“Keep Your Mouth Shut, and Sit Down!”

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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).
  4. 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 [1]; 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.

10 thoughts on ““Keep Your Mouth Shut, and Sit Down!”

  1. For what it’s worth, I am definitely within recognized bounds when I raise my voice at students and scold them. I’ve even used expressions like “you need to shut up.” That’s not to say I’m allowed to lose my temper; I have, but that’s not what’s usually happening when I raise my voice. I have also told students to leave my classroom. I’m not allowed to insult or verbally abuse students, and I’m not supposed to lose my temper. But it’s recognized that stern and loud reprimands are a tool of classroom management for difficult situations.

    I suspect, though, that you’re right about the expectations at the college level. In ten years of college teaching, I had only one situation that called for anything on the order of what I end up doing regularly in my high school classes. My college students were just reasonably well behaved. In high school, I have to address some form of misbehavior almost daily. What I do with it would indeed be out of bounds in college classes, I think, but mainly because it would never be remotely necessary. But that was in my experience at institutions quite different from yours. It sounds like your students present you with generically similar behavior, but you’re deprived of the means to deal with it.

    I have recently said things to students like “are you capable of going five minutes without noise coming out of your mouth?” and “funny how you didn’t catch what I said, maybe because you were talking at the same time?” I recently told a table of young men that their reaction to me was as insulting as flipping me off. Last year a kid told me that she’d talk to her friends less in class if I weren’t so boring, to which I replied, “oh, if you think I’m boring you should meet yourself.” I’m sure my supervisors would prefer that I be gentler at times, but it’s understood that we often need to be stern, that we sometimes need to do so loudly, and that we occasionally need to remove students from class. I can’t imagine any of this at the college level. I had problem students at times, but I was almost always able to deal with them in a straightforward way. If they’d acted like my students of the past three years, though, it wouldn’t have worked.

    I’m inclined to go for 1. I like to think that I’d never need to yell in a college classroom. But not all college classrooms are created equally.

    The cases I have in mind are not analogous to the Finkelstein case. Those students were trying to engage with him, if in an unproductive way. Mine are just disrupting the class. Perhaps the courtroom situation was more like Finkelstein’s than mine. If she had been disrupting the proceedings by loudly talking about what to wear to homecoming or how badly the football team got trashed last week, it’d have been a different story.

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  2. “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”

    Very different here at Auburn. While I’m a softy (or else just haven’t had a case I thought would warrant it — most students tend to be fairly respectful), I’ve had colleagues who will shout at a student or throw them out of class. No dressing-down ensues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My sense is that some version of what Irfan describes would fly in many colleges without any dressing-down ensuing. But at least some versions might not. Some of what I have done with 10th, 11th, and 12th graders — and I’m hardly alone in this — would probably lead to trouble in a college setting if anybody knew who to complain to. But it just wouldn’t be necessary. I mean, I once endured a fiasco where one student snuck up behind another who was talking to me and tried to shove a pen (my pen!) up the kid’s ass; the first kid threw the pen across the room; a third kid then ran across the room from his seat to grab the pen, open the door, and throw it outside into the netherworld (our classroom doors open directly to the outside). I not infrequently have students begin speaking in the middle of class in a volume that allows everyone in the room to hear perfectly some thing they’re saying that neither has any relevance to the class nor is supposed to be intended for the class as a whole — just full volume, across the room “hey, other kid, what was the homework for Spanish?” or “woah, I saw those memes you sent that other kid, that was awesome, have you read this one manga?” or “hey, are you going to Panda for lunch, and will you get me Panda?” type stuff — and who by and large do not stop doing it for more than a minute or two when I ask them politely. I have to assign seats in most of my classes, and pay for it in the one I don’t. I almost never encountered that level of nonsense in college classes, but on the rare occasions I did, I was able to defuse it without raising my voice or even being very sharp (with one exception, a kid to whom I said, not coincidentally, “this is not high school, and you need to stop acting like it is”).

      I doubt, though, that Irfan is just worse than we are at dealing with these things. It sounds like a real cultural difference, both in how the students behave and in how faculty are dealt with when they aren’t especially polite. I find it suggestive, though, that his examples include a disruptive group of student athletes — not because they’re athletes, but because they presumably knew each other well outside of class. I sometimes think that most of the misbehavior I deal with would go away if the students didn’t all know each other so well and if there weren’t groups of friends in my classes. To take a situationist line for a minute, it may be that the context is what drives their behavior more than their personalities or attitudes toward school. I’m pretty sure that very few of my repeat offenders would behave badly if we put them into a college classroom where they didn’t know most of the people independently of the class. That can’t be the only factor, but it strikes me as an important one.

      That said, I did once have a college student show up to class already drunk with a bottle of wine which he proceeded to drink, thereby becoming less and less inhibited in inserting remarks about “fully automated gay space communism” into every available gap in my treatment of Plutarch’s On Superstition. To his credit, though, he asked for permission first and I let him do it because he said he wouldn’t come to class otherwise, and given his own eccentric religious practices I thought it especially important for him to attend that day’s lecture. So I was asking for that one. And he did eventually calm the hell down after I got very serious with him for a few seconds.

      The terrifying thing about my current existence is that I have students who act like that on a fairly regular basis, and they are entirely sober.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Riesbeck:

        I doubt, though, that Irfan is just worse than we are at dealing with these things. It sounds like a real cultural difference, both in how the students behave and in how faculty are dealt with when they aren’t especially polite.

        It is a cultural difference, but you should not assume that I am any good at classroom management. I truly suck at it. Here is why (an explanation, not a justification):

        1. I had a highly authoritarian, discipline-centered upbringing, and have a reflexively negative reaction to anything that smacks of it (which manifests itself as a reluctance to tell anyone to do anything ever, along with resentment at being told to do anything ever).
        2. I am fanatically devoted to the belief that multitasking is bullshit.
        3. I am fanatically devoted to the belief that the material “we” are covering in class is deeply important and deserves single-minded attention.
        4. I am hypersensitive about noise.
        5. As a college professor, I regard the very idea of classroom management as a task that is “beneath me.”
        6. Behaviorally, many of my students are indistinguishable from high school students and require pro-active classroom management.
        7. My institution has a very low threshold for what it regards as a firing offense. Also, it doesn’t grant tenure.

        If you combine (1)-(7), you get a perfect storm of incompetence at classroom management, an easily recognizable syndrome that oscillates between super-permissive laxity (“I could care less what they do”) and murderous, bilious explosions of rage, like a terrorist in the throes of Tourette’s syndrome (“kill ’em all“).

        This didn’t matter early on, when I taught at institutions where behavioral or disciplinary problems didn’t arise. But it’s been an issue for the last 12-15 years of my teaching career.

        I’m currently trying to put my “skills” to use by getting a counseling practicum at a local jail. Will tell you all how it goes.

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        • I dunno, most of that is true of me, too. I didn’t realize how true much of it was until I began teaching in environments that required classroom management. It turns out that the evidence of visits to other classrooms suggest that I’m not greatly worse than many others. But a few of the middle school teachers are masters — what they manage to get a room of 24 12 year olds to do (and not do!) proves that there’s some sort of skill involved, even if one has to have the right sort of personality and presence. I wasn’t raised in such an authoritarian way, but I very strongly dislike having to tell people what to do, and I find it very much beneath me — or perhaps I should say I found it beneath me until I began to be habituated to it. I should perhaps add that compared to what many people I know who teach in other schools put up with, my kids are angelic. Still, by comparison to any college class I’ve ever taught, my classroom now is a poorly managed zoo.

          I think 6 and 7 are the real culprits here. Perhaps I’ve been better able to adjust than you’d be. I’ve sometimes wondered what you’d be like teaching here. You may find it preferable; we do have a good portion of students who sometimes engage in serious discussion, and a small portion who reliably do. Mercifully, I have more reliable ones this year.

          One thing that might make my life difficult in this context, though, is that I tend to teach with a very laid back and sometimes humorous demeanor. As a college instructor, this always worked well. With high school students, it sometimes encourages the students to be unserious — they’re not yet easily able to laugh a little without laughing a lot. So sometimes I might be digging my own grave. But to illustrate how quickly things can deteriorate, and how my classes can ascend to the heights of what one might hope to achieve in a high school class only to descend into an utter shitshow, here is a brief recap of today.

          My first and second period is a two-hour class. We’re reading the Nicomachean Ethics. Having made it through 3.1-5 yesterday, today we began the discussion of the particular virtues of character with courage and temperance. Thinking that these chapters were fairly manageable, I began with a set of questions on the board for the students to discuss in small groups before addressing together as a class. The questions for the first hour were: 1. What is courage about or concerned with? Is this too narrow? 2. How is courage a mean? What are the extremes and deficiencies? 3. How do the five (or six!) varieties of quasi-courage differ from genuine courage?

          Few of the small groups actually spent the first 15 minutes discussing the text. But at least a few of them got somewhere, so when we came to discuss the questions together there were a few minutes of wild groping before we managed to get the basics of an answer to the first question: courage is concerned with fear and confidence in facing the possibility of death in battle when a noble death is possible. With that finally in front of them, most immediately complained that this was far too narrow an account, but they struggled to say why. Considering two of Aristotle’s examples of non-courageous fearlessness — in the face of disease or death at sea — most were initially mystified. Then one of the brightest students began to offer a critique of Aristotle’s focus on battle by citing examples of people who face the real possibility of a painful death in order to do something noble: firefighters and political activists in certain especially volatile circumstances. This, as I noted, helped to clarify Aristotle’s focus; arguably he really should recognize these as cases of genuine courage. Those examples, unlike the battlefield example, helped some students to see a way in which the examples of facing disease or death at sea seem quite different: in the clear cases, a person chooses to run the risk of dying in order to achieve something noble, whereas a person who fights cancer, say, in an admirable way is doing something really quite different, because he is not choosing to run the risk of dying where he might have chosen to avoid it, but is choosing to endure suffering in order to avoid dying. I was impressed that they managed to get to this point without much help from me; in fact, I felt that the discussion helped me to understand the difference more clearly than I had before. The discussion then turned to the idea that courage so understood was far more difficult than admirably facing disease, precisely because our fear of death helps to motivate us to face disease, whereas our fear of death is a possible obstacle to courageous acts. At that point a number of students became extremely uncomfortable, probably because they resented the suggestion that it wasn’t hard to fight cancer (pointing out to them that the view had no such implication did not seem to matter, but by then emotions were leading the thinking, so it didn’t much matter). The class reached no consensus on that point, but we’d gone over our usual time for break, so we broke. We’d only discussed one of the three questions on the board, but it was a fruitful discussion.

          Coming back from break, I had them vote on whether to continue with courage or to move on to temperance. We moved on to temperance. Here the circus began. Temperance is not about all pleasure, but only bodily pleasure, and not even about all bodily pleasure, but only bodily pleasures related to touch or contact. Which ones? “Sexy time,” one kid said. I, probably inadvisably, ran with that. “Not just sexy time, but what else? Foody time and drinky time!” The expected giggles ensued. So why exclude other bodily pleasures? Why exclude pleasant scents, for instance? I know one student in my class to keep a bottle of very pleasantly scented coconut hand lotion in her bag at all times, and so I asked her for it, put some on my hands, and walked around the room asking students to smell it (this was in part a sequel to a similar demonstration with the same coconut hand lotion during a discussion of pure and impure pleasures in Republic IX). How does this pleasure differ from the pleasures of food, drink, and “sexy time”? Some students took a stab at it, but many began to make jokes about the sexual allures of the odor of coconut. Eventually we got ’round to the idea that we do not typically have painful appetites for odors and that it is hard to imagine someone seriously going to excess with regard to scents. I then tried to focus on the idea that the goals of temperance are to enjoy pleasures that are not harmful to one’s health, beyond one’s means, or contrary to “the noble.” They had an easy time understanding the first two, though not without some jokes about hypothetical coconut scent addicts who wreck their lives like drug addicts. Understanding the idea of pleasures contrary to the noble was more difficult. Amidst increasing silliness, I explained that the Greek term here is a difficult one to translate, sometimes rendered instead as ‘fine’ in the sense of ‘a fine specimen,’ or even ‘beautiful’ — like this hydroflask here is a fine hydroflask, it’s excellent of its kind and pleasant to behold because of its excellence. There then erupted complaints that the water bottle in question was not a true hydroflask, followed by bickering about whether ‘hydroflask’ names a kind of thing or a specific brand of that kind (much like ‘Band-Aid’). By now the chances of seriously considering how bodily pleasures could involve acting contrary to the noble was dwindling fast, and I had to raise my voice over the clamor. “Huh, I wonder why we sometimes don’t get very far in these discussions. Maybe it’s because you guys are more interested in bullshit than in philosophy?” Using a word like “bullshit” is guaranteed to get them to take me seriously for a minute. It worked. But of course we ran out of time before we could really give the idea the attention it deserved.

          The second hour was by no means the worst period I have had. But it was not a good or productive one, particularly not in its latter half. Yet the first hour was one of the two or three best discussions this class has had all year so far. The only thing predictable about the class is that it will leave me exhausted.

          Would I have had trouble like the second hour in a college classroom? Probably not. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have had coconut scented hand lotion, either.

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          • While I’m posing deep questions: do you find that breaking students into small groups ever really works? It was one of those things they insisted in our “pedagogy proseminars” when I was a grad student, but something I’ve avoided like the plague. (I’m not sure I’ve ever done it, but if I have, I clearly repressed the memory.) Every time I observe a class where the instructor does it, I’m tempted to write: “Class commenced with a brief introduction to the subject, followed by the instructor’s breaking the class into small groups, which succeeded in wasting all of the time available for productive endeavor.”

            The exception to this rule was Carrie-Ann’s classes, which did break into small groups, but were very thoroughly policed.

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            • I’m sitting here with a student who is shameless enough to be trusted to tell me what she really thinks. Her initial answer was “no, never.” I reminded her that we did this this morning. That worked alright, she thinks. The difference? (a) We worked in pairs, not groups; (b) the groups were assigned, not chosen by the students. Larger groups or groups of friends get too chaotic, but well chosen pairs can actually get things done. So, I take it, is her view.

              I pretty much agree, except that I’ve occasionally seen some non-chaotic groups of 3-4. I’ve always had to choose them myself, though; if I let the students choose their own groups a few of them will actually do what I’ve asked them to do, but most of them will just screw around and talk about memes or something inane like that.

              I never did group work in college classes. It seems pretty pointless at that level, I agree. But it may depend on contexts.

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    • Roderick’s comment surprised me at first. I was at first inclined to go from “Auburn,” to “football school,” to “students must be a nightmare.” But on second thought, Notre Dame was a football and basketball school, and students were exquisitely polite, often counter-productively so (since it inhibited candor in class discussions).

      Exquisitely polite–except for the time they went on a rampage after some football game, threw dorm furniture into the quad, lit it on fire, and pelted the fire department with rocks when they arrived to put it out. But I don’t remember any incidents in my classroom.

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