Emory Report
August 30, 2004
Volume 57, Number 02


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August 30, 2004
No hats in class

Patrick 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 them cheat.

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 to learning.”

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).