Friday, July 29, 2011

How students are annoying

In the comic book "Le chat du rabbin", the rabbi's cat gets into an argument with the rabbi's rabbi about whether he should be allowed to have a bar-mitzvah. Then the cat tells the rabbi's rabbi that he, the cat, is God who has taken the appearance of a cat as a challenge for him. The cat proceeds to tell the rabbi's rabbi that he is very dissatisfied with his behavior, that he has been as dogmatic and closed-minded with him as some Christians are with Jews. The rabbi's rabbi kneels before the cat and asks for forgiveness. The cat then answers that it was just a joke, that he is not really God but just a cat after all, and that the rabbi's rabbi can stand back up from his knees. The rabbi's rabbi gets angry and says that the cat should be drowned. The cat's rabbi asks the rabbi's rabbi whether a rabbi ought not to systematically accept contradiction from his students, and whether that is not the very principle of Talmudic teaching.

I like that principle but I'm not sure how much contradiction I can deal with.

Once I was teaching a freshman class in France. Some students were not paying attention. The atmosphere grew increasingly chaotic. Paper airplanes were flying around the amphitheater. I heard a couple of pieces of chalk being thrown as I was writing on the board. Then, inexplicable muffled laughter broke behind my back. And again. I looked sideways, and saw the red light of a laser pointer shining on the board next to me. Someone was acting up with a laser pointer! More laughter every time I turned to write on the board. My temper started rising (it is usually slow to trigger but, once awakened, is quick to rise). Finally I turned around quickly, just in time to see the source of the merriment.
-"Who, me?"
-"Yes, you. Get out of here."
-"Me? Why?"
-"Just get out. I have had enough of you for today. You have been distracting the entire class and preventing other people from paying attention to the lecture. Enough! Pick up your stuff and leave, right now. You can ask one of your friends to explain the material of the rest of today's lecture to you."
I had no idea what I would do next if he didn't leave, but I was angry enough that I didn't care. Fortunately the student got up, slowly, and left reluctantly.


  1. Interesting story. IMO, we profs need to play it according to the students' rules sometimes, rather than being strict.

    I follow a fairly simple rule in my classes - I get to do what the students do (except duties of lecturing, which are my own responsibilities, of course). For instance, if a student is reading the newspaper in my class, I would also sit down and read the newspaper! I used this rule even when I was a graduate student TA. I had picked up the university daily on my way to the lecture. While lecturing, I saw that a couple of students were engrossed in the paper. I looked at them a couple of times, they looked back at me as well, but they continued to read the paper. So, I calmly walked to my chair, sat down, looked at them again, and started reading the newspaper! The whole class turned around and looked at them now, and they had to fold up their newspapers in shame.

    Nowadays, students are good at texting silently while in class. But even 3-4 years back, the occasional cell phone would ring during the lecture, especially in a big class (I teach some of those freshman/sophomore Math classes with 90-100 students). I follow the same rule in this case - I get to use the cell phone if the students do. But I never carry my own to class, so I get to use the students'!! I have talked to a student's mom this way in the middle of the lecture - and asked her to advise her son to turn off his cellphone while in class! The whole class had a good laugh, and everyone remembered to turn their phones off from the next lecture onward.

  2. Bala, so your guiding principle is: show empathy by mimicking the students, and you will understand them better (or they, you)? Sounds good.

    Fortunately now that I am at Brown I no longer have to deal with this kind of issues. All the students who come to class are attentive, interested, and gentle.

  3. A common technique in those circumstances is simply for the professor to walk out after stating that everything that should have been talked about during the unfinished lecture is on the programme of the examination at the end of the course, and will be assumed to be known for the examination.

  4. DM, that's an adversarial technique, and it also pitches the conflict as "all students together on one side, professor on the other side". I don't like it...


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