Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A parenting reaction to a teaching problem

Something happened in CS222 today that surprised me. Specifically, I did something that surprised me. More specifically, I did something twice that surprised me. What did I do? I scolded my students.

I always have students close the door to the classroom since it's a noisy hallway. I have mentioned to the students many times that they should not come in late, because it is disrespectful to me and to their peers. I try to be transparent about my pedagogy, my constructivist teaching philosophy, and the idea that knowledge is created within a community of practice. Today, I was in the middle of a brief lesson on seemingly innocuous programming language features that, when misused, can lead to wicked bugs, when a student came into class late. It was about 8 minutes into class, and I cracked, pointing to him and shouting, "You need to stop coming to class late. It's driving me crazy!" Honestly, I don't know if that particular student had come in late before or not, but I was so irritated that I did not care. In retrospect, I hope "you" was interpreted in the plural, but I doubt that it was.

About seven minutes later, I had just finished my little impromptu lesson on the importance of using caution when modifying core language features (like Smalltalk's "new" method or operator overloading in C++), when a student let out a loud and bored-sounding sigh. I rolled with that one, saying something intended to imply my irritation. About three minutes later, the same voice let out the same sigh --- this time while I was in the middle of a demonstration --- and I lost it. I don't remember exactly what I said, but I know I pointed in that region of the room and commanded the person to stop it.

Needless to say, this did not set the right tone for the class. Later on, I told a funny story that involved repeatedly flipping off the classroom, and that seemed to cheer them up. Nothing gets students back like a little vulgarity.

In both instances, it was an immediate emotional pang that drove my reaction. It's the feeling I get when students dehumanize me or their classmates, treating the class as if they're watching a video. It's a feeling of being dehumanized and devalued. Further, it's a clear sign that the student is not trying to be part of a learning community. It's a terrible feeling.

Later on, I asked the students some questions about a piece of code I had just written, and none answered my question nor my request for questions about it. I knew that the non-participatory atmosphere was partially my own fault, so I had them form small groups that would be responsible for sharing either their best answer or their best question. As the students were working in small groups, it gave me time to start reflecting on what had happened, and I realized very quickly that I was treating these students --- the latecomer and the disinterested sigher --- the way I would treat my three-year-old son: I was scolding them, telling them to align their behaviors with accepted practice of politeness and social norms.

This was a personal revelation. In my ten-or-so years of teaching, I have had little trouble talking about technology and methodology, but I have had a much harder time talking about social norms. With a three-year-old, who is naturally testing his boundaries, I am now accustomed to monitoring his actions at home: when his antics shift from impish fun to dangerous or rude, it has to be nipped in the bud. This was exactly my reaction to the students in class: without even pausing to think about it, my "Dad Response" kicked in, and I scolded these students in pure authoritarian style.

As I continue to reflect on these actions and my reactions, I am having a hard time determining if I overreacted or not. Coming to class late is disrespectful to the whole learning community, and beyond that, it is very distracting. I made an example of the latecomer, and I like to rationalize my response as being a matter of fixing broken windows. I suppose the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we'll see if students stop coming in late. If not, then it was neither worth embarrassing this one student nor worth establishing a negative atmosphere. Would it have been better to put off the day's lesson to have a roundtable discussion about why tardiness is rude, or why emitting sighs of ennui is impolite? I have a hard time imagining that to be the case. I am tempted to spend a few minutes on Thursday telling the students how I feel. Did they know that professors have feelings? It might be cathartic for me, but would it be a valuable use of our limited time together? Worse, would I just be preaching to the choir?

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