Another Day in the College Classroom

Dear Student:

You will notice that the “hats off in the house” rule is included in the course-syllabus.  It is an item in the “Guidelines for Classroom Decorum”:

Hats and head-coverings off during class-time.  A college-level humanities lecture is a serious, adult occasion and a civilized, professional activity even quasi-solemn in character.  The Instructor therefore institutes the “no hats” rule to help students, especially the hat-wearing ones, make the sometimes-difficult transition from their state of pre-critical high-school-and-popular-culture conformism to that of adult, civilized, intellectual reflexivity and ethical independence.  In practice, the “no hats” rule applies mostly to men, but in principle it includes women.

At the beginning of the semester, I urged students to read the syllabus thoroughly.  I urged it repeatedly, practically until I was blue in the face.  Had you done so (obviously you have not), you would not have said to me, as you so confidently did, that the “hats off in the house” rule was not included in the syllabus.  From where did that absurd confidence come?  Do you think that the instructor does not know his own stipulations?  You are making erroneous assumptions about your relation to your preceptors and you need to correct them before disaster strikes.  I recommend you strongly to read the syllabus.  It is bad policy, five weeks into it, to be in doubt or ignorance concerning the requirements of the semester.

Consider…  You will not wear your baseball hat to the crucial – the “my-career-depends-on-it” – job-interview at the end of your senior year.  Were you to do so, you would definitely not get the job.  You will not wear your hat when your new boss calls you into his office for consultation.  Were you to do so, you would risk your good reputation in the firm, and very likely your job.  Hats in the house and hats in institutionally serious settings like a college classroom are infra dig and prospect-killing; they are unprofessional, and a sign of immaturity.  Your four years of undergraduate matriculation are the beginning of your professional life and that is why I make the minimal request of students (all students) to comport themselves professionally, dignifiedly, and respectfully in the classroom.  You are in the adult world now, one obligation of which is to cooperate with institutional requirements.  Doffing your hat belongs to all that.

As I said to you earlier today, your dignity as a person does not reside in your hat, nor does your identity.  Indeed, the baseball hat is the conformist gesture par excellence of prevailing popular culture.  It shouts, “I’m just like everyone else!”  And whoever is “just like everyone else” is not an individual.  I therefore ask students, both for the sake of their independence and for the sake of their individuality, to make the minimal professional and personal gesture of removing their hats indoors – an old custom, incidentally, honored by our grandparents and great-grandparents going back innumerable generations.  Now if it were the case that you believed your identity to be bound up in your hat, you should know that this is not so.  Your attachment to that bit of haberdashery is a restriction of your identity, not a declaration of it, a fact that follows from its being also a conformist, hence in turn a non-distinctive, non-personally-differentiating, affectation.

By the way, I quite believe you when you say that none of your other professors insists on adult comportment in the classroom.  Many instructors nowadays pander to students, try to be friends with them, try to be cool, rather than insisting on the seriousness and dignity of higher education.  I do insist on the seriousness and dignity of higher education, just as I insist on adult comportment in the classroom.  You will be interested to know that I have discussed this matter with the dean and that he agrees with me that my insistence is well within the parameters of instructor-management of the student-enrollment.  He even thinks that it is a good idea.  You will find that I am unlike your other professors – or unlike most of them, anyway – in many respects, and not only where it concerns hats.  I am not a liberal, not a relativist, not a deconstructionist, not a materialist, not a determinist, not a multiculturalist, not a diversitarian, not a feminist.  On the contrary, I am an independent thinker, which is what I would like to help you become.

One final, practical consideration: You might find it advantageous before the semester is over, were I to do you a favor.  You might miss a quiz and want to negotiate it or you might do better on discursive assignments than on quizzes and want me to take that into consideration.  I often do favors for students, who often desperately need them, but I do so only on a condition.  Doing favors is a reciprocal, a quid pro quo and a do ut des, proposition.  My principle is that I am cooperative with those who are cooperative with me, and not with anyone else.  This is the very foundation of the social arrangement.

I am very sincerely yours,

Dr. Bertonneau

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29 thoughts on “Another Day in the College Classroom

  1. Good luck, Thomas. You have more stamina than I do. I began with a no-hats-in-class policy, then withdrew to a no-hats-during-exams policy, then retreated to the last ditch of a bills-to-the-back-during-exams policy, then hoisted the white flag. I went through a similar rout with prohibitions against reading newspapers (which then disappeared of their own accord), texting, surfing the web, and streaming movies. A large part of this was simple preceptor fatigue (a malady similar to donor fatigue), but I also came to feel that I was distracting the real students with my constant reproving of the oafs. But that’s probably just rationalization. Hats off to you, Dr. Bertonneau

    • Sounds like college students are like 5-year-olds — they are watching you and testing you all the time to see if you are willing to enforce your authority. And as soon as you retreat, they start pushing against the next barrier. Therefore you must never, never retreat.

      Authority is conserved. Either you have it, or they do.

      • Exactly, and it is a fatiguing task. Mind you, most of the kids in my classroom are decent and cooperative, but there are a few, almost invariably male, whose inevitable representation in a group of twenty-five or thirty students makes a problem. They are ego-stunted — probably the products of fatherless homes — and their adolescent peevishness has been exacerbated by the narcissism of the prevailing commercial culture (supposing that “culture” is the word).

  2. Dear JM:

    You’re quite right about the way in which these incidents distract and annoy the real students. I try to keep things in balance. One way that I do so is to make fairly generous concessions to students. For example, when we’re scoring a quiz in class, I accept even remotely plausible answers and if on inspection a quiz-question seems ambiguously phrased or just poorly written, I give away that point and I explicitly criticize my own solecism. I also break up the reading-regimen by scheduling a screened performance every few weeks so that there is no reading assignment in that particular week. The kid who inspired my letter is an especially obnoxious case, an oaf indeed, and of the first feather. He was doing his best to involve the whole class in his eighth-grade ego-drama, so there was no way to avoid responding to him. Probably he will fail to show up for the next meeting or for the next few meetings. Maybe he’ll withdraw from the course. There is a pattern in these things, more or less predictable.

    I had the impression during the occasion that the kid was mortally afraid to take off his hat, as though to do so would be to invite vaporization or some other magical calamity.

    Best,

    Tom

  3. I, too, admire your strength of resolution. There was an English professor where I teach who had a no-hats rule, and he was the butt of an endless stream of carping and unkind jokes, not only from the students but unfortunately from many of his faculty colleagues (many of whom themselves routinely dress down to student attire, and one of whom is never seen without a baseball cap). I share your sentiments completely: the wearing of hats in a serious institutional setting strikes me as willfully adolescent, and something that people pleased to call themselves college students should have left behind. But I’m close to retirement now, and I confess that I’ve just thrown in the towel.

  4. Dear Roger:

    My good friend Steve Kogan, who taught for more than thirty years at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, once said to me that he regarded the backwards baseball hat, in particular, as a sign of actual stupidity. Someone else, a comedian maybe, said that there are really only two reasons to wear a baseball hat, if one is not a baseball player: Men who work outdoors wear them to keep the sun off their heads and out of their eyes; coeds wear them while out jogging in order to look extra-cute.

    Yes, wearing the baseball hat everywhere is adolescent behavior. Nowadays when you visit a restaurant for dinner, however, you are likely to see dozens of forty- and fifty-year-old adolescents wearing their baseball hats indoors while sitting at the table in a public place and eating dinner.

    Not with a bang, but with a whimper…

    Best,

    Tom

    • Yarmulkes have appeared in the classroom, but they are unobtrusive and do not cover the head, much less the face, as the baseball hat, or worse the “hoodie,” does. A non-Jewish (I would guess entirely non-religious) baseball-hat wearer once complained, saying that there was a double standard. My reply was that I would have no objection to his wearing a yarmulke. Although there are quite a few Jewish students where I teach, the yarmulke-wearers are scarce, and that incident might have been one out of two or three in twelve years. I would say that baseball hats and yarmulkes signify basic attitudes and types of behavior that are completely different from one another, the former averse to higher education and the latter receptive to it. What would you do, Steve?

  5. Great rule.

    However, the real problem is the unprofessional dress of the faculty. The Deans and Chairs do dress professionally. I am retired, but I can’t resist teasing my former colleagues with the thought that they are mere slaves and dress like slaves whereas the Deans and Chairs are masters and dress like masters.

    I think slovenly dress at PhD oral exams is especially reprehensible.

    • All of these things — students who dress like oafs (and behave like them) and faculty who dress like students — belong to the descent of society into the chaos of formlessness, otherwise known as democracy. I wear a necktie all the time, but, as you might suppose, I am one of the few people in my department who does so; indeed, I am one of a rather small minority of instructors on campus generally who dress, insofar as they are able, professionally. A friend recently sent me a link to a video of a lecture in a Polish university classroom. All the male students were wearing ties and jackets and all the female students were seemly, in dresses. Frankly, that is how it should be. If you catch old college-movies on Turner Classic Movies, from the 40s, the tie is de rigueur for men.

      • I am told that through 1967, college men dressed as adults on campus, but come 1968, coats and ties were gone and casual clothes became the norm for college boys.

        By the time I got to college just fifteen years later in 1983, hardly any professors at my college dressed like adults. I had one who always wore a blazer, and another who always looked great in his jacket and tie, but everyone else….

        I am now a professor. I wear a jacket and tie every day, and suits as called for (by my judgement, anyway). Few of my colleagues can be bothered to dress nicely except for graduation and similar events, though some of the men in my department do wear ties but not jackets.

  6. Dear Professor Bertonneau,

    I recently read a comment of yours at The Thinking Housewife to a college student interested in a literature degree at the graduate level. You mentioned that she may want to pursue her own reading agenda in addition to the course work if she continued on that path.

    My interests are in mathematics and physics, however I am putting off finishing my degree to homeschool my youngest. I am familiar with some of the classics but would appreciate a compilation of good literature that would be beneficial to me and my daughter.

    Thank your for your regard in this request, especially as it is off topic to the discussion of your blog entry.

    Sarah

    • Dear Sarah:

      Please write to me at my home email address (dactylic@verizon.net) and I will be happy to correspond with you.

      Sincerely,

      Tom Bertonneau

  7. When I was in the undergrad Physics program at the state university here in town, I used to wear jean shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. I should have been kicked out of class.

    • Yes, you should have ;-)

      I did not understand what Prof. Bertonneau wrote above when I was an undergrad, but I came to understand it inchoately after I became an adult and started dressing like one.

      To an extent far greater than we realize, our dress effects not just how others perceive us but also how we perceive ourselves. Our choice of attire affects our attitudes. It is only appropriate that when we settle in to serious work, academic or otherwise, we should be dressed for the occasion, just as we dress appropriately to go camping, or to mow the lawn, or to work out.

      • I agree completely Bill. I was definitely not an adult in college. If fact, I really didn’t grow up until I had children.

      • Bruce B. wrote,

        “I really didn’t grow up until I had children.”

        You and me both, Bruce.

  8. [i]“Doing favors is a reciprocal, a quid pro quo and a do ut des, proposition. My principle is that I am cooperative with those who are cooperative with me, and not with anyone else. “[/i]

    Not very Christ-like. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard of holiness than [i]that[/i].

    • How is it possible, in logic, to cooperate with someone who refuses to cooperate with you? Cooperation has to be mutual, by definition. To turn the other cheek is not to cooperate; to cooperate with someone who smacked you on the cheek, you’d have to smack yourself on the cheek.

      • Matthew 5:40-5:41
        And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
        And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

      • These are not examples of cooperation, but of coercion. If you were to cooperate with the man who was suing you at law, you’d have to file an amicus brief in the case, arguing for his case and against your own. If you were to cooperate with the man compelling you to go a mile bearing his burdens, you’d have to threaten yourself with bodily harm so as to coerce yourself into carrying his burdens.

        Jesus is here telling us how to respond to unjust coercion, in such a way as to heap burning coals upon the heads of our oppressors. He is not telling us to help them oppress us by oppressing ourselves.

      • I totally disagree, and do not see how you are drawing the conclusions you do.

        “Go with him twain” implies cooperation, as does “let him have thy cloak also”. The point is not that you are aiding in the original instant of coercion, and I think that consideration is a non-sequitur.

        As regards the original instance of “turn the other cheek”, the Bible also says “OFFER” the other. You are cooperating with the coercion and or violence inasmuch as you are not resisting and you are also aiding them, allowing them to continue to violate you. Therein lies the point.

        All of this is not to be interpreted along strictly legal lines, but to illustrate the mindset of the true Christian – the idea of “quid pro quo” is foreign to him or her. Jesus did not make people pay him for touching his cloak.

      • Well, I guess we have to disagree. No matter how hard I try, I can’t construe being struck on the face, sued, or forced at swordpoint to carry a legionary’s burdens as instances of cooperation. They all look to me like coercion. Supererogatory compliance with coercion is not cooperating, it is complying.

        These exchanges would be cooperative, rather than coercive, if they took something like the following forms:

        • “Hey, Kristor, we are going the same way; how about you carry my burdens for a mile and then I’ll switch off and carry yours?”
        • “Say, Kristor, you have two cloaks and I have none; how about you give me your spare cloak, and I promise I’ll do a similar kindness to someone the next time I have the chance?”
        • “Hey, Kristor, let’s spar! I won’t blame you if you get past my guard, if you’ll do the same for me. We’ll both become better fighters.”
    • On the contrary, Christ said, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I too invoke the most basic social rule, reciprocity. Being cooperative with the uncooperative is how America transformed itself into a left-wing dictatorship. The one who is being un-Christlike is the loutish student, who is stuck on his own adolescent ego.

      • “Christ said, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

        But why even bring that up if it was not with the expectation that you would have to treat kindly some who DID not reciprocate.

        “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?47“If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
        …says it all.

        I know it is difficult to put into practice, but that is the point.

    • “Not very Christ-like. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard of holiness than [i]that[/i].”

      If you’re going to throw around words like ‘Christ-like’, please for God’s sake be careful to first ascertain what Christ was actually like… Personally, my readings of the Gospels left me the impression that Christ had a very low tolerance for ‘putting up with’ nonsense, and very little willingness to sugarcoat what He had to say. In the end, He would rather be crucified than ‘cooperate’ with all the Pharisees and governors who found His preaching of the Truth to be disruptive and inconvenient….

      Returning to the particular case of the college classroom, how exactly is it ‘love’ to continue to accommodate the sloppiness of people who should have matured years ago? When one takes up the responsibilities of a lecturer, does it matter more to pander to your students’ whims and lower your expectations, or to take it upon yourself to educate them?

      I have been in my share of university classrooms where there were absolutely no standards of conduct expected from the audience; it was immediately evident that the reason wasn’t that the lecturers were overflowing with an excess of ‘love’ towards the students, it was that they couldn’t care less. The one lecturer who actually dedicated herself to teaching the topic to her students, as she would have wanted to learn it herself, the one whose lectures were most worth listening to, and the one who set actual expectations for her class, was also the most disliked professor among the slacker crowd. I do not think that is a coincidence.

  9. I’m with Kristor. Your understanding of these basic precepts is so utterly at variance with mine that I see no possibility of meaningful communication with you. And I intend to make no further effort in that direction. in other words, I’m no longer cooperating with you.

  10. Pingback: The Second Great Commandment | The Orthosphere

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