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Classroom Commentaries

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Behavior in the university classroom isn't what it used to be.

Last week I began a lecture on the history of the ongoing relationship between religion and politics. As I described how kings and dictators used religion to give their power an aura of legitimacy, a student slowly stood up, walked toward the front of the classroom, and then crossed right in front of me on her way to the door. Several minutes later she returned, clutching her cell phone, and again passed right in front of me.

Put simply, her behavior was disruptive and disrespectful to her classmates and to me.

Most of my students adhere to the university rule that forbids classroom cell phone use, including texting. Indeed, most of my students put their phones on vibrate and wait until the end of class at which time they whip out their devices, make their calls, send texts, or check their messages. During one of my introductory anthropology classes last year, a student not only responded to her chirping cell phone, but answered it and began a conversation!

Cell phones, of course, are by no means the only new elements in the contemporary classroom atmosphere. Students routinely bring their laptop computers to the classroom. Computers enable them to take legible notes effortlessly and store them in a file or a folder. As any contemporary professor knows, the presence of a computer in the classroom does not necessary mean that the users are paying attention. Perhaps they are sending an e-mail to a friend or family member. Maybe they're on Facebook or some other social medium. I once saw student playing Angry Birds as one of my colleagues attempted to explain the evolution of social class.

The classroom used to be a more solemn and serious place in which students and professors debated difficult concepts -- a training ground for critical thinking. Now, the immediate urge to satisfy needs often disrupts the flow of ideas. The continuous movement of people in and out of classes taught in lecture halls that seat hundreds of students seems more characteristic of a rock concert than a site of college instruction. In those large classes students routinely leave their seats to relieve themselves, get a breathe of fresh air, or perhaps return an important phone call.

How can we account for such behavior? Some people think that disrespectful student behavior results from the transformation of our universities into businesses that provide consumers a service: a college education. In most contemporary universities, administrators are considered managers, professors are seen as service employees and students have become consumers. If you are a student today you -- or your parents -- pay high tuition fees and expect something tangible in return. That's not an outrageous expectation. We all want a tangible return on the investment of our hard-earned dollars. For most students and their parents that tangible return is a good job.

If college provides a service -- a higher education -- that students consume, then it makes perfect sense for students, who are consumers, to evaluate the services they receive. Since the early 1960s, when the trend toward the university-as-business model began, students have been evaluating the teaching effectiveness of their professors. More than twenty years of research on the effectiveness of student evaluation of college teaching has produced a mixed bag of results. It is clear that teaching evaluations can sometimes improve professorial performance in the classroom. In addition, the research results strongly suggest that students like professors who make it easy to get a good grade. They also seem to like physically attractive professors who are energetic performers.

The results of these student evaluations have become increasingly important in university decisions on faculty retention and promotion. At most universities, if you get really bad student reviews, it becomes difficult to get tenure or be promoted. Common knowledge of the increasing importance of these evaluations has prompted many professors to "dumb-down" the content of the courses, write easier exams, and present lectures that are "entertaining."

Many of my students complain about being bored in their classes. Indeed, professors are barraged with managerial missives that suggest how we can use smart devices -- smart classrooms, power points, hyper-text images, and engaged pedagogy -- to combat the limited attention spans of students who have grown up a world of media saturated images. The specter of boredom also makes its exceedingly difficult to lure students into classes that are considered difficult or uninteresting. These days you have to advertise to lure students into elective courses. The hallways of my university building are plastered with end of fall semester flyers that advertise spring course offerings. Can "The Culture of Peoples of Africa" really be as entertaining as "Sex in Society" the flyer for which features pictures of Marilyn Monroe and the cast of Sex and the City? Probably not.

Can we say that the rude behavior that some students exhibit in the classroom is the result of a university-as-business model that empowers student consumers? That may be partially correct. In many respects, student behavior in the classroom channels consumer behavior in the market place. I suspect that this kind of periodically rude, hyper-individualized behavior has become a common social phenomenon in a world in which you can get pepper sprayed during the consumer chaos of a Black Friday sale.

But I fear that something important gets lost in the rush to entertain our students. There's nothing wrong with teaching with enthusiasm. And yet if we concentrate so narrowly upon satisfying the consumer demands of the educational market, we replace scholarly rigor and standards of excellence with grade inflation and an acceptable mediocrity. In so doing, we are destined to graduate far too many students who will quickly come to the realize that they are intellectually ill prepared to compete in the marketplace of 21st century ideas.

Such an outcome, of course, is not a very good return on a substantial investment.