Should Profs Leave Unruly Classes?

January 2011

Professors routinely complain about students who spend class time on Facebook or texting their friends or otherwise making it clear that their attention is elsewhere. But is it acceptable for a faculty member to deal with these disruptions by walking out of class?

Two years ago, a Syracuse University professor set off a debate with his simple policy: If he spots a student texting, he will walk out of class for the day.

Now two faculty members at Ryerson University, in Toronto, sparked discussion at their institution with a similar (if somewhat more lenient) policy -- and their university's administrators and faculty union have both urged them to back down, which they apparently have.

The Ryerson professors' policy was first reported last week in The Eyeopener (the student newspaper) and then was picked up by other Canadian publications. Two professors who teach an introductory engineering course in chemistry jointly adopted a policy by posting it on the courses' Blackboard sites. The professors vowed to make tests more difficult, to encourage students to pay attention. And the professors said that after three warnings about disruptions such as cell phone discussions and movies playing on laptops, the professors would walk out of class -- and students would have to learn the rest of that day's material themselves. (Sources could not say whether the faculty members followed through on their treats.)

The student newspaper described a chaotic environment in the class where the faculty members made the threat to walk out, with loud chatting among students and even paper airplanes being shot around the room. A Ryerson spokeswoman said she couldn't confirm that those conditions existed, but others at the university said that student behavior has deteriorated in introductory courses (even if only a minority of students misbehave). Comments posted on the student newspaper article from people who said that they were in the classes -- including comments from those critical of the professors' response -- confirmed the rude behavior. One student wrote about "a whole row of kids" chatting and reading Facebook throughout a recent lecture.

But this student added these questions: "Was it really fair to leave the class based on the actions of these few students? Why were we all reprimanded for their bad mistakes?"

The two professors -- Robert Gossage and Andrew McWilliams -- did not respond to requests for comment (and have not responded to inquiries from reporters in Canada, either).

Janet Mowat, a spokeswoman for Ryerson, issued a statement on behalf of the university that rejected the approach used by the professors. "Ryerson University does not endorse faculty members threatening to abandon their class if the class is unruly nor does the university endorse arbitrarily raising the bar for tests in the middle of the semester." The statement went on to note that the university has a "guide to civility" and a student code of conduct, both of which say that both students and professors are responsible for jointly assuring a good learning environment. Students are specifically barred from "disruption of learning and teaching."

The engineering college at Ryerson is also starting several initiatives to help faculty members teach large classes, the statement noted, including a special online seminar on managing large, first-year classes; inviting a student conduct officer to participate in orientation to discuss these issues; and adding teaching assistant support to large classes.

Mowat said that the professors had been contacted and that she believed they would be trying other tactics in the future to deal with the issues.

Anver Saloojee, a professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson who is president of the union that represents tenure-track faculty members, said that the faculty contract would not permit faculty members to leave their classes unless there was an issue of health or safety. "One of the most important things we have to do is teaching," he said. And while Saloojee said he sympathized with faculty members struggling with inappropriate student behavior, he is not a fan of collective punishment. "You might have a minority of students who are disruptive, but you are doing a disservice to the students not engaging in that activity" by leaving, he said.

The university does need to do more to educate students -- especially first-year students -- on acceptable behavior, he said. And inappropriate behavior is clearly on the rise, he said, "when students have multiple devices at their disposal" in class. Saloojee said that he has had success from outlining expectations about behavior in the first session of each course.

While Ryerson appears committed to dealing with these issues without professorial walkouts, Laurence Thomas, a professor of philosophy at Syracuse University, said that he's sticking with his ultimatum about students who text, although he sometimes gives a warning for the first offense he spots. He said that since Inside Higher Ed covered his policy, he shows students that article on the first day of class.

Thomas said that the reason for the policy is straight-forward: "I have the power to walk out whereas asking a student to leave the class could result in a very awkward confrontation."

In explaining his policy to students, Thomas said that he stresses that he himself uses text messaging (when doing so would not be rude), as he wants students to know that his objection to texting in class does not arise from being "clueless" about technology. "I talk about the climate of the classroom and how each of us makes a difference in that regard."

Sometimes, he leaves class. "I actually walked out two weeks ago and I was stunned by the extent to which the student apologized for the behavior," he said.