US informality encourages rudeness in the classroom

Study finds female lecturers bear the brunt but also report it more often. Sarah Cunnane writes

October 21, 2010

The structure of the US higher education system has led to more bad behaviour from students than in other parts of the world, according to the authors of a new study.

"It is a lot more informal in the classroom here than in Europe," said Heike Alberts, associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and one of the authors of the research published in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education.

"That informality, of course, has many positives, but it's more conducive to students engaging in certain forms of incivility."

Professor Alberts, whose paper is titled "Classroom Incivilities: The Challenge of Interactions between College Students and Instructors in the US", said that students had been left with a "certain sense of entitlement" by factors including permissive parents, higher tuition fees and an overly lenient school environment.

"Students believe they have the right to good grades and the right to complain," she said.

The paper explains that this proliferation of incivility in the classroom has led to syllabuses "that resemble legal contracts rather than paths to learning".

Professor Alberts said that when academics met at conferences, only the most serious problems were discussed, which led to a distortion of what would be termed classroom incivility as well as the true level of uncivil behaviour from students.

"The little things get missed and overlooked," she said. "It's the coming in late, the talking in the classroom, the playing on cellphones. I personally can think of only a handful of occasions that I would term serious bad behaviour in my 10 years of teaching."

While Professor Alberts said the frequency of bad behaviour in class had not surprised her, the reactions of different groups of teachers had proved unexpected.

She found that female lecturers were more likely to experience uncivil behaviour than other groups but were also more likely to report it.

"Of course, incivilities can happen to anybody, but some women responding to our survey said they felt this was happening in a gendered context," Professor Alberts said, citing examples of "comments bordering on sexual harassment and authority being questioned".

The study also found that overseas and non-white faculty were less likely to report bad behaviour even though they were more likely than some groups to experience it.

Professor Alberts attributed some of their reluctance to take issue with rude students to the difficulty in getting on to the tenure track.

"Their position is not as secure," she said. "They fear that if they confront bad behaviour it will affect their career because it may affect their evaluation scores."

The research also found that class size played a factor.

"When you have a seminar of 12, it's very difficult to get away with any kind of incivility," Professor Alberts said. "However, a classroom of 200 is very anonymous. You don't know everyone's name, so you can't just say, 'Hey, John, stop that.'"

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