Politeness in the classroom is one of the topics that seem almost too obvious to mention; of course, people will be polite in a classroom, just as they’re polite in a place of worship or at a job interview. But, the classroom is a bit different; it has its own rules of politeness. And, to complicate matters just a bit, these rules are modified in various ways by different institutions and by different instructors. Some instructors, for example, prefer to be addressed by their first name while others prefer to be addressed as Professor. Some allow eating and drinking in the classroom, others will tolerate coffee in early morning classes, while still others ban all food and drink.
And of course such rules vary from one culture to another. The classroom in the United States does not follow the same rules of politeness as the classroom in Japan, Russia, or Saudi Arabia. And, so, to persons from other cultures, the politeness rules for American colleges can be quite confusing.
One thing for sure: politeness in the classroom is not too obvious to mention. In fact, a search of the Internet uncovers a variety of politeness instructions from a wide variety of academic institutions. Impoliteness is apparently a problem. Some instructors, in fact, write politeness rules into the syllabus. Some schools post their rules on their website and expect all classes to follow them. Rarely do the rules address instructor politeness; almost all are addressed to students.
Here, then, are ten rules of politeness addressed to both students and instructors, some of the dos and don’ts of politeness in the classroom. Discussion of these ten rules—and any others that should have been mentioned--between students and instructor seems a logical way of establishing the rules for classroom politeness.
1. Arrive on time. Whether you are instructor or student, late arrival is disturbing to everyone who arrives on time. Being habitually late signals a lax attitude toward the college experience which doesn’t help anyone. So, arriving on time is a clear demonstration of politeness and respect for the others in the room, whether students or instructor.
2. Leave only at the end of the hour. Students should not leave until being dismissed by the instructor but the instructor should not keep the students late and have them then be late for their next class. Leaving early, like arriving late, only disturbs those who leave on time. If you must leave early for some emergency, tell the instructor or students (if that’s the custom) and, if a student, take a seat where you’ll disturb the fewest number of people.
3. Wear cologne in moderation. Strong cologne or after shave lotion can trigger discomfort and resentment in those who are forced to smell this. And while the wearer often thinks the cologne smells just great, others will not necessarily share this opinion. This suggestion is especially true in large lecture classes where competing smells are likely to create real unpleasantness.
4. Students should avoid talking to neighboring students. This not only disturbs the instructor but others around you who now have greater difficulty hearing the lecture. And you may even be disturbing the student you’re talking to. Asking the student next to you to repeat what the instructor said that you missed, only forces the other student to miss the next thing the instructor says. And instructors should talk to the entire group and not focus attention on one or two students who may be particularly engaging. Often instructors, without realizing it, favor one side of the room and that should be corrected.
5. Use electronic devices responsibly and politely. Turn off your cell phone or pager (or at least put it on vibrator mode). Avoid using your cell phone to talk, take pictures, or text. If you’re a student, this will disturb the instructor and the students around you and will also prevent you from learning as much as you might. If you’re the instructor, you’ll disturb the entire class. If you’re expecting an urgent call that you cannot miss, take the call with as little disturbance as possible, leaving the room unobtrusively if possible. Some instructors welcome laptops while others don’t. Find out what the protocol is and then, if permitted, use the laptop to aid you in interacting with the ideas the instructor is talking about and in taking notes rather than as a distraction.
6. As a student use the proper form of address for your instructor. This can often be confusing, especially when different instructors follow different rules. Generally, however, and unless directed otherwise by the instructor, use a relatively formal form of address. This means addressing the instructor as Dr. (if he or she has a Ph.D.), Professor (whether he or she is adjunct, assistant, associate, or full professor), or Mr. or Ms if the person does not have a Ph.D. and is not a professor. [The title Dr. means the person has a Ph.D. while the title Professor means that the college has granted this person professorial status. So, a person might be a professor without having a Ph.D. and a person with a Ph.D. may not necessarily be a professor. Most professors, however, have Ph.D.s and most Ph.D.s have professorial status. A high school teacher with a Ph.D. is called Dr. but not Professor.] Students generally prefer to be addressed by their first name and so there is seldom any problem here. In addition, however, the instructor (and students) should use the culturally preferred terms for the students (and for people generally) and avoid any sexist, racist, heterosexist, or ageist terms. Similarly, persons with disabilities should be talked about in “person first” language—for example, instead of “the blind writer” (which puts the disability first and makes it the defining feature of the person), a more appropriate and polite expression would be “the writer who is blind” (which puts the person first).
7. Watch your language. Terms that would be considered taboo in polite society are inappropriate in the classroom. Again, the reason for this is not that these words aren’t often adequate descriptions of your meaning; it’s that they may embarrass others in the classroom. Also, their unexpectedness will lead others to focus on your use of terms rather than on your meaning and you’ll lose some of their attention. Similarly, anger communication is out of place in the classroom; spirited discussion is one thing, expressing anger over a position taken by the instructor or a student would be inappropriate. There are other avenues for you to use in taking issue with opposing positions. Another type of language that would be considered impolite is dismissive communication, the kind of communication that says (often nonverbally), “that’s not important” or “how cares about that?” whether said to something the instructor says or something a student says.
8. As a student, ask questions as appropriate but in moderation. Taking a disproportionate amount of time asking questions is unfair to the rest of the students. Avoid asking questions that you could easily find the answer to yourself; it’s similar to the situation in online communication where you’re expected to read the FAQs before asking a question yourself. And always avoid the question, “Will this be on the test?” though this may be a quirk of my own. After being asked this a number of times, I wrote into the syllabus that everything said in class or in the text could be asked on the test. This effectively prevented anyone asking this question again. It’s a question that if you answer No many in the class will put down their pens and tune you out and if you answer Yes many will want to put down your exact words and you’ll get at least several requests to repeat yourself--exactly. And then of course the instructor has to remember to add that question to the testbank.
9. Never broadcast boredom in reactions to the instructor or to students. It’s rude. More than that, it communicates the exact opposite of what the purpose of the classroom should be—interesting, engaging, and lively. If you’re the student, for example, avoid reading the newspaper or thumbing through a website or listening to your iPod; this will disturb both instructor and the students around you. If you’re the instructor avoid expressing boredom or impatience, for example, with a student’s lengthy explanation or question.
10. Avoid eating or drinking in the classroom (generally). As already noted, some instructors have different rules about this so, if you’re a student, it’s probably best to find out first. If you’re the instructor then don’t do what the students can’t do; don’t prevent them from bringing in coffee when you bring in yours. Whether you’re the instructor or the student, avoid foods with strong odors such as oranges and take care that your food does not (literally) spill over into another space.