Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Setting and Enforcing Boundaries

Any parent knows that a critical part of good parenting is setting and enforcing boundaries: bedtimes, appropriate snacks, how much (if any) television, computer time, etc. is permitted.  The particulars of these boundaries will differ household by household; and households where the setting and enforcement of boundaries is absent might be characterized as dysfunctional.  More and more, I am understanding that university teaching is not so different from parenting teenagers (in part, I suspect, because more of the parenting work is being left to us to do).  My house is my classroom, and in that classroom I'm the parent who has a responsibility to set and enforce rules.  My rules are likely to differ in their particulars from those of my colleagues around campus.  A well-run, functional university, however, would be characterized by a faculty who understood the need for setting and enforcing rules and boundaries in their classrooms and in their relationships with their students.  Among other things, this might remove the need for Boards of Regents to convene to fret over inappropriate relationships between faculty/staff and students (but that's another story...).

Back to classrooms and boundaries.  The first week of any class, but especially a large enrollment course, is the time to set the tone for the class.  Part of this tone-setting involves the explication of classroom rules.  That is, boundary-setting.  In my course syllabus, for instance, I have an entire section dedicated to classroom etiquette and I explain in detail what is and is not acceptable behavior for my classroom.  I also spend about 20 minutes during the second class meeting reviewing these rules and explaining why they are in place and how they will be enforced.   Finally, the students have to sign and hand in a "syllabus contract" stating that they have read and agree to the course policies, including policies governing classroom behavior.  This might seem rather extreme to some, but it is absolutely necessary.  Even though I know that we aren't possibly going to be able to enforce every single rule (e.g. no web surfing during class), it is important for those rules to be there if we have an egregious case that does need to be addressed.  It also communicates a lot to the students about me as an instructor.  In basic terms, it tells them not to mess with me.

Yet, like all children, some students will inevitably test the boundaries.  This can provoke a lot of discomfort in instructors, especially because most of us don't particularly like being cast in the role of parent vis-a-vis our students.  On some level, we want to be more akin to their wise older sibling rather than their mean parent.  In smaller classes, it might be possible to have loose boundaries and not have the class devolve into chaos (and have the students as a whole lose all respect for their instructor).   In a large enrollment class, however, a willingness to enforce boundaries is job requirement #1.

Let me give a personal example of boundary setting from my current class: I am having my students use Piazza for asking questions and also for guided discussions.  Last week, I had a student post (anonymously, though a quirk in Piazza lets us see their names once we make the thread private) something stating his dislike of the wording of an i>clicker question from class (of course posted while class was in session!).  A couple of students responded to him, telling him he was wrong and to chill out.  I then responded, explaining in more detail why the answer to the i>clicker question was correct.  I concluded by saying that Piazza wasn't a place to air beefs with me and that he would do better to talk about these in person or at least in a private email.  After a few hours, the student--still anonymous--responded angrily, saying that I was unprofessional and his fellow students were jerks.  The TA immediately took down the thread and instructed the student privately to raise his issue in person with a member of the teaching team.

In retrospect, I will take such threads down immediately (I actually didn't know I could do that and only learned from this experience) and respond directly to the poster in private.  It never would have occurred to me that I would need to tell a student not to be a troll (as happened a few time with the first discussion thread); or not to post private beefs with the professor on a public forum like Piazza, all in an effort to stir up the indignation of other classmates--and then react angrily when those classmates disagree with your position.  I have to remember that this Facebook generation has a very disturbed sense of private and public, and that many of them have no real sense of propriety when it comes to different kinds of social media.  Part of why I incorporated the discussion board into the course is precisely to give them practice and feedback on the art of conducting a virtual discussion.  It's a skill they will certainly need to have.  At the same time, I'm learning, the rules of good behavior aren't intuitive to all of them.  In the fall 2013 version of my course, I will be giving the students a very detailed guide to appropriate discussion board etiquette.

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