Friday, February 18, 2011


I know that this will make me sound like a hopelessly outdated old grouch but I just have to ask: what's happening to people's manners nowadays? It seems like my students have no inkling whatsoever what it means to behave politely and courteously towards others. And they are only 10-15 years younger than I am.

Yesterday, for example, I had a student yawn continuously in my face during my entire lecture. I understand that yawning is uncontrollable, but why not cover your mouth while you are dying it? Or, at the very least, why not avoid sitting in the front row where your yawning will be especially visible. Every time my gaze alighted on this student, I'd see a barracuda-like mouth opened right in my face.

There is also this charming habit that students have of referring to one in the third person in their presence. "What did she say? Did she mention the exam? What does she wants us to do?" is always said in a very loud voice as if "she" weren't there at all and couldn't be asked directly.

Letting the door slam in front of a person's face is another activity many students practice on a regular basis. Often they seem to have no idea that it might make sense to hold the door for people walking behind them, especially if those people carry a huge stack of books and papers.

Interrupting people's conversations seems to be a completely acceptable practice for many. I might be talking to a student or a colleague in my office, when a student would barge in, plop their backpack in the middle of my desk, interrupt the conversation that is going on and launch into a recitation of what they need for me without as much as a word of greeting.

The strangest situation of all in what concerns student manners arose when I left the classroom for a couple of minutes during the break only to come back to see two students rummaging through my bag. I was brought up in the belief that another person's bags, pockets, and desk drawers are sacred and not to be opened under any conditions unless the owner's express permission has been obtained. "What on earth are you doing???" I asked students in a state of a complete shock. "Oh, we are trying to see if you still have those handouts from last week," they responded completely unfazed. And continued to rummage through my bag like it was the most normal activity in the world. That bag is very obviously my handbag where I carry my wallet, keys, and personal hygiene items, but such considerations seemed to be alien to these two students. 

It also happened to me quite a few times that I would be standing in the hallway, talking to somebody with my bag over my shoulder, only to feel somebody tugging on the bag from behind. Every single time it would be a student trying to get a handout they forgot to request in class out of it or trying to stuff their homework into it. 

As much as I don't like it, I still have to recognize that this complete lack of good manners is a lot more common in female students. Male students still hold the door for you, say "thank you", "please", and "could you?" They are much more likely to knock on one's office doors before they come in, and they never make loud comments about the teacher's appearance in her presence. I have no idea why this happens, but the difference is very visible. Is there some profound difference in the way boys and girls are brought up that denies many women any knowledge of what constitutes good manners?


sarcozona said...

I yawn whenever I see someone else yawn, even if they're just pretending. One of my classes (a bunch of 8 year olds) discovered this and took turns yawning outrageously throughout our class. They managed two days of getting me to yawn almost continuously through class before their giggles gave them away.

Patrick said...

Could the dearth of manners among female students be related to the decades long struggle to 'protect and promote' girls 'self-esteem' in the face of tyrannical patriarchal males?

From my experience growing up, it was almost forbidden to correct or discipline a girl for bad behaviour. To offer guidance of any kind regarding proper behaviour was seen as anti-feminist and typical controlling male dominating aggression.

Thankfully, my wife and ignore that PC BS, and have taught our children (1 boy/1 girl) to speak respectfully, ask nicely, hold doors open, interrupt a conversation only when necessary - and to apologize for the intrusion. Not to intrude in someones personal space, and to show respect in general for property and person.

As for the students going through your bag - I would have tossed them from class, period. They're done.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, sarcozona, what a great idea. :-)

Patrick: I live in the Bible Belt. The ideals of feminism have not yet arrived here. :-)

Maybe this happens because women are used to infantilizing themselves, so it takes them a lot longer to see themselves as adults.

Patrick said...

Why do we accept this behaviour? By not confronting it, we tacitly condone it and ultimately, endorse it.

el said...

Would you be potentially in any trouble, if you mentioned it? I would be tempted to give a talk (of course in Spanish), assisted by a PP presentation with humorous pictures, like
you jumping in horror when several students try to steal handouts from behind;
a yawning student putting legs on your desk;
your bag open with keys in the air, toilet paper on the floor, while a pack of students are on it as coyotes on a carrion, shouting "I want those handouts too!"

Students can be drawn as stick figures, while your own head can be on your stick figure.
/ \

I know it sounds silly, but otherwise they may never learn. Naturally, if you would put yourself in real danger of complaints to the administration, it isn't worth it.

Or it could've been a serious PP with positive pics, like one person holding a door for another (a girl for a boy with lots of books), etc.

Clarissa said...

I don't know what would be a good reaction in such cases. Like the one with the yawning student. I did her a huge favor by letting her into the class against the wished of my Chair. And now she sits there either sleeping or yawning (sometimes loudly) in my face.

Interrupting the class and telling her off is not a good idea because I don't want to single her out. These are adults we are talking about. What is one's reaction when an adult is being so obliviously rude?

Clarissa said...

el: last semester I gave a long and detailed talk to my freshmen about plagiarism. I did it after 30% of the students plagiarized their first written assignment, and I felt I simply had no choice.

So then they complained that they didn't like to be treated like they were still in high school. They expect to be treated like adults but often refuse to act like ones.

Patrick said...

As for addressing the students that have 'minor' annoyances (yawning) - take a page from the old military playbook - praise in public, discipline in private. Ask to speak with her after class and tell her about the disruptive nature and what you expect in class. Keep it professional, and how it impacts your performance in class. Don't make it about 'her' - it's your inability to deal with a distraction.

As for the more significant intrusions (violating your private property, invading your office without permission) - immediately kick them out. Don't let them 'win' (for lack of a better term) - if they get what they want (your attention) - then there is no impetuous for them to change their behaviour. You'll be doing your colleagues, and society at large, a great favour.

el said...

Imo, if they don't act like adults, they have no right to complain and should hear it.

RE the yawning student: may be politely ask her during recess to sit further, if she's that sleepy next time, since it makes you want to yawn too and makes concentrating hard?

Clarissa said...

Believe it or not, in the handbag case, I actually had to wrestle it out of the students' hands. They seemed not a little peeved by my desire to have the undivided use of my own handbag. I tried talking to them about it after class (in a very polite and reasonable manner) but they were very petulant and pouty.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have never had any bag of papers looked through by students without my permission, whether it was a simple plastic grocery bag, a briefcase, or an attache case, all of which I have used at one time or another. I have had students look through a stack of papers I set on a table in a classroom, for whatever reason, but somehow having it in a container sends a signal that it is not appropriate to do so. As far as I am concerned, the container or lack of one should not be a factor; both are a violation of boundaries. I wonder whather students tend to be more intimidated by male professors than by female ones in this kind of situation.

Clarissa said...

I think you might be right, David. I'm a woman, I'm blond, and I have this kind of appearance that prevents people from taking me seriously.

But it's very annoying.

Patrick said...

I don't know what latitude you have as an instructor at your institution, but I know in my university days, the prof had the power to kick the student out of the course. As students, we were the beneficiaries of the professors research. We were not the reason they were there. We were a distraction at best to the professor, and they had no obligation to keep a petulant student in class.

Clarissa said...

" in my university days, the prof had the power to kick the student out of the course. As students, we were the beneficiaries of the professors research. We were not the reason they were there."

-Oh, what a golden dream! None of that attitude has been preserved, not even a tiny little shred. Nowadays, a student complains to everybody, including the Dean, that I gave him a failing grade on the essay "just because" he copy-pasted it from the Internet.

Would you feel entitled to complain to the Dean if you got a bad grade for plagiarizing? As for me, I'd just crawl into a hole and pretend I wasn't there. This guy, on the other hand, made the whole situation as public as possible.

I didn't tell anybody he cheated. He told everybody himself and felt outraged in the process.


Patrick said...

Wow - it's hard to fathom how much the environment has changed in less than 20 years.

'Back in the day', the dean wouldn't even entertain a student complaining about a grade. The prof was king/queen. You don't like it - drop the class. You need the credit (required course) - suck it up and learn to deal.

Of course, the student body bought into this paradigm as well. Anyone even considering 'complaining' about their grade would have been ridiculed off campus.

Leah Jane said...

I've never encountered this behaviour in my classes. Ever. I think though, it may have a lot to do with my field of study, Asian Studies.
When you're learning a language like Japanese, you're taught not only the language, but the attitude of respect and deference to your teacher that's common in the culture so you can assimilate more easily in study-abroad experiences. So we call our teachers "Sensei" in Japanese, or "Sir/Ma'am/Professor" in English, bow to them, and are very careful in our behaviour and language towards them. I could never even imagine yawning in front of a professor.

Pen said...

I accidentally walked into one of my teachers' offices without walking one time when I was a freshman. I got a stern talking to. I never did it again.

Now I make a point to knock on doors, and wait at the doorway until acknowledged. Always wait until conversations are over before beginning one of your own. And never, ever touch something that isn't yours without asking first (though that one didn't involve me--I only overheard a sharp remark).

That's a lesson I learned fast. It's disturbing to see that some people lack such simple respect. Being polite can sometimes dance around the subject. Make it clear to the offenders that they had better take you seriously. Sternness is what a lot of high schoolers respond to. Maybe that might work for college students (especially any repeat offenders)?