I was invited to visit a class this past week to talk about my major. Students in the class were new majors in the department, but they ranged in class rank from freshmen to seniors. So some really knew what they were doing and others were not even sure what subdiscipline they were going to select as their focus. It is a difficult class to teach -- I did it once over a decade ago, and it was a challenge. So I sympathize with the prof, who is a very nice, relatively quiet and agreeable sort of guy.
But when I walked into the class, halfway through (as someone else was talking for the first half of the class), students were very obviously not paying attention to the visiting speaker. Over half were texting on their phones, or had their computers open with facebook on the screens. No matter how boring a lecturer might be, or how disinterested you are in the material, I would think you would have a responsibility to at least appear engaged, or barring that, to be polite, at least. I was surprised and shocked this past week in this class at students' behaviour.
And it wasn't just me; I had invited two students to come and talk about their experiences in work and academic aspects of the major in their time in the department. I spoke with one of them the next day and asked her if it was typical of her other classes that students were so clearly not paying attention and were doing other things. Her response after the seasonally-tinted swirlycue.
She had been shocked coming in to the class at the lack of attention people were paying to the professor who was talking. In fact her reaction was expressed more judgmentally than my own. She asked a friend in the class if anyone had paid any attention to her presentation, and the friend had answered "probably not." It is nice to hear that I was not the only one who had reacted negatively to the atmosphere in the class.
I have done some guest lecturing in classes where faculty let students take notes on computers or don't ban the use of cell phones, but haven't noticed it as a distraction like this. I asked another professor (one who does much more visiting other classes than I have) what her experience has been and she said that after a rather unpleasant experience with students when she guest lectured, and she told me that because of bad and rude students, she now tells faculty who ask her to visit their classes that she would have guidelines about student behavior in class while she lectures, and she is perfectly happy to say no if they find that an intrusion on the way they conduct their classes. I haven't gone that far, and don't think I will, but it was such a surprise to me how the students acted that I might consider it.
There was an essay this past week on what one study suggested might be a cause or encourager of "uncivil behavior." The authors of the study suggested it was caused by a lack of respect which was promoted by TMI (sharing personal anecdotes) by the prof. The comments were the most interesting part of the article, actually, and I would encourage you to take a look at them. It didn't seem that the study was very controlled, but it was interesting, nonetheless.
I talk with my students about appropriate classroom behavior, and what I expect in the time when I am talking, or when one of their colleagues is talking. It involves paying attention, not doing other homework, not texting, etc. I have students every once in a while tell me that they are expecting important phone calls, and I am fine with that, but ask them to sit toward the back, near the door, so they can take the call out into the hall when it comes. I have been in those situations myself, too (I was at a conference and organization business meeting trying to schedule my cancer surgery last summer, and you better believe I took the required phone calls). The trick is to be as discreet as possible, and certainly to avoid (as much as possible) disrupting the work and involvement of others in the class/meeting/etc.
I don't know how this professor normally runs his classes, and this information for new majors class is something that is a bit of a smorgasbord at which students will be picking out what they think they need to help them in their program. So there is at least implicit understanding that there will be a lot that isn't necessarily directly relevant to each individual. However, how will you know what might be relevant if you don't pay attention? You might hear about something that you didn't think would be important (such as "this is how I got X or Y internship") you would miss if you were only interested in the narrow definition of what you thought was directly related to your major and someone in another major was talking. That is why it is useful to develop the habit of always being curious and trying to find relevance in anything you hear. It is safer to assume you will get something from someone talking to the class (and perhaps be disappointed), than to assume you will not, and then miss that something because you never bothered to listen.
That is why I ask my students to shut off their phones and computers when they come into my classroom. I want them to develop the habit of paying attention in a lecture or discussion, and I hope that habit carries over to other things they will do. If it doesn't it will not be because I didn't offer them the opportunity and encouragement to explore things they might not think would be interesting.
Do you find that other people's classes look significantly different from your own? Do their students seem more engaged or less engaged than your own do when you wander into their classrooms? How often do you do guest lectures? I look forward to your comments.
(I will not be able to participate in real time with conversation, as I am at a conference on Saturday. I won't be taking my computer, but will be taking notes in an old fashioned notebook, which is the way I learn better. Less temptation to surf the web, at least. I will join in the discussions when I have a chance.)