Tuesday, October 11, 2011
You! Out of the Pool!
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?
The argument for "yes" unfortunately spits in the face of any non-disruptive students who cheered, inwardly or outwardly, when the disruptor was kicked out.
Letting them back in pending the hearing should preferably happen only under a strict probationary policy, if that. That is, the professor can kick this student out again without first giving a warning or whatever the usual process of escalation is.
If the kicked-out student was wrongfully accused and not a habitual disruptor, then the professor will have no cause to exercise this.
In essence, one person's presumption of innocence should not be allowed to trample everyone else's right to learn in a class that they have invested time and money into.
In our criminal justice system, if we think there is a serious risk of reoffending then we lock accused persons in prison (despite the presumption of innocence). If they are then found innocent, their lives will have been seriously disrupted, but we accept that as the price we pay to ensure that the guilty can't reoffend (or escape justice, although that's probably not relevant here).
I agree that letting the student straight back in is undermining. Could they instead be given opportunities to keep up outside of class, using online materials - in the same way as any other student who happens to miss a class due to illness? Maybe the price the professor pays for having their authority upheld is that they spend some time 1-1 with the student (using office hours) to make sure they have an appropriate independent study plan?
On a practical note, because this situation would be rare, perhaps we could invoke modern technology and record the classes the student would miss as a result of being kicked out.
The student was SO disruptive -- he would raise his hand 10 times in a 90 minute class to ask irrelevant questions about illicit drugs (unrelated to the drugs' chemistry and totally unrelated to the topics at hand).
If the teacher didn't call on him, he'd start monologue-ing and freestyle "rapping" about drugs OVER THE PROFESSOR. If the prof tried to firmly tell him to be quiet, the guy would say stuff like, "Oh, am I hitting too close to home? Y'know, I HEARD that blow makes old people irrational and cranky. Maybe it's time to lay off the stuff man" and other fabricated insults/insinuations. In lab, he'd get creepy-explicit and touchy-feely with the girls, especially picking on the 3 Asian girls whose English skills weren't awesome -- since they were all tiny, shy, and foreign, he was essentially bullying the most vulnerable b/c the US-born girls wouldn't accept the excuse that a guy could “accidentally” pinch a girl’s private parts.
The guy thought that he was cool, popular, and well-liked by the rest of us when really we all wanted to murder him.
The 3rd or 4th class of the semester, the guy started one of his pro-drug spiels while the prof was talking.
The prof stopped talking and loudly asked, "do you think that what you have to say is more important than what I have to say?" The boy said something non-committal (IIRC, "It is what it is. Don't hate" or something very close).
The professor said, "do you think the other students would agree with you?" and the guy said something else indicating 'yes.'
So the prof said, "Are you willing to put it to a vote? If the majority of your peers think that you're making valuable contributions, I'll give you the first 15 minutes of class time for the rest of the semester. All yours. But if most of your peers think you're NOT contributing, you agree to leave today, drop the class, and never come back. Is that a fair deal?"
The guy, being a social idiot, agreed.
When the prof asked "who thinks XXXX is a disruption and should drop the class NOW?" every single student in the class raised their hand without a second's hesitation.
The guy started grumbling about how we were voting with the teacher just to suck up b/c he gave us our grades. The professor, totally unperturbed, said, "I don't want there to be ANY confusion on your part. I'm going to leave the room and the class can take a second vote. I won't be able to see how people vote. I'll even give you a couple minutes to make your case to the class."
The professor left and the guy was trying to say, "Now that THE MAN'S gone, we can get real..." But before he could get any further, one of the tiny, super-shy, foreign-born Asian girls said "I think we've had enough time. Who votes XXXX to leave?"
Again, every hand in the room went up without hesitation. Someone fetched the professor. He came back and said, "the class has spoken. A deal's a deal. Goodbye John." John gave a concession spiel about how we were all sheep, our college educations would be bogus, etc., but after a couple minutes, his sorry ass left.
After he left, the class cheered and profusely thanked the professor.
We would have been REALLY upset if the student had returned with administrative support and a cocky grin.
Obviously a class vote won't work in every situation with a disruptive student. But if the other students hate the troublemaker but the troublemaker is oblivious to that fact, it can work beautifully!
Most of the troublemakers and disruptive students I've experienced (much more in high school than community college or university) thought that they were popular. In high school, some of them were actually popular and they actually were supported by the class (usually b/c the teacher was a moron). But in college, all the disruptive students were roundly despised.
Sorry for the length of the anecdote. It was probably the greatest moment I've seen in a classroom & I wish every disruptive student had the same response.
Still, we don't want to go overboard with run-of-the-mill student behavior issues.
How about an intermediate step. The student who was kicked out must meet with the Professor, who will be accompanied by their Dept Head (and possibly the Dean). Presumably, this would include a meeting between the Dept Head and Dean and Professor, first - or at least an email discussion of "here's what happened and how I want to address it" so the Professor knows they have the backing of their administrators.
(If you do this - it requires that non-tenured faculty be supported and welcomed to use this process without fear of harm to their future employment. Otherwise, your protected tenure-track faculty will do so, but your non-tenure faculty will just suffer quietly rather than invite attention. And that undermines the whole process.)
Pending satisfactory outcome of that meeting, the student can be let back into class on a probationary basis, while the "wheels of justice" grind slowly along. If the student refuses to meet at all, or the meeting is unsatisfactory, then the student is effectively choosing not to return to class - not the institution's or Professor's fault.
Of course, the troublemaker still has to agree to abide by a popular vote rather than a due-process hearing.
If the student in my chem class had decided NOT to leave without a hearing, would the fact that he agreed to abide by the class vote mean that he gave up his due-process rights and procedures?
Are you going to have a cop or unarmed (but uniformed) security officer in the classroom during that week?
Never experienced disruption in my college classes, it was a different era. CCPhysicist makes a valid point, though I find it shocking.
I favor trusting the faculty.
But still, very few faculty are adequately trained to deal with these situations, and I think smart institutions will be the ones that develop the best early intervention strategies, and get involved quickly if a class situation is becoming difficult.
Sometimes this is just a matter of resources. The first time I taught with a student who had a diagnosed behavioural disorder of the kind that disrupted and unsettled other students, I wished I had had even the simplest something to read that would help me understand how to create an environment that worked for him as well as for me and the rest of the class. In the end, we figured it out, but it took a lot of background work.
There are more students in this situation than we sometimes realise, in part because of the stigma still associated with reporting mental health problems means that they stay under the radar until something goes wrong (sometimes triggered by a change of medication); but also because the management of some conditions in high school has improved dramatically to the point that more students with diagnosed conditions that might have these results are making it through to college level. Which is actually a good thing.
Even if in the heat of the moment that doesn't get said, the professor can still say the next time: "Welcome back, X. You're on probabation. You will be suspended if you disrupt the class."
Student gets a second chance and the professor gets to make the point in front of the whole class that she or he is in charge of the classroom.
Unfortunately, too many of our instructors try to deal with this on their own without going through our Behavioral Intervention process. I only hear about it after it has spun completely out of control.
The biggest problem I see is instructors letting minor problems go on too long, then exploding and wanting drastic action taken. Which is not to say the student behavior is acceptable--it's not. But when low-level disruptions are allowed to continue without comment for 6 weeks, it's hard to justify why that same behavior isn't okay in week 7.
Clear rules and guidelines can help, but they won't cover every contingency. Common sense isn't always common. Student and faculty safety has to come first; after that, a rapid, clear due process.
I would love to see Dean Dad weigh in on that.
The other students have rights, too.
In our world, we report and call campus police to intervene. If the student does not agree to avoid the class until the hearing, then call campus police again if the disruption occurs. On our campus, if the student does not agree to avoid the class, then campus police is notified and standing by.
All students have rights. The issue is how institutions can support faculty to balance these as fairly as we can, while recognising that the conditions under which some students are struggling to learn include conditions that make it really hard for them to process and respond constructively to direction in the orderly ways the processes themselves are set up to achieve. So if you tell a student what to do and s/he doesn't do it, it's very easy to interpret that according to the cultural logic of the process itself.
As a result we're falling back on institutional measures that were designed to deal with disciplinary issues, not issues of illness, and when these fail to produce orderly results, faculty stories of resentment at special treatment etc do start to build. These are the most common reactions wherever this issue gets discussed, in my experience -- but perhaps we need to say that the fault often lies with poor institutional preparedness, rather than the student who just doesn't shape up.
1) Dean Dad is often, correctly, quite concerned about the legal implications of faculty using non-uniform procedures when grading students. Here he seems unconcerned about the impact on faculty and students of an arbitrary decision to put a particular student back into class prior to a hearing required by college policy. We don't know any of the circumstances, but he doesn't know the entire story yet either. That is what the hearing is for.
2) I'm old enough to recall plenty of protests on campus, but don't recall ANY disruptive behavior in my undergrad classes or classes I taught as a grad student. Today is different than back then.
Much different, not even counting cases of hidden PTSD. I know that we have students at our CC as a condition of parole and/or release from a mental health facility, and suspect this is more likely at a CC than a Uni. Without knowing details of the original incident, having security present is not out of the question. It is one of the options our CC uses. Safety of faculty, staff, and students is a priority.
I have watched as a fellow professor dealt with a paranoid schizophrenic student with irregular medication habits. I stayed late more than once so there would be a second (or third) person around to call security if a problem arose in that office down the hall. I know from casual conversation with our police force that this is not the only student with that sort of problem. And I know, from annual presentations from our police force, that these are people who made it past a vetting procedure that kept far more dangerous people off of our campus.
Dean Dad's original post, as well as several comments, argued that well trained faculty should be able to deal with any classroom situation.
Our campus experts, both police and mental health professionals, disagree. Our faculty are glad that they disagree, because we know that we are not (and are not inclined to be) licensed professionals in those fields. They want us to involve them early and put their expertise to work on disruptive situations in the classroom.