior of the type Hippensteel excoriates, an unfortunate volume of academic-dishonesty cases, administrative withdrawals for nonattendance and bad behavior, and one or two instances where it seemed possible that there might be violence or some other form of extreme disruptiveness.

In the great majority of these cases, it was evident that the student was the bad actor and at fault for the conflict. In a few cases, however, the faculty member was wrong. These instances usually involved an abuse of power or inappropriate comments in class: e.g., the sexually suggestive type and sarcastic, humiliating mockery of student behavior or performance. Surprisingly, perhaps, none of these were cases in which a student complained about a political or religious comment, but more on that in a moment. Students have rightly complained about not getting work back on a timely basis, and about receiving no feedback on long and serious papers. They’ve complained about wasted time in class, and they’re not always wrong. They have complained about a faculty member being a “jerk” in class and during office hours.

Here is where the dialogue among those three earlier pieces gets really interesting. Without exception, at every institution I’ve had the opportunity to know, the most effective faculty members were those who treated their students with professional affection and respect, and engaged them seriously, without condescension, and, where appropriate, with enthusiasm. Conversely, the least effective instructors I have worked with have inevitably been of two types—either lazy and therefore indifferent, or martinets. Treating students as though they are inmates in a medium-security prison does nothing but make them hate you and seek opportunities to thwart you. What I have often seen is a pattern of increasingly radical passive-aggressiveness among the students in a class, which can, ultimately, spiral into a complete failure of the course to do anything productive at all.

I am certainly not advocating an abrogation of academic standards, or of reasonable expectations for students’ conduct, both of which I will rigorously enforce when called upon to do so. Nor am I advocating that instructors become “friends” with their students, an approach that can work for some people but certainly not for all, and which obviously has its pitfalls. Faculty members should commit to clear and enforceable policies in their courses and explain them in detail to students on the syllabus and in the introductory course meeting. Expectations for students should be clear and should be enforced calmly and directly. Whatever personal boundaries instructors want to set—from what their students call them to how they should communicate outside of class and office hours—are fine with me as long as they are properly spelled out. In my role as the final arbiter of most academic disputes at my institution, I appreciate a syllabus with clear rules, so if a student is genuinely out of bounds I have a foundation on which to enforce whatever penalty is called for without any murkiness.

That said, students will sniff out instructors who don’t respect them, and a really aggressive approach to classroom rules and draconian course policies are indicators that an instructor views students as delinquents who can’t be trusted to do anything right without aggressive and conspicuous policing. At the same time, I am confident that faculty members who treat their students with respect and who set high, adult-level expectations without harping on them ultimately don’t have nearly as much trouble with bad-student behavior as the rigid enforcers, and when they do, the problems are generally much easier to solve.

I mentioned earlier that I have rarely received complaints about a faculty member’s political or religious commentary in class, and I have had colleagues who I know for a fact have said some pretty outrageous things in class. (It’s not impossible that I have done so myself, as I’ve taught a lot of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Restoration satire, and there have been plenty of opportunities.) But, with one exception, the colleagues I have worked with who have been most likely to say risky things in class have genuinely loved their students and treated them in a sense as colleagues in the learning enterprise, and the students have known and reciprocated that feeling. Such instructors almost always get the benefit of the doubt because their attitude toward their students gives them some slack.

Conversely, rigid enforcers don’t extend the benefit of the doubt to their students, and can therefore expect that students will not extend the benefit of the doubt to them either. If you are waiting to play “gotcha” with your students, you should not be surprised that they are waiting to get you, too. I have only twice overturned a grade on appeal; one case involved an indifferent-slacker professor, while the other involved a faculty member who went so far overboard in enforcing immaterial rules that he completely destroyed the course in question and committed genuine, significant injustices toward his students. Clear rules and expectations are a good thing, but using them to bludgeon students and make learning difficult and unpleasant is deeply counterproductive and, in 19th-century terms, may represent a failure of character.

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