“They attend classes but make no effort to learn anything.” -Alvarus Pelagius
College students often get a lot of flack these days — with seemingly everyone and their grandma saying that this generation of students is lazy, entitled, and disrespectful. Yet, such criticism has in truth been leveled at young scholars pretty much since the dawn of higher education. The quote above? It comes from a French critic…from the 14th century.
College students were plenty goofy back in the day.
Yet if there is not a difference in kind, there is one in degree, and it is true that the culture of college is quite different than it was even a half century ago, as is students’ attitude about their education. As historian Robert F. Pace documents, while students of all periods have been prone to flippancy and rebelliousness, most still saw college not only as vital preparation for careers, but as necessary for their “transition into adulthood” and “success, both in life and as an honorable gentleman.” Poor academic performance and hijinks that exceeded the level of boyish mischief would sully the honor of a gentleman scholar, garner public humiliation, and bring shame to his family.
Today, with the democratization of higher ed, a college education is sometimes seen as just another consumer good. And because the consumer is always right, students feel freer to act however they please — they’re paying for it, after all.
While I certainly won’t advocate wearing a tailcoat and monocle to class, I think there are very good reasons for adopting some of the manners of the gentleman scholars who have come before you, while adding to them new rules of decorum that deal with our modern advancements, like laptops and smartphones. First, classroom etiquette facilitates a positive and constructive learning environment for everyone — you, your classmates, and your professor. Second, practicing good manners in the classroom is a good way of practicing the manners and social skills necessary to thrive as an adult and as a professional in the working world. In short, good etiquette in college can help you make the most out of your education.
The suggestions below are based on my own time as a student, Kate’s experience as a community college professor, and input from my friend Daniel Brown — a current college professor. Dan is a Graduate Assistant of Middle East Political Science at the University of Oklahoma. Now without further ado, here are some basic suggestions on becoming the consummate gentleman scholar:
Above all else: You’re an adult; act like one. If you’re in college, you’re likely at least 18 years old — the age at which you’re legally considered an adult. You may not feel like a responsible, grown man yet, but your professors will (or should be able to) assume that you are. So act likewise. The specific advice that follows basically tries to answer the question, “How should a mature, well-adjusted, courteous adult act?” Before you say or do anything in the classroom, ask yourself that question. I promise that doing so will save you from embarrassment and engender the respect of your classmates and professors.
Dress appropriately. Your clothes should suit the occasion. You wear a t-shirt and gym shorts to work out because you’re going to be sweating, you wear a tux to a fancy wedding because you’re going to be adding to the special atmosphere, and you wear pajama pants to class because you’re going to be…sleeping? Dressing up for class used to be de rigueur because the learning process was thought to have a solemn, almost sacred quality. Dressing sharp shows your respect for the power of education. It also shows respect for your professor, who will be more likely to reciprocate.
Dressing appropriately doesn’t have to mean wearing a 3-piece suit to class — it’s as simple as ditching the sweatpants and making a few easy upgrades to your wardrobe.
Arrive on time. When you arrive late to class, it can create a big distraction for the professor and for your classmates. So practice the manly art of punctuality by arriving a few minutes early. Use that time before class to get your laptop ready (and make sure the volume is on mute) and to review your reading and notes from the previous lecture. If you’re going to be more than ten minutes late, it’s better not to come at all (especially in a small class). The professor has likely gotten into a groove with his lecture, and your barging in will create an unwelcome interruption. If you absolutely must attend the class, try to slip in as quietly as possible, rather than entering the room with Kramer-esque panache.
Address the instructor appropriately. If your professor has their PhD, the appropriate way to address him or her is “Dr. ____.” They probably spent a decade of their life buried in books and living below the poverty line to obtain that degree. Show some respect by addressing them by their earned title.
If your professor doesn’t have his PhD, the appropriate way to address him is “Professor.”
If you’re not sure if the instructor has earned his doctorate or not, then stick with “Professor.”
Unless/until he grants you permission to do so, don’t call your professor by his first name, his last name (“Yo, McKay!”), or “Bro.” “It’s Dr. Bro to you, son.”
Come to class prepared. Besides helping you get the most out of class, coming to a lecture prepared is a matter of showing respect. The professor has likely spent a lot of time preparing to teach, so reciprocate by coming prepared to learn. Do the reading and have your assignments finished before class.
Turn off the smartphone and put it away. By texting, tweeting, and engaging in all other forms of smartphone fondling, you’re basically telling the professor that seeing how many likes your Facebook pic of breakfast (“Check it! IHOP has a pancake with a smiley face on it!”) has gotten is more important than what he has to say.
And don’t think you’re fooling the professor whenever you hold your phone in your lap and under the desk. Staring at your crotch and smiling isn’t normal behavior.
If you need to have your phone on for an emergency (wife’s giving birth, parent’s on deathbed), let the professor know in advance and set your phone to vibrate. Leave the classroom before taking the call.
Take part in the discussion. Many of your classes will rely heavily on discussion. In fact, a part of your grade may depend on your “classroom participation.” Besides helping your grade, taking part in classroom discussion is just good manners. As someone who has been in the role of teacher, nothing is more demoralizing than spending hours preparing thoughtful discussion questions only to face the sound of chirping crickets and blank stares. Do your part to help the professor’s lesson plan along by actively participating in discussion.
And don’t be afraid to disagree with the professor. He’s not God. Besides, he or she will likely want some dissent in the classroom. It’s what makes learning interesting and engaging. Just remember to:
Be respectful during heated discussions. In some of your classes (philosophy, political science, law, history, etc.) controversial topics will come up. Do your best to remain calm, level-headed, and a bit detached during such discussions. This stance serves two purposes. First, it’s a matter of basic civility. There’s no excuse for yelling or resorting to ad hominem attacks during a classroom discussion (or anywhere else for that matter). Second, it makes you a better student. Come term paper or exam time, your professor will expect you to thoroughly analyze controversial issues. This will require you to look at both the strengths and weaknesses of a particular argument. If you’re cemented in your opinion about a topic, you risk not being able to engage all the pertinent issues as thoroughly as your professor expects, and as a consequence, your grade may suffer.
Don’t dominate the discussion or question asking. While you should take part in classroom discussion, don’t dominate it. First, you’re denying your classmates an opportunity to participate. Second, by raising your hand and offering a soliloquy after every question your professor asks, you’ll come off as “gunner,” “know-it-all,” or “teacher’s pet” (or all of the above). No one likes that guy.
The same goes with asking questions. You certainly shouldn’t be afraid to speak up if you don’t understand something, but don’t be the guy who’s constantly raising his hand with question after question. Your professor likely has a schedule of topics he needs to hit during the lecture. By asking an inordinate amount of questions, you’re throwing a wrench in that plan. Also, excessive question asking can get on the nerves of your fellow classmates. If you have a lot of questions, respect your professor’s and classmates’ time by taking them up with your prof after class or during his office hours.
Finally, don’t ask questions that are designed less to get an insight from the professor and more to show off your own knowledge of the topic. We know you gleaned a lot of info from the History Channel (before it became the Pawn Stars network), but you don’t need to share it.
If you’re using your laptop to take notes, don’t use it to surf the internet.
Many of us question our mastery of etiquette – be it social, business, phone, or email etiquette – and wonder if our manners measure up to what is expected of us. As in other areas of life, an awareness of both etiquette and good manners is beneficial in college and graduate school, too.
While etiquette is a prescribed set of rules that take time to learn, manners are easier to acquire. According to Etiquette Queen Emily Post, “manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.”
Keeping that in mind, we can all work on our manners by asking ourselves “would this action hurt my feelings if it were done to me?” For instance, if I were teaching this class, would a student showing up late, forgetting to mute her phone, smacking gum, checking the time repeatedly, putting his feet on the table, grooming herself in class, falling asleep, or leaving early hurt my feelings? If the answer is yes, good manners and common decency dictate not doing it.
In addition to the above obvious examples of rudeness there are several faux pas that could make you look disrespectful to your professors.
1. Side conversations
Imagine talking to a group at a party. You are in the middle of sharing a story when you notice one of your listeners turn to another and start a private conversation. How would you feel? Exactly. If you must say something to the person next to you write it on a piece of paper and seamlessly pass it to them, then get back to learning.
2. Using electronics
Unless a professor specifically says so, do not do this. You risk looking rude, because your professor knows that chances are good that you are not “just” looking at class material and taking notes about his lecture. He will assume that you are browsing online or checking your social media accounts. Why risk that perception? Leave your laptop, tablet, and cell phone in your bag and take notes by hand. It may also help you retain more of the information.
3. Putting your phone on vibrate instead of silent
You might think that you are being discreet, but your professor, as well as those near you, are likely to be bothered by the incessant buzzing of your phone. Yes, everyone can tell where it is coming from, at the very least by the annoyed looks on your neighbor’s face. Set your phone to silent, and unless you are expecting a call from a hospital, or something equally urgent and serious, do not look at it during class time.
4. Eating during class
Some professors allow their students to eat during class. You should not take this as an invitation to unwrap a bag of candy one by one, crunch on chips loudly, or chow down something that will stink up the whole room. Courtesy dictates keeping your in-class snack break short, quiet, and non-offensive. It goes without saying that if the professor does not invite you to snack away you should wait for a break or step outside if you must.
5. Yawning during class, especially with your mouth open
Is there a more blatant way to signal boredom? Yawning into someone’s face is the equivalent of rolling your eyes, or giving your professor a look of pure condescension. Yet, many students do this. Please, try your best to suppress your yawn, or at the very least cover your mouth.
6. Doodling in your notebook
Some say doodling helps them concentrate, others use it to chase away their boredom, but ask yourself how you would feel if you were trying to teach a group of students and instead of paying attention they were drawing hearts and clouds in their notebooks. Doodling shows disinterest in the same way other activities unrelated to the class material do.
7. Packing up your pens, stacking up your notebook to signal the end of class
Some students have the habit of playing timekeeper, and as soon as their watch signals the end of class (or a few minutes before, to be sure), they begin slamming their textbooks closed, packing their notebooks away, and before you know it they are halfway out the door. Not only is this incredibly rude to your professor but also disruptive to your classmates. Sometimes your class may run over by a minute or two. Try your best to deal with it like an adult. If you must leave to get to another class on the far end of campus or to catch your bus, let the professor know beforehand and sneak out quietly.
And a bonus bad behavior: Kicking your shoes off under the table
You might be in the habit of wearing uncomfortable shoes and kicking them off at every chance you get. If you are sitting at a table that is open and there is a chance that someone can see you lounging around shoeless, beware. Displaying one’s bare feet in a professional setting is considered bad manners.
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