Not so long ago, most college instructors were treated with dignity and respect. But now, to the dismay of many academics, some students see them as service providers, to be ignored when they are not entertaining

January 28, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun Staff

At a mandatory study hall for about 25 Towson University freshmen last semester, teaching assistant Dorothy Williams repeatedly implored several male students in the back of the classroom to stop joking around and settle down.

Moments later, in response to a perceived slight, one of the troublemakers stood and struck a fellow student --- hard --- in the back.

Several students laughed. A clearly rattled Williams ordered the assailant to leave the room and "cool off" by the door. "They're usually very well behaved," she insisted later, her voice still shaking.

While physical violence in college classrooms is rare at Towson and elsewhere, unruly and discourteous behavior is on the rise, experts say, and it is a growing preoccupation of academics and administrators nationwide.

Across the country, veteran college teachers complain of increasing student hostility to rules of classroom conduct, and belligerence in demanding higher grades. In addition to chatting, eating and sleeping in class, students now have new ways to distract themselves and their fellows from the lecturer: text-messaging on cell phones, and shopping for shoes on laptop computers during Biology 101.

"I have had crazy things go on in the classroom," said Julie Reiser, a Towson writing lecturer. When Reiser told one student he couldn't listen to his iPod while completing an in-class assignment, "he just blew up at me," she recalled. "He said, `I can't write without an iPod.' They are addicted to multi-tasking. They need a soundtrack to their lives."

In interviews, professors relate with equal parts bemusement and concern similar stories of student discourtesy. James Klumpp, a communications professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he recently observed a younger colleague's 40-student lecture class and counted 50 instances of students entering or leaving the room during one 75-minute session.

At Seattle Pacific University, a small private college in Washington State, faculty have a shorthand for the new generation of disruptive students: "the boys in the baseball caps."

"They sit in the back row and make snide comments under their breath," explained an English professor, Susan VanZanten Gallagher. "That's very disruptive to the class as a whole and quite disheartening to the teacher."

Of course, bemoaning the ill-mannered antics of college students is a tradition as old as academe itself. In the mid-16th century, the president of Bavaria's University of Ingolstadt -- and future saint -- Peter Canisius complained to Rome of "barbarian packs [of] students ... roaming the streets ... blowing horns and acting like a bunch of drunken madmen."

The difference today is that faculty complaints are not about acts of intentional rebellion -- whether political sit-ins or post-adolescent partying -- but about being treated as mere service-providers in a consumer transaction, neither automatically feared nor revered.

In response, many colleges are trying to persuade their paying customers to buy into traditional notions of civility, and restore the sanctity of the classroom.

In 2003, American University launched a campus-wide civility campaign branded "Civitas," the Latin word for body-politic, or citizenship. The on-going initiative includes an annual "civitas week" at the start of the fall semester, including lectures and workshops for the university community.

Civitas co-chair Bernard Schulz said American University officials have been asked to make presentations on their effort to higher education institutions around the country, from Wyoming's higher education commission to Georgetown University and Loyola College in Baltimore.

Likewise, when the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article in 2004 about a "contract on classroom behavior" that Western Illinois University's John Drea asks his students to sign (in exchange for extra-credit points), the marketing professor received about 30 requests for copies of his 14-point covenant of classroom etiquette, from sources as diverse as Harvard University and a 6th grade elementary school teacher.

One sought-after speaker is P.M. Forni, Johns Hopkins University professor of Italian literature, who in 1997 founded the Hopkins Civility Project, which examines the role of etiquette and manners in modern society. Forni's slim 2002 book, Choosing Civility, is required reading at many faculty-development seminars and civility campaigns.

Forni is at work on a new book on rudeness, and is planning a chapter on the growth of unruliness in academia.

"To try to explain the current high incidence of incivility on college campuses we can invoke the continuing decline of the principle of authority, the fact that the new generations have not received serious training in good manners at home, genuine ignorance about expected behavior, and the rising costs of college tuition, with the attendant rise of a consumer mentality among students," said Forni.

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