Report homepage > Current
issue front page
August 30, 2004
hats in class
Allitt is professor of history.
I wrote the syllabus for my course the other day and
tried to make sure I included the complete list of threats and warnings.
It’s a list that gets longer from year to year as new technology
gives bad students new opportunities for deception.
In the days when I was a graduate teaching assistant, even plagiarists had to
do a certain minimum of work. They had to go to the library and find a book to
copy from, or go to their fraternity’s file of tried and true papers. No
such exertion is required today. Instead, without leaving their rooms, they can
browse the Web and find something suitable in a matter of minutes, often from
sites with names like “College Sucks” that were designed to help
On the syllabus this time, after writing my name, office number, office hours,
e-mail address and phone number, I write, “Please do not call me at home.” Otherwise,
some of the students will call me, especially ones I least want to hear from.
One of the sorrows of being a college teacher is that there is an inverse correlation
between your eagerness to talk to particular students and the amount of time
you actually spend with them. The good ones, the ones who do their work well,
try hard, understand the readings and write stimulating papers, would be a pleasure
to entertain. They rarely phone or drop in during office hours, however, because
they have no need to—I keep giving them good grades, and they keep feeling
thoroughly satisfied. Some are scrupulous, too, and don’t want to look
like brownnosers. By contrast, the ones who won’t do the work seem to spend
hours with me, making excuses and trying to jolly me into giving them better
grades than they deserve.
Next on the syllabus comes, “No eating, drinking or wearing hats in class.” Isn’t
it dreadful to be addressing a group of people while one of them is trying to
unwrap a sandwich? It’s particularly horrible if he is trying to do it
quietly, which simply has the effect of prolonging the torment. Not that I like
the brazen ones either, who boldly set about their lunches as though the classroom
were the perfect setting for a hearty meal.
I used to be a bit more permissive and said nothing about the cans of Diet Coke.
But I’ve stiffened up in recent years—the popping of the cans is
annoying and the spillages are awful. It’s usually some well-meaning character
who, having spilled her can while trying to take notes on a folding table much
too small for the job, self-consciously cleans up the mess. She borrows Kleenex
from her friends, gets down on all fours and noisily mops the floor, drawing
the interested glances of all around her.
What about the hats? You might think I’m high-handed in requiring hats
off in class. The baseball caps have always been an affliction. It was bad enough
when students wore them with the bill facing forward. They had an artful way
of slumping down in their chairs so that their eyes gradually disappeared from
view. Were the eyes open? Then came the trend, starting around 1994, to wear
the hats backward, with the bill sticking out behind and the adjustable plastic
tabs defining a semicircle of forehead. The general effect was to project an
air of defiant stupidity.
One day a year or two ago, a woman in class protested when I asked her to take
off her hat (forward bill). She said, “I thought that was just for the
guys.” I said, “Don’t you believe in gender equality?” She
answered, “Not with something like this!” I walked over to her desk,
asked for the hat, then told her to go to the front of the room. I pulled the
hat down over my eyes and sagged into her chair, then said: “Now, I want
you to talk to the whole class on a subject about which you care deeply and which
you know to be complex and difficult. Watch me closely as you speak, and try
to gauge how well I am grasping the subject matter.” She refused, blushed—but
put away the hat without another word.
Am I encroaching on students’ rights by asking them to take off their hats?
It’s a fine point. No one has yet downright refused to do it, but I’ve
had a few mutinous stares and plenty of questions. Sometimes one of them asks
something like, “Isn’t it up to us, as students who have paid our
tuition fees, to listen or not listen as we choose, and to do it dressed as we
please and in the physical position we choose?” To which
I respond, “I can’t make you listen but I can at least require you
to look as though you might be listening, rather than accepting the aggressive
detachment implied by eating, drinking and the hat. I want you to regard the
classroom as somewhere special, set aside for teaching and learning, and free
from as many of the contaminations of the outside world as possible. Whatever
you do beyond the classroom is your own business, but so long as you are here,
I am going to assume that you came here with the intention of learning. I am
the teacher, and I am doing everything I can to put you in a position conducive
I am usually able to prevail, though not on the strength of my arguments. It
is because I have influence over them: the influence of grades. Only the most
temerarious student would deliberately and repeatedly antagonize the person from
whom they wanted a good grade.
Another prohibition on the list these days is against cell phones. The cell-phone
plague also began in the 1990s. They’re bad enough out on the street or
in the Quadrangle. There seems to be an inverse relation between having something
to say and using the cell phone in public. Have you noticed how many users are
saying things like, “Now I’m by the cabbages,
and I’m walking toward the carrots,” or, “So I said, like,
whatever, and she said, like, no way, and I, like, freaked out?”
Somewhere around 1996, students’ bags began beeping and trilling during
class. By now, ownership of phones is so common that when one rings, nearly everyone
starts fumbling with his or her bag to see if they’re the guilty party.
Only once has a student actually taken the call during a class I was teaching,
and even then it was in a whisper. Indignant, I told her to stop. She said it
was a very important call. I said it was a very important class. She left the
room and did not return that day. Next time I saw her I made her promise that
she would turn the phone off before she entered the room. These days I begin
every class with the general declaration: “Cell phones and beepers off?
Then we can begin!”
This essay was excerpted from I’m the Teacher, You’re
the Student (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).