Friday, October 21, 2011

The Puzzle of Students Talking in Class

I have finally solved a puzzle that has been bothering me for years, and something that visiting professors have asked me about but I could not answer. Our HK students are overwhelmingly polite and well-mannered. There are a few things about which they have different manners, like answering a cell phone in class. I tell students that they should turn off their phones or set them to silent mode when they are in class, and if they forget, that is OK, but they should kill it and not answer the phone. I joke that leaning down and speaking softly does not fool anyone. Today, a student rushed out class with his phone in his hand and said "Wei?" as he was walking out the door, to the amusement of many students in the class. This, I accept, is a difference in standards of politeness, and I just think students need to be taught that in the business and professional world, you do not answer the phone in a meeting (though it is shocking how many academic meetings I have attended where someone thinks they are so important they can answer their phone at the seminar table).

The need to teach phone manners, I understand. What I have been perplexed about is how common it is for students to talk to each other in class. They not only do not whisper but talk, but it goes on for a long time, often for the entire class unless I say something ("Excuse me, do you have a question?").  I have even taking to joking that because Cantonese is a tonal language, students cannot whisper; it is as though a whisper would not carry tones, and so cannot be used. They actually voice their murmurings, which is quite distracting to the lecturer.

Yesterday I took a couple of students out to lunch as part of a "teacher-advisee" program that our department has. It is a great chance to get to know a few students better (I think students dread these lunches, but seem to warm to them after we don't eat them alive in the first 10 minutes).  My very simpatico students told me that they had expected university to be a time of freedom, but they are shocked that they have to work even harder than in secondary school!  One commented that it was OK to talk during class in secondary school, but noted with surprise that some university teachers don't allow that. She said it is a far cry from what she had been told, i.e. that at university you don't even have to go to class! She said they are so busy, and have no time for socializing, so they enjoy talking with their new classmates in class.  Who would have known?  So I now understand why students engage in behavior that, on the face of it, seems so rude: they see it as an expression of the "freedom" of university.  Still, the talking, when it happens, makes my  poor little brain have trouble concentrating on what I'm trying to say, so I assume it must distract others in the audience as well.  I guess the socializing has to take place after my class, not during it. It's a little embarrassing how long it has taken me to figure this out. I should probably take students to lunch more often. Students talk more over lunch than in tutorials!  But then I remember my pathetic Mandarin language teacher at Columbia, who would take her favorite students out to lunch to then hold court at Moon Palace and spread rumors about other teachers.  Maybe deep down, everyone who comes out of Columbia fears becoming like her. I wonder if Michael Oksenberg ever took students out to lunch; he was her favorite student (and her best, she always reminded us).

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