Do You Have Too Many Classroom Rules?

The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s recent advice column takes issue with a previous column on the subject of classroom rules.

Ultimately, the pro-rules columnist concludes:

When I started my academic career I thought it was possible to be a patient, professional teacher while still being rigid enough to maintain a nondistracting and effective learning environment in my classroom, all while still appearing to be easy to get along with. Growing issues of decorum challenge that balance, but I’d rather sacrifice the latter to preserve the former.

Yeah, it’s tough being tough, and deciding what to make a big hairy deal of and what to ignore. There is no magic bullet for the problem of classroom decorum; most decisions about rules depend on what behaviors an instructor finds particularly abhorrent. For example, I don’t enforce attendance policies in my classes, as the time spent taking roll and the paperwork of recording absences is not worth the effort to me. If you don’t want to come to my class, that’s your biz. Just don’t expect me to make up what you missed for you. Some of my colleagues take roll every day and impose penalties for absences because the inconvenience on the front end is worth avoiding the pack of students at the end of term who realize as the final looms that they have no clue what’s going on and come crying for you to reteach the entire class. I get that; it’s just not my bugaboo. I do, however, have a strict policy against electronic devices in class. I don’t even allow laptops for notetaking unless a student has a recorded disability that necessitates it. If you want to text or play on Facebook, do it somewhere I don’t have to watch, because it really bothers me. Last summer I was shocked, on entering a class in which I was subbing for another prof, to find myself facing a sea of laptop backs and blinking phone screens. That colleague clearly does not share my aversion.

Moreover, some teachers are better equipped to play disciplinarian than others. I tend toward conflict avoidance and people pleasing in my core personality, for example, and course evaluations have always dubbed me “easygoing,” “funny,” and “understanding,” descriptions that can make you sound like a pushover. The columnist is right, though, that even while seeking to be loving, supportive stewards of our charges, we must also be prepared to control the learning environment. We just have to. My strategy? Channel Judge Judy. I’m not even joking. When I face a discipline issue, I play Judith Sheindlin’s voice in my head, saying what I need to say. One term I was struggling with a male student who would not stop talking over me in class, and I could tell that other students were getting frustrated with my seeming inability to manage him, so I waited for the right moment and SLAMMED my hand down on the table when he was mid-interruption and yelled “I’M SPEAKING!” The student could not have looked more stunned if I had hurdled the desk and punched him in the face. (Which was the next idea on my list, so I’m glad the Judge Judy thing worked.) Another student later told me, “That was awesome, but I hope you never do it again because it was also terrifying.”

Back in The Day, the mantra used to be “Don’t Smile Before Thanksgiving.” It sounds awful, and it’s not a strategy I could ever pull off, but I understand the sentiment. It’s easier to pull back on some rules over time than it is to get stricter after students have gotten accustomed to laxity. Over my twenty years of teaching, I have tried to cultivate the kind of balance the Chronicle author mentions by convincing students that I will be all happiness and sunshine until I’m not–and then my head spins, my warm Texas accent disappears, and I am possessed by a 70-year-old Jewish lady from Brooklyn who gives precisely zero shits about their feelings. (“If you want to talk about your feelings hire a therapist. Go on Dr. Phil.”) So there’s my advice, and The Chronicle can have it for free.


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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. October 26, 2013 at 6:53 pm —

    Aycock has clearly never had to teach several hundred students at a time. It is basically impossible to be lax about deadlines, etc. without causing exponentially greater difficulty in keeping track of student work. If I didn’t impose late penalties, I’d have assignments trickling in every day, with a massive wave at the end of the term. It also gives students more cover to pull the “you lost my paper” scam if there is confusion or disorganization in this regard.

    I’m also one of those profs who won’t answer questions on the syllabus, because otherwise I’d get literally hundreds of identical emails. I even make a class FAQ document to save them the trouble of having to read the whole three pages of the syllabus. If I could, I’d institute a penalty for ignoring it (maybe when I adopt Quirrell points).

    • October 26, 2013 at 9:47 pm —

      I know, right? Who has time to make new tests for everyone whose mom makes them a doctor’s appointment on test day (an excuse I got this term)? Now, if you’re in the hospital, sure, let’s talk about a makeup, but you had better be in the hospital. And not just visiting someone–admitted. Yourself. I spend my days buried in paperwork as it is; I can’t keep up with rotating due dates and test dates. I just can’t.

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