Getting drunk in front of your students is probably never advisable behaviour for an academic. But a new study suggests that such transgressions may come back to haunt lecturers in the classroom too.
Researchers at Maryland’s Frostburg State University found that undergraduates who witnessed their tutors behaving “inappropriately” out of class were more likely to display incivility during lectures or seminars themselves: for example, by turning up under the influence of alcohol or drugs, swearing or falling asleep.
Rebecca Chory, assistant professor of management, and Evan Offstein, professor of management, suggest that students may interpret academics’ misconduct “as a cue that ‘no one cares’ and incivility is allowable or at least will not be punished”.
For their study, published in the Journal of Academic Ethics last month, the pair surveyed 145 business undergraduates about whether they had witnessed or heard about their professors displaying a range of out-of-class behaviours perceived as inappropriate, including getting drunk, taking drugs or being unfaithful to their partner. Smoking, being arrested, having an unplanned pregnancy and gambling were also listed as potential out-of-class misdemeanours.
Professor Chory and Professor Offstein find that students who saw these behaviours in a lecturer were more likely to display a range of undesirable behaviours themselves in class. As well as turning up after drinking or taking drugs, swearing and falling asleep, they also included making aggressive remarks towards the tutor, and a range of disrespectful conduct including leaving early, handing in essays late, and not keeping scheduled appointments.
The pair write that their findings have growing relevance, because of how the growing drive for student “satisfaction” has resulted in academics being encouraged to personally engage more with learners outside the classroom, and because of the rise of social media.
Professor Chory and Professor Offstein recommend that universities provide academics with more advice about how to manage the boundary between their personal and professional lives.
“We’re not advocating oversight of professors’ out-of-class behaviour – we’re not saying professors shouldn’t be allowed to do these things,” Professor Chory told Times Higher Education. “We have a right to go to a bar if we want to.
“But there are some downsides and risks associated with getting closer to students and removing formal boundaries, and we need to be aware of them. For professors, it can make your job more difficult, because students can be more uncivil when they come to class.
“They might like you and think you're cool, but they are more likely to go to sleep or be mouthy.”