Rude Behavior is Often a Matter of Course

by Lisa Black, Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO — Lee Shumow doesn’t want to text her students, or be their friend on Facebook, but to their chagrin prefers an old-fashioned way to communicate: e-mail.

The educational psychology professor at Northern Illinois University appreciates when students take the time to reply. It’s an extra treat when they don’t begin their message with, “Hey, Lee.”

She and many of her colleagues believe such informality has seeped into the college classroom environment, citing student behavior that’s best described as rude or oblivious. As students begin a new semester this month, instructors bracing for yet another onslaught blame technology for creating a disengaged generation whose attention is constantly diverted by laptops, phones and iPods.

Others point to the unruly classroom as a reflection of an increasingly ill-mannered society. Nearly 70 percent of Americans polled in 2005 said they believe people are more rude than they were 20 to 30 years ago.

“I literally cannot imagine having addressed any teacher I had in my career as ‘Hey’ and then their first name,’ “ said Shumow, who has a doctoral degree and has taught 15 years at NIU. “I love them. I won an award for undergraduate teaching in 2005. But man, the world has really changed from when I was a student.”

To their credit, most students are respectful and more inquisitive than ever, faculty members say.

Yet professors also find they must devote space in the syllabus to ask students to refrain from surfing the Web, texting or answering cell phones during a lecture. Some have to remind students that, when making a presentation, they should remove the backward baseball cap and save the bare midriff for a beach party. Others complain that students randomly leave and enter the classroom during class.

For their part, students are irked by others who slurp and chew food, doze off or dominate discussion.

Some blame high schools for lowering the bar on classroom conduct, while others say the problems begin at home, when families fail to instill in children basic skills such as how to say “please” or “thank you.”

In some cases, parents are more obnoxious than their offspring. One professor reported hearing from an irate father whose child had failed a class. The father insisted he had paid enough tuition for “at least a D.”

Yet experts believe there is more to collegiate rudeness than perhaps a feeling of entitlement.

The attitude often is: “I don’t need you, I have the Net,” said P.M. Forni, director of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and a professor of Italian literature.

“These are students for whom the computers are the training wheels of their knowledge since early childhood. Many of them will think nothing of starting to text as you convey a commentary on Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’ “

Although the decline in classroom manners has not been documented in evidence-backed research, Forni said, the “anecdotal evidence is so massive it becomes rather reliable.”

There is a sense, he said, that the relationship between student and teacher is now likened to one between a client and service provider.

“The prestige of the teacher and the professors as providers of knowledge and wisdom has decreased as the importance of the information technology has increased,” he said.

Professors should set a tone of relaxed formality and define boundaries from day one, Forni said.

For instance, he begins his classes by explaining that he grew up in Italy during a different generation, where wearing caps in a classroom was considered rude. He considers it a distraction.

“I say, ‘Listen, I cannot enforce this. I am just asking you as a favor not to wear a cap in class for this reason,’ “ Forni said. “Nobody from that moment on wears his cap in class.”

Students usually respond well, teachers say, when they understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from the professor — including respect.

Rebecca Lessenberry, 19, of Waukegan, Ill., and a classmate would agree. They were stung last spring by an instructor’s reprimand when they arrived for a speech class at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

“We smelled like cigarette smoke and our teacher decided to humiliate us and say, ‘Do not smoke before my class and sit next to me,’ “ Lessenberry said.

In response, “We would just smoke even more before class,” said Allyce Doorey, 21, of Lake Villa, Ill. The two recalled how they wet their hair before smoking, to be sure the odor stuck.

Students also have little patience for instructors who ramble off topic, talk extensively about their personal lives or espouse political views or religious doctrine.

The very nature of some class subjects can provoke discussion — or arguments that offend.

“I think it’s all in the way the instructor approaches the particular situation and addresses students,” said Kerry Lane, assistant English professor at Joliet Junior College. She assigns readings on topics such as race and faith that can be delicate.

“When we are 18, we may not be aware of how different our views are from others’,” Lane said. “I find it is interesting and worthwhile territory for us to cover, but at times it can be challenging.”

John Koepke, an electrical engineering instructor at Joliet Junior College, once had to dismiss a student for tossing wads of paper around the room. The two talked about it before the next class, and Koepke said he learned that the student didn’t feel challenged and was acting out because of that.

He encourages students to drop preconceived notions and try to figure out what class material they can apply in their lives.

On a positive note, “They feel more comfortable asking questions than in earlier years,” Koepke said. “It used to be almost all dictation.”

Ill-mannered students don’t just grate on the teacher, they also irritate classmates.

“I always have the one (classmate) who thinks they know everything,” said Natalia Garcia, 21, of Waukegan, a CLC student. “They actually argue with the teacher sometimes. It’s annoying.”

Sarah Katula, an assistant nursing professor at Elmhurst College, recently sat on the other side of lectern as a graduate student at a Chicago university. She was surprised at the number of students playing games on their laptops during lectures, and was especially annoyed by a woman who sat behind her in statistics class. “Every class, she would eat her yogurt and she would clink her spoon … to get every last bit of it,” Katula said. “The chewing of food made me nuts.”

NIU’s Shumow agrees that older returning graduate students pose a special set of challenges, especially if juggling full-time jobs.

“They are tired and on class nights they haven’t eaten a decent meal and their nerves are frayed,” she said. Some are snippy, she said, and argue about class requirements, such as preparing a formal paper.

“This is graduate school,” Shumow said. “Yeah, you really do have to include citations in your paper.”

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.
Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.