Tuesday, October 11, 2011

You! Out of the Pool!

This kind of situation gives administrators fits, since there’s no easy answer.

Let’s say a student is so disruptive in class that he’s making it impossible to teach. The professor exercises the prerogative to kick the student out of class. The professor files disciplinary charges, but it will be a week or more before the charges can be heard (and the student can give his side of the story). The class will meet at least twice, if not more than that, before the hearing can be held.

Should the student be allowed back in class, pending the hearing?

The argument for ‘yes’ relies on due process and the presumption of innocence. If a student is wrongly banned from class for an extended period, then real academic harm is done to the student. If we assume that there’s meaningful distance between accusation and conviction, then it’s hard to argue with ‘yes.’

The argument for ‘no’ relies on the authority of the professor. If a professor goes so far as to kick a student out of class, in front of the rest of the class, then a statement has been made. Seeing that student stroll right back in the next time, grinning smugly, makes an unmistakable statement to the other students. Even if the charges are subsequently upheld, it’s hard to undo the damage of that impression.

Ideally, of course, students would not be this disruptive. But that’s like saying we wouldn’t need a criminal justice system if people just stopped committing crimes. It’s theoretically true, but of no practical interest.

The next-best situation has faculty so well trained, and so even-tempered and wise, that they’re able to handle any situation that develops without resorting to kicking anyone out. And there’s some truth to that. Learning to manage difficult students is part of teaching. I knew a professor at Proprietary U who was fresh out of grad school, where she had been trained in finding ever-more-finely-ground evidence of social injustice in the unlikeliest places. Her first class ate her alive. Her exquisite sensitivity left her without the thick skin needed to handle actual people. Anyone in authority has to endure a certain amount of abuse as a part of the job, and professors are not immune to that. I don’t recall a professor ever kicking a student out of class in my student days, and I never resorted to it in my faculty days. It should be rare.

But some students are really far beyond what a reasonable person should have to deal with, even if they aren’t technically criminal. They need to be removed if the class is going to work.

The next next-best situation has the hearing held post-haste. But sometimes that’s just not reality. You can be fast, or you can be thorough, but you can’t be both. Since our legal system prizes thoroughness over speed, quick-and-dirty leaves you exposed. So non-trivial time lags are likely to remain an annoying fact of life for the foreseeable future.

But that’s a hard sell to a pissed-off professor. Even though the law doesn’t stop at the classroom door, some professors honestly believe that they’re absolute monarchs in the classroom. They have tremendous authority and discretion, but it’s not unlimited. Students do have certain rights, due process among them.

I’m hoping there’s a reasonably elegant balance that someone out there has struck. Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found a way to deal with disruptive behavior when the mills of due process grind slowly?