For the most part my university doesn't have large lecture classes, but there are a lot of what is usually referred to as medium-sized classes (35-45 students). I teach one or two of these each semester, two in the fall and one in the spring. The atmosphere of the class each time is different, depending on the individuals in it, and some semesters are great while others... not so much.
What makes for the atmosphere of a class? Students who are awake and interested helps a lot. There is such a thing as a "default" face and having two or three bright involved people in the class makes it a more enjoyable class to look out on and more involving for me as the teacher. Even a traditional lecture class with little opportunity for discussion is a two-way relationship.
There are certain types of people in classes that recur from semester to semester. They can make the tone of the classroom good or bad, productive or (in a worst case scenario) even poisonous.
More below the orange croissant of confusion.
I do go through etiquette guidelines (okay, rules) the first day of class -- don't talk to your neighbor, turn off your phone, don't read the newspaper or do homework for another class in this one -- so we are all on the page in terms of classroom activity. This helps, I have found. If your idea of what is appropriate in class is not the same as the professor it can lead to hard feelings all around, so I have come to the conclusion through trial and error that being prescriptive the first day is a helpful thing for all of us.
There are those students, of course, who are absolute delights for a variety of reasons. There are the really involved ones, the ones who have done the readings, can answer questions or participate in a discussion, even in such a large class in an awkward setting where all the seating is fixed and facing in one direction in a tiered classroom. There are those who have bright, awake attitudes, are writing quickly in notebooks, and when they ask questions they are largely for clarification. This second group is probably the easiest to teach -- they don't challenge me in terms of knowledge or presentation, which appeals to the panic-oh-my-god-I-didn't-know-that-how-can-I-claim-to-be-an-authority?!-if-one-of-my-students-is-more-informed-than-I-am? side of me, and on a bad day this is the waking equivalent of the coming to school naked dream. But the challenging ones, who ARE more informed than I am are also the ones that are exciting to teach. Tight-rope walking is what teaching is all about, and a bit of adrenalin is good for the soul (if not for the heart, I suppose).
Then there are the students who are not trained or able to take notes -- the ones who ask you to slow down, who in spite of your telling them the factual information is in the book, still ask you to go back one or two slides so that they can finish copying the material. I do go back and let them do this, sometimes quietly gnashing my teeth, because this is a student or three who is trying in the class, who is learning how to adjust to a new professor, new material, and my most important task is to help them learn and if this is the way they learn (or think they learn), that needs to be supported.
There are the students who want you to know they know the material better than anyone else in the class. Sometimes they see you as the antagonist -- they want to prove they know more than you do. Sometimes they see you as a colleague -- they want to put themselves at a level where you are, and leave the rest of the class behind.
(As an aside, I had a friend when I was growing up who was also the daughter of an English professor at the same university as my dad. She went to grad school out east and came down to visit me at one point in her first year there (my senior year at Bryn Mawr). When I asked her how she liked the program, she said it was fine, but she wasn't sure she really liked the professors very much -- they were not the kind of people you would have over to dinner. I was stunned. That was not a way it had ever occurred to me to evaluate my professors! They were always my teachers, not potential colleagues. That is still the way I deal with the administrators at my university with very few exceptions (and those are ones I started with as colleagues, not deans, etc.) -- my boss is my boss; my teacher is my teacher -- it is a very old fashioned way of looking at things, but that is a framework that has always worked for me).
There are students who are really enthusiastic, and helpful, and just come across as brown-nosers. I know this as generally a mid-level student phenomenon, and one that people generally grown out of with a semester or two. And it is a delight to have these students in classes, but I can see the other students rolling their eyes or gritting their teeth. I like the dynamic, actually, as these are usually students who "set the curve" and challenge the others, whether they want to be challenged or not. And it is something that works itself out. But it is amusing a bit, and I sympathize with both sides of the interaction.
On the other hand, there are those students who are not interested in the material and seem to make efforts to derail the course content. In my high school astronomy class, the teacher was really just about as bored with the content as some of his students (not me -- I adored the astronomy, and was actually thinking of doing physics and math and chemistry and going on in astronomy). One day I remember vividly one of the upper class students (it was sophomores through seniors) saying "I don't want to talk about astronomy today" and the teacher responding "what do you want to talk about?" and that was what we did. It undercut the point of the class completely and I never recovered from that -- I aced the class, but learned essentially nothing from that point onwards. You have those kinds of students in college too, and I try to be polite while focusing the conversations on course material. Sometimes it is peripherally related ("Is it true the Egyptians want to tear down the sphinx like they destroyed the Buddhas in Afghanistan?") but needs to be directed carefully back to class material. But sometimes... Well, the other students in the class know what he or she is doing, and they can be my best allies in focusing the class back on content. Generally those students drop out before the last set of tests, because they are not really interested anyway.
The last type of student is in some ways the most frustrating. It is someone who is enthusiastic about the class material, knows a lot and has questions about it. But is firing on cylinders that are not directly related to course material. These are the students who, to a certain extent, are looking to you as a wikipedia confirmation of the things they think they know or that they could find out by looking on line. They don't really think about a classroom as being a different sort of place than a google search. I honestly don't think they are purposefully sidetracking the discussion, but they ask questions like "I heard there were houses found next to the pyramids" or "Wasn't there a new tomb found in the Valley of the Kings?" and you either answer the question, which takes away from what you have to cover to get the survey done, or you have to dismiss the question, which is not supportive of what is clear enthusiasm. I have such a situation this semester and I am not doing as well with it as I would like.
I feel a bit guilty when confronted with someone like this -- it is someone who clearly is making connections in his or her own mind about the material and other experiences/knowledge/learning. But it is a situation where editing of comments would be helpful. I don't know how to discourage someone from getting us off-track where I need the class to be, but not discourage personal enthusiasm. I don't know if this is a personality quirk or a disability that influences how one "reads" a room. But it is a situation that occurs sometimes with bright (usually) students who don't interact well with the goals of a classroom setting. I certainly don't want my students to not express their enthusiasm or make connections, but I don't know how to focus a class on the fast clip of content without some tight control of the material we get through in one day or one week's classes.
Those of you who teach -- what do you do in these circumstances? Those of you who are students -- how do you feel about lecture classroom interactions? I would love some guidance, even if I don't really respond as positively as I should to correction. I am afraid I let this one get out of control a bit, and don't know how to rectify the situation without being horribly discouraging or negative. I don't want to be, but I don't want to get sidetracked or join in a "we are more informed than everyone else" dynamic with the student.
And what students have I left off? What kind of student were you?