I’m curious what readers think about this case. (It’s back in the news because the judge recently recused himself from the case.) It describes a judicial hearing in a New Jersey courtroom involving proceedings against an accused sex offender. Apparently, the alleged victim (a minor) and his mother traveled to New Jersey from out of state to attend the hearing, disrupting it out of frustration at the fact that the case wouldn’t be settled that day, as they’d expected. The delay arose because the defendant refused a plea deal and demanded a trial; the trial date was set months in the future, rendering the mother-and-son’s present trip pointless.
The mother explained, “We’ve been dealing with this for four and a half years, your honor. Four and a half years. And it’s been constant delays and pushbacks.”
There’s audio in the first link above. In it, the judge tells the mother, rather brusquely, to keep her mouth shut and sit down. He’s kind of an asshole about it, but I guess his point was that she was being one. This may be a regional thing.
I raise the issue not so much to judge either the judge’s conduct or the mother’s (both understandable in their own way), but to note an odd discrepancy between courtrooms and classrooms.
Consider the classroom analogue of the court scene. You’re standing there, teaching a class on some weighty subject, when someone (usually a tightly-knit group of student athletes) over there in the back row starts disrupting your presentation–talking, giggling, whispering loudly, carrying on. You tell them to stop, and they do–for a moment–but then carry on as though you hadn’t said a word. You say something again, and get a similar response. Now what?
- You could ignore it. But that seems pusillanimous and counter-productive.
- You could raise your voice, but that may not work, and even if it works, it could get you in trouble (“Shut UP!”).
- You could really raise your voice, throwing some profanity into the mix for good measure (“Shut the fuck up!”). That has a higher likelihood of working, but also a correspondingly high likelihood of getting you in trouble.
- People sometimes say that you could “throw the student out of class,” but despite being in this business for the last twenty-five years, I’m not really sure what that means. I suppose that I could demand that the student leave, but it’s never clear whether you’re allowed to issue such a demand, or what status it has. There are procedures for what to do if a student has a medical event or a psychological breakdown, but none for what to do if the student is just being an asshole. If the student doesn’t comply with your “demand,” what exactly are you supposed to do? Physically throw him out with your own two hands? That would be battery. Call Campus Security? That seems more trouble than it’s worth. And what if they came, anyway? What would they do? Where I teach, Campus Security lacks the authority to issue parking tickets, so the idea that they’d come and bodily throw someone out of a classroom seems a stretch. And my institution is not an outlier in this respect; it’s the norm.* A classroom is not a club, and Campus Security are not bouncers. As far as classroom disruptions are concerned, you’re on your own.
Best to do nothing and adopt a Walter Mitty posture, fantasizing what you would do in some nearby possible world.
I’ve sometimes gotten to the second bullet, and been sorely tempted to move to the third. But satisfying as it is (or would be), this isn’t the way to go: raising your voice, indeed, showing any intense emotion at all in the classroom, is considered “unprofessional.” I don’t really see why, but I don’t make the rules.
Put it this way: if I did in the classroom what this judge did in his courtroom, I’d be called into the Dean’s office for a dressing-down within the hour, and would either be fired within the week, or be put on the fast track to termination by end of the academic year. My frustrations with the student(s) would count for nothing. Neither would the gratuitous nature of the disruption I was dealing with, or the lack of options for dealing with it. If you can’t control an unruly classroom in a calm tone of voice and an equable demeanor, why then, you’ve failed at “classroom management.” Regardless of what students do, you are the failure. Ought does not imply can in the universe of the academic administrator.
Nothing comparable happens to judges, or at least to this one. He yells. He unapologetically exhibits his anger. Then he recuses himself from the case, invoking the public interest. In other words, he calls the shots in his courtroom: he says what he wants, and does what he wants. I wish I had that kind of power–and that kind of immunity. (Granted, this kind of thing occasionally happens, but only occasionally, and only in very egregious cases. Worth noting that this particular judge got dressed down, but still kept her job.)
Going back to the original case, consider four possibilities here.
- The judge’s conduct is justified, and would also be justified in a classroom setting. (Underlying assumption: what applies to courtrooms applies to classrooms, and yelling is fair game in both.)
- The judge’s conduct is justified, but wouldn’t be justified in a classroom setting. (Underlying assumption: what applies to courtrooms doesn’t apply to classrooms; judges can yell, but professors can’t.)
- The judge’s conduct is unjustified, but would be justified in a classroom setting. (Underlying assumption: what applies to classrooms doesn’t apply to courtrooms; professors can yell but judges can’t).
- The judge’s conduct is unjustified, as is similar conduct in a classroom. (Underlying assumption: what applies to courtrooms applies to classrooms, but in a more stringent way than is the case in ; yelling is fair game in neither place).
I’m inclined to opt for (1), but am sort of tempted by (3).
We had an inconclusive discussion at PoT about a (somewhat) similar case back in April 2018–that of Howard “Fuck Your Life” Finkelstein of Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. (As I say, this may be a regional thing.) I have the same view of the Finkelstein case now as I did then (actually, I’m more sympathetic to Finkelstein now than I was then). Incidentally, it’s not clear what ever happened to Finkelstein in that case. I don’t think he was fired; he was, evidently, still teaching at Brookdale in the fall semester of 2018, and is still listed as current faculty on Brookdale’s directory. So my views appear for once to have prevailed in the real world.
We had a somewhat more conclusive discussion at PoT about telling people to shut up in concerts and movie theaters. Unfortunately, the epistolary approach I take in the preceding post is not likely to yield results in real time, which is when they’re most urgently desired. But it has its satisfactions. No yelling required.
*The one exception I can think of took place when I was teaching in the Politics Department at Princeton. A student simply refused to hand in a take-home exam. After politely demanding it from him for a solid week, and tolerating a week’s worth of lies about his having submitted it in this or that obscure location on campus, I called the Dean of Students, who in turn called Public Safety–which executed a dynamic entry into the student’s dorm room and seized it from him. (Princeton’s Department of Public Safety is an armed, fully deputized police department–with a Jacobin name to boot.) The student was later arrested in a separate incident for trying to burn down the university.