I had a somewhat odd conversation with a friend and colleague of mine recently about the implications of being considered a "cool" professor by students. Neither one of us were really sure what our students think of us, but we both guessed that if there were a kind of Kinsey Scale for such a thing, we would probably be situated just slightly on the "cooler" side of center. We also agreed that receiving the designation "cool professor" is not an unambiguously good thing. Among other problems, it usually means that both one's students and one's colleagues presume that "cool" is synonymous with "easy"-- you grade easy, you don't assign much work, you don't have or enforce many rules, and you generally run a pretty loose ship. And that got me wondering: just how "tight" a ship does one need to run in the classroom?
The thing is, I don't have a lot of rules in my classroom. I allow, even encourage, students to interrupt me. I participate in and indulge quite a bit of irreverence with respect to the subject matter. When there are disagreements, which there often are in my courses, I am okay with letting the students fight it out. (No fisticuffs, of course.) I'm happy to amend the syllabus when the interests of the class are in tension with my plan. I don't "take roll" every day. It may seem like all of that adds up to the characteristics of a "loose" ship, but I mostly think that tightening my grip over those sorts of things diminishes the kind of learning that I want to happen in my classroom.
My teaching philosophy goes something like this: have only a few rules, but enforce them rigorously, precisely, and without exceptions. I'll let a lot of things slide in my classroom, but I execute the rules I do have with an Iron Fist. There are only ten of them, which I pass out with the syllabus on the first day of every class, and you can read them here. I really, really, REALLY don't budge on those ten rules. Ever. I especially don't budge on them when rule-breaking students come to me pleading with something like "aww, c'mon Dr. J, but I thought you were cool!" Nope, that is a utterly unconvincing plea.
Since the new semester is about to begin, I've been reconsidering my Ten Commandments again. I've made a few changes to them over the years, but the version I have now hasn't been changed in a while. So, I'm interested to hear from you readers what sorts of rules you have in your classrooms... and how they've been working for you. And, as an aside, I'm also interested to hear what you think about this common misconception (I think, anyway) that if students like you or your class, then you must be "easy."