Teaching Advice about sleepers in the classroom

I went to a conference on teaching today. Most sessions were led by speakers made up of graduate students starting their teaching careers and long-time professors – people who no doubt know more about teaching than I do. They offered the audience tips about how to write a teaching dossier when applying for jobs, how to engage students in the classroom, and what they called the power relations in the classroom.

Let me say this right off the bat – I am no expert on teaching. I have only just begun teaching a university-level class for the second time. And though my reviews and feedback were very strong after my first teaching experience, I still have a lot to learn and I’m willing to admit that.

But, I want to voice my confusion about the approach that many of the conference speakers take to teaching and the advice they gave – particularly concerning what they called “disrespectful students.”

I planned to stay for a series of conference sessions but was particularly interested in a session on teaching for the first time. Though I will technically be teaching for the second time this term, I thought I could gather some useful advice. The speakers on this panel included a friend who offered advice that was decent enough. But a second speaker offered the kinds of questionable suggestions that ended my interested in the conference immediately.

Her presentation started out well. She said she had some nerves about teaching at first and did her best to practice lecturing. Though I do not share this same nervousness, I can understand why people have issues with public speaking and, even if they don’t, practicing is always good advice.

But then she began to speak on the power relations within the classroom. She explained that as a female and a young person at that, she sometimes feels as though students are disrespectful. I don’t doubt that students may act rudely when their expectations about the old, white male professor are unfulfilled by a young female. And, i don’t doubt that this may place extra burdens on young female professors. However, when she began to detail the kinds of disrespectful behavior she met from her students and the ways she responded to them, I was left baffled. Put simply, I am not sure if the students were indeed being disrespectful, and I do not think that she responded appropriately.

According to the speaker, the students disrespect manifested itself in either the students’ dozing off in class or their tendency to visit Facebook.

She recounted one situation in which a young male fell asleep during a lecture. She emphasized that this occurred during a lecture on gender and patriarchy which made most of the conference audience laugh. She explained that she responded by walking towards the student and bringing the class’s attention to the sleeper. He suddenly awoke – no doubt feeling somewhat embarrassed. Having shamed the young man, she promptly returned to the front of the class and continued her lecture as usual.

She later recounted a story in which a student began to browse the web and look up her Facebook account. She mentioned that the student was actually sitting right next to her and made no effort to hide her web browsing (and, therefore, her boredom). She implied that this also made her feel disrespected.

At some point, she made a comment about the importance of setting boundaries because “if you give students a little bit, they are going to want a mile”

I don’t discount the importance of respect from students and, ideally, I hope students are not falling asleep in class. But I think it is presumptuous on this professors part to think that her student’s behavior is based in a disrespect for female authority rather than tiredness which could be tied to anything from a night out partying to a medical issue to life difficulties. And I have no idea what the professor hopes to accomplish by embarrassing the student by bringing his dozing to the attention of everyone in the class. Speaking as someone who routinely used to fall asleep in class because of a busy life-schedule, I know I would feel not only embarrassed but anxious and unhappy to be in class if a professor decided to shame me. Is this what professors want to do? trade in sleepy students for anxious and embarrassed ones – perhaps even students who feels disrespected and may lose any interested they had in the class.

My personal response is to simply let sleepers sleep. Let bored students browse the web. I can not and do not expect to engage every single student who enters my classroom. There are those people who simply won’t care about my lecture (perhaps even my class) and nothing I do can change that. At another level there are those students who have fallen asleep because they are feeling tired for reasons that exist outside of the classroom. Again, there is little I can (or should) do to try to change that.

Professors should not presume to know their students lives and, so long as they are not being disruptive, it would probably be better if the lecturer just keeps on lecturing. Even if you still think a sleeping student is being disrespectful, in the end, who cares. Why feel offended? He will sleep. You will lecture. His grade will suffer. You will keep lecturing. If you can’t handle the fact that some students are tired or bored, you probably shouldn’t have such a high opinion of yourself and whatever it is that your teaching.

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