Come in, Mr X, but please don't shut the door

December 10, 2004

A bit of respect and openness can help with disruptive students, says Susan Bassnett

5Some teacher friends were telling me the other day about Education Secretary Charles Clarke's controversial proposals to deal with disruptive pupils. Apparently, he intends to farm some out to high-achieving schools in the hope that exposure to high standards might help them overcome behavioural problems. Aren't you lucky in higher education, they said, you don't have disruptive students. All your students are self-selected and want to be educated.

That point might initially seem valid, but there is a lot of evidence that suggests that some students are disruptive, and academics are increasingly complaining about being bullied and harassed. It is hardly surprising, given the huge upsurge in numbers, the high expectations that are often not met and the pressures today's students are under, that they are far less tolerant and respectful of their elders than previous generations were. It is also the case that academics have less time to spend with students and may not even know the names of everyone they teach.

This combination can cause difficulties all round. The good news is that cases of violently disruptive students are rare. But if you sense that things are not quite as they should be, how do you head off difficulties before they get out of hand? Here are some tips from colleagues.

The need to be courteous and, above all, reliable is fundamental. Take my daughter's case: having received a letter informing her she was required to attend a meeting with her tutor to sort out options at a given date, time and place, she travelled to the north of Scotland before the start of term, only to discover that the sender of the letter was missing. An embarrassed secretary explained that he was away at a conference. No substitute, no explanation, no apology. The situation could have been avoided by basic politeness and alternative arrangements.

One head of department insists that all staff and students address one another by title and surname, saying that while there can be friendly relations between academics and students, there is a massive power disparity. The academic sits in judgement on the student, he or she determines grades and, therefore, no matter how convivial the relationship may be, it is not a relationship between equals. After a raft of abusive emails from students and a threatened breakdown of relations, he felt staff and students needed to be reminded of this. The verdict is that everybody feels more valued.

I stopped asking students to call me by my first name years ago when I saw how uncomfortable some people were with this. I asked students what they preferred: the overwhelming verdict was to use formal address. I remember feeling downcast, as one interpretation could be a failure on my part to communicate with students. But, since then, I have realised that the closeness of a tutor-student relationship does not depend on whether you call one another by first names. What counts is building trust.

Another device is to ensure that students feel safe when they come to talk to you. Not closing doors sends very positive signals about openness and approachability. Closing a door may create an impression of secretiveness.

In the US, academics always talk to students with their doors open, and feedback on this practice is very encouraging.

If you see there is a situation that you cannot deal with, it's important not to waste time. Put the student in touch with welfare services. A good tutor will know what portfolio of welfare services is provided at their university and will be able to point students in the right direction. And if the pressures become too great, you can always use the services on offer to get some help yourself.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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