Lecturers lay down the law

April 3, 1998

North America

A rising number of United States college professors are using their course syllabi to lay down codes of conduct for students, who they say are becoming increasingly unruly.

Along with required reading, class times and homework, course notes now state basic rules of behaviour, such as arriving and leaving on time and avoiding "idle chatter and giggling" in lectures.

Laying down the law from the off is useful, these faculty members say, amid anecdotal evidence of growing insubordination and disengagement among students.

Mary Deane Sorcinelli, director of the center for teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said: "Faculty feel that if something is there in writing, they can remind students or refer back to it."

"Everyone who registers for this class is an adult," warns one such sharply worded course syllabus written by a Utah State University professor. "You should also be adult enough not to disturb others. Mindless talking during class is immature, inconsiderate behaviour."

Complaints that students are lazy or rude, of course, are as old as the institution of the university. But discipline, it appears, threatens to become as much an issue in colleges as it has already in schools.

Recently the National Teaching and Learning Forum, an education newsletter (www.ntlf.com), turned over its whole issue to a discussion of "Teaching and Crowd Control", noting that "more and more often students misbehave".

One paper on the subject listed 28 examples of "troublesome student behaviour", from coming late and leaving early to "arguing relentlessly over a grade" and "constantly phoning office or home".

The newsletter's Wisconsin-based editor, James Rhem, said: "I can't tell you with any certainty that student behaviour is getting worse. But I have been getting email about it, and anecdotally I have heard lots of stories."

Most universities have institutional codes of conduct, notes Gerald Amada, of the City College of San Francisco and author of Coping with the Disruptive Student. But using the syllabus - which students are more certain to read - is a useful reminder. Professors can reinforce bans on plagiarism, wearing certain kinds of clothes or even chewing gum.

Jack Cranford, an associate professor at a Virginia technical college, where he heads its "climate committee" on conduct, has no doubt that "behaviour and respect and everything that goes with it has gone down the tube in the past 25 years". This year, he put a statement in his syllabus about expectations on behaviour, and noticed an immediate improvement, he said. Among other things, it put students on warning that he had the right to eject them from the class. Some students had complained previously that "faculty never told us how to behave", he said.

Professor Cranford and others complained of one particularly modern problem: consumer attitudes. "One of the things we hear from students is that they are paying to be here, which gives them certain rights. I'm paying your salary, I'm your boss. It gives them a certain justification to behave in ways that would have been unacceptable," he said.

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