A few years ago, I was leading a group discussion in my college class about a subject that made the ears of my freshman students perk up: the decriminalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington State.
I was thrilled to have their attention. Now, college student are a rough crowd to keep interested largely because all college kids have one thing in common, regardless of their age, major, skin color, religious beliefs, political instincts, hometown, ethnicity, gender identification and ability: They are ALL always hungry!
But I had broken the code, for 53 minutes anyway. Then I blew it. I committed the cardinal sin: I tried to look cool.
I did this by talking about my undergraduate days on that very Stony Brook campus when so many of my friends smoked “pot.”
Some of the students tried not to laugh at the antiquated term. Others looked at me with undisguised scorn. Some simply had no idea what I was referring to.
Finally, one student said, squeezing out every condescending bone in his body: “Uh professor, we call marijuana ‘weed’ today.”
Another kid chimed in: “Or ‘buds.’”
I put on a game face but I felt chastened, all right.
That’s an extreme case of a time when I stood squarely on the wrong side of the generation gap in my college classroom – or, should I say, the wrong side of the Generation Z gap.
But it neatly underscores the fragile hold a professor can have on a classroom full of world-weary students who fall somewhere between know-nothings and know-it-alls.
Looking back, I am pleased with how I comported myself. I did not get all defensive and remind them who gave out the G-R-A-D-E-S at the end of the semester. Nor did I dismiss them as smart alecks. I listened. I really listened. And I showed that I appreciated being corrected.
I empowered my students. In turn, they respected me more.
On another occasion, I had a very young Asian-American student in my classroom who did not speak English confidently. Nevertheless, I encouraged her to talk in class, as I do with all of my students. Amazingly, as she struggled to speak up – and instantly won my respect – one of her classmates, also an immigrant, made a point of laughing at her discomfort.
I swung around and unleashed my "angry face” on the miscreant. “Do you think you’re being funny?” I challenged him, employing a bluntness I had not yet spoken with during the semester. He stammered.
I nodded and said: “You have two choices, if you refuse to show respect to your colleagues in my classroom. First, I’ll agree to flunk you RIGHT NOW. Or, you can get out of here and come back next week, ready to be a nice person.”
As expected, he said instantly that he did not want to fail the class. I nodded again and said, “Fine – but for now, get out. And come back when you have thought this over. I will not tolerate bullying or hazing in my classroom. Or, I’ll bully and haze you – and, trust me, you won’t like it.”
The Importance of Civility
What can an educator glean from these slices of campus life?
A professor must always remain in control of a classroom. When appropriate, be a disciplinarian. Or, when you’re on the defensive, show a willingness to learn from your students.
When a student acts out, show her or him why the behavior is disruptive and, clearly, not acceptable. Use good judgment – make sure the crime is appropriate.
I could have flunked that intimidating, pint size Don Rickles on the spot. But he wouldn’t have learned anything. I gave him an option to correct his error and move on.
I suspect that he never, again, tried to be so funny in a classroom. He understood the importance of civility, which means more than any lesson in calculus or political science or organic chemistry or Shakespeare.
And I taught him!