The day I left class

I understand if students don’t have enough respect for me to pay attention, but they at least ought to have enough respect for themselves.

Two Ryerson profs created more waves than they probably meant to recently when they decided that they would simply stop teaching and leave class if things became too rowdy. Critics seem to take the view that while their concerns may be valid, there must be a better way.

As a professor, I am particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Ryerson Two, since I know first hand how soul-destroying it can be to do everything you can to be engaging about a fascinating topic and still watch students pass notes back and forth or try to make their cell phone spin like a top. I have never walked out for the reasons cited by the Ryerson profs. The most I’ve ever done on that score is stop teaching, walk over to an offending quartet and tell them quietly that they were causing a distraction. This was so mortifying to all of us that it was never needed again. But then, my classes are fairly small compared to those at most universities, and I can easily stroll over a few steps and correct the behaviour of a few students. But I wouldn’t want to climb the stairs to the back of a big lecture hall to tell off dozens of malcontents.

But one day I did walk out.

I had just graded a pile of papers so that I could hand them back in class. There were nine papers in the pile and of those nine, three of them had been blatantly plagiarized. And they were not the only ones that year. I had had enough and felt like I had to do something to convey to my students how serious the problem was. So I went into class and gave a very stern lecture about why plagiarism was wrong, about how it was an insult to me, to other students, and to the academy in general. Plus it was stupid because a bunch of them now had zeroes on their papers.

And then I left.

I don’t know what was said in the room after I was gone, but I’m pretty sure it made an impression. A student later told me that everyone in the class was now “paranoid” about citing sources correctly, which, in a way, was what I wanted because what they viewed as paranoid was merely what I considered diligent.

My case, of course, was something different than what the Ryerson profs are doing (or said they would do). It was a one-time thing, not a regular policy, and it was designed to make a particular point to the students, to actually teach them something. In that case, I felt like I could teach them more by leaving than I could by staying.

Looking back, I’m not entirely sure whether I did the right thing. There was no more misuse of sources that year, but when evaluations came around, it became clear that a lot of students were hurt because they felt they were being yelled at because of what other students did. No doubt some Ryerson students feel the same way about their profs walking out. And how much less will they learn because they no longer feel like they are being treated fairly?

Of course, it should never have had to come to that, and it should never have come to this. Students should pay attention for the simple reason that they should be embarrassed not to.

Each year, I talk to my students about my expectations around behaviour in class, including refraining from using their phones and laptops instead of paying attention. The reason I usually give is that it provides a distraction — not just to them but to other students and to me as well. But next year, I’m going to give another reason why students should pay attention: because anything else is beneath them. They are university students, for whom thousands of dollars of theirs (or their parents) and the taxpayers’ money is being spent so they can be there and to learn. They seek a university degree, a centuries-old designation, and a time-honoured mark of the educated man or woman. To do anything but pay attention is gormless and infantile.

I understand if students don’t have enough respect for me to pay attention, but they at least ought to have enough respect for themselves.

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