Student behavior sparks dialogue on proper audience decorum

By Tracy Lum

Editor-in-Chief

Howard Gardner spoke about his book, "Five Minds for the Future," in the Weis Center Sept. 15.

Student behavior at a lecture last Thursday evening has sparked ongoing discussion between faculty and students about proper decorum during presentations and classes.

According to accounts from professors and first-year students, many in the audience of Howard Gardner’s talk on “Five Minds for the Future” were disrespectful toward the speaker. First-year students were required to read Gardner’s book and attend the lecture as part of their Transition to College course.

“Some [students] were sleeping. Some were texting. Some were doing their homework,” Tamerat Feyisa ’14 said.

Mitch Chernin, professor of biology, was “appalled” at the behavior.

“I could hear a constant din within the Weis Center,” he said. “I realize that this was a required event for first-year students and many of them would have preferred doing something else at that time; however, it is not unreasonable to expect respectful behavior during a lecture.”

Mike Toole, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, noticed similar behavior from where he sat in the front row.

“I heard this coughing nonstop throughout the lecture,” he said. After seeing many people “sleeping, chattering and not paying attention,” he speculated the coughing was part of a coordinated effort through which the class expressed displeasure and boredom.

“It was just very frustrating to me,” Toole said.

The morning after the lecture, Toole spoke to other faculty members before posting a message expressing his concern about the students’ behavior on a virtual faculty forum (vforum). Besides describing the rude behavior he perceived, Toole also wrote “students cheered the first two questions simply because the questioners pointedly criticized the book and speaker without stopping to listen and reflect on whether the criticism had merit” during the question-and-answer section of the talk.

According to Toole, the message received approximately 25 replies by Monday afternoon. In addition to addressing concerns about behavior at the lecture, the posting also raised questions about the state of student behavior in general on campus.

Some faculty members believe student behavior in the classroom is not an issue as long as expectations about decorum are established at the start of class.

“In one class recently I allowed [students] to bring in their laptops, and I realized that was a mistake because that facilitated communication between them that wasn’t directed toward the class,” said David Kristjanson-Gural, associate professor of economics.

Other faculty members do not believe student behavior is an issue.

“My view from giving lectures in physics classes over the years [is] that I haven’t seen a significant change in student behavior,” said Ben Vollmayr-Lee, associate professor of physics, on the vforum.

The conversation on decorum has spread to the classroom.

Kristjanson-Gural devoted a 20-minute discussion about the lecture in the foundation seminar course he teaches. He said many students “expressed embarrassment … and disapproval of the attitude of the students who were disrespectful.”

In many Transition to College classes this week, instructors discussed the issue of decorum with first-year students. Ashley Rooney ’14 said during class, students were asked to fill out a survey including questions about what constitutes proper behavior and a respectful audience.

“Most kids said that the first few pages and then rest of the book had an arrogant tone,” Rooney said. ”Some kids described [the book] as pompous and said [the tone] carried throughout the lecture.”

Rooney, one of the students who questioned Gardner about the ethics of capitalism and socialism as economic systems, said she did not notice any misbehavior during the lecture, but that she believes criticism should be expected when an author writes a book based on opinion.

“I think it’s fine to ask questions and to be critical,” Rooney said. “Thomas Jefferson tells us to question boldly.”

Feyisa, a 32-year-old first-year from Ethiopia, also spoke during the question-and-answer portion and criticized the book as too “career-oriented.”

“My argument was that it was not a book that promotes intellectual virtues,” Feyisa said.

He said the book did not promote “the life of the mind … the life of the intellect” and that it did not encourage critical thinking.

Feyisa attributes the students’ behavior to a lack of engagement with the book. Before even coming to the University, Feyisa said that a discussion about the book unfolded on the “Bucknell University Class of 2014” Facebook page.

“We sort of had this cyber community,” he said. “Everybody was talking about how they hated the book.”

The book’s failure to create discourse and start controversy, he said, was the real problem behind the students’ lack of engagement and subsequent behavior during the lecture.

Several students in the audience thought their fellow students’ behavior was uncalled for.

“I thought that we owed him a lot more than we gave him. Even if we didn’t like the book, he’s still another human being, and there’s a level of respect that shouldn’t be breached,” Liane Chesek ’14 said.

Maddy Liss ’14 expressed a similar opinion about the question-and-answer part of the talk.

“I was really embarrassed,” she said. “I wanted to stand up and say something.”

No official disciplinary action has been taken. Toole believes discussions about unacceptable behavior will prevent the texting, sleeping and chatting during lectures from occurring in the future.

“We know that this was not the entire class of 2014,” Toole said. “It was just some students who felt that they didn’t need to be there.”

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