Sunday, August 17, 2008

Classroom Governance

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."


Brunson said...

I need to think a bit more about whether I am a "cool" instructor, but regarding cell phones I like to assert a right to answer the call on the student's behalf when it rings in class.

anotherpanacea said...

I ran into coolness issues for the first time at MTSU. Before that, I think I was too strict and too square compared to my colleagues, but at MTSU I was actually on the relaxed and hip side of the spectrum.

In general, I'd prefer to be strict and geeky. Once the students decided I was cool, there was nothing I could do to enforce preparation, especially among my upper-division majors. We rebooted the syllabus mid-semester, and still they let the work slide. I became a much better and much more entertaining lecturer in the process, but I failed to give them the interactive seminar experience they deserved.

John said...

I am not sure if I may comment on this particular post, given the last paragraph, as I do not teach. (I could add that at this stage I gravitate, like Meletus, to the deme of the poets more than Socratic philosophy. But that would either be greatly exaggerating or feigning ignorance of these matters.) This post goes straight to the heart of the question of what the Academy is. If coolness is the exclusive property of the poets, or the lapsed, "beat" intellectuals, (the "dharma bum" philosophers, if that is not inventing things), and if on the other side formality, discipline, method, rigor belong to the academy, then this sets the stage (or opens the classroom) for a double game of appropriation. Is it not as though the master and apprentice, the initiated and uninitiated student, were taking measure of each other in the business and the craft of education, or of knowing itself? Whether one is looking at this issue from the inside out, or from the outside in, there is nothing standing in the way of this curiosity about the wares in the storesfront of learning but a single pane of glass, be it window or mirror. For student and teacher, master and apprentice, are reflections of each other-- what would allow us to say which one is looking out the window, and which one is looking in the mirror? Each would like to know the visions of the other, the self-consciousness of the other, but can they now? Could they ever?

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shep T. said...

So I think your class sounds like great fun to me. I just don't know about the back up dancers. I can't comment on my own failures as a teacher yet, but I remember with affection the teachers who measured whether we read on a weekly basis.

What I hated were professor's who used class as an excuse to get on their hobby horses, ride to the sunset and back. I don't think attendance should be important in college. So I'd sign up if I lived in Memphis.

Tory said...

Just throwing this out there, but you are a really cool professor, Dr. J. And because of that, I felt an extra incentive to do my work, like i would fail you if I didn't. I absolutely did not feel that urge for the professors who were less "cool" and more uptight. So...if you wanted a student's perspective, there it is.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, Tory!