Blatantly Obnoxious

by Tina Blue
November 14, 2003

          Back in the old days--that would be, say, five or six years ago--when a student wanted to be pointedly inattentive in class, he would tuck himself into the middle of a crowd in the back of the room, so that his complete lack of engagement with the class would be unnoticed, or at least less likely to be noticed, by the teacher.

          There are various forms of inattentiveness.  Although some teachers consider it most annoying when the student dozes off in class, I have never been particularly bothered by that.  I teach very early morning classes, and I also have read a great deal about the body's non-negotiable sleep needs.* I am well aware that if the body is sufficiently sleep-deprived, there is no way in the world for a person to stay awake, even if his life depends on it.

          For example, in one of my English 101 classes several years ago, a freshman named Sam, who was struggling mightily to keep up with the demands of KU's decidedly demanding engineering department, had trouble staying awake in my 7:30 a.m. class.  He always sat in the very back of the room, and at some point during every class period, his head would fall back against the wall and he would fall asleep.

          But the degree of Sam's persistent exhaustion was made most evident when he fell asleep like that while writing an in-class essay!  Head against the back wall, Sam snored away, even as his hand continued to move his pen across the page.  There was no writing, just meaningless ink scratchings.  I had to wake the poor thing for his next class.

          Sam was a smart boy and a serious student, but he just couldn't get by on the little sleep his rigorous class and study schedule permitted him

          About four years ago there was a girl named Allison in my 8:30 "Introduction to Poetry Class" who also wasn't getting anywhere near enough sleep.  Allison, like Sam, was a smart and devoted student.  She took her studies seriously.  In fact, she was what I call a "front and center" student--you know, a student who always sits right in the middle of the front row in every class.

          Partly she did that because she was such an intense, involved student.  But partly, I think, she did it to counteract her constant sleepiness.  She figured that sitting front and center would prevent her from dozing off.

          Nevertheless, doze off she did--in every class, usually more than once.  Unlike Sam, she did not fall into a deep sleep for nearly the entire class period.  Instead, she lapsed into what are called "microsleeps," lasting, in her case, from 2 to perhaps 5 or 6 minutes at a time.  She would sit there, straight up in her desk, but her eyes would be closed and she would be snoring softly.  Then she would come awake, and pay close attention to what I was teaching--until she dozed off again.

          The funny thing was, when I asked her at the end of the semester why she was so tired all the time that she kept falling asleep in my class, she was astonished and appalled. As is often the case when people fall into microsleeps because of sleep deprivation, she was totally unaware that she had been sleeping at all.

          A year ago, in a 10:30 (!) English 101 class, a Korean girl who studied late into every night would fall asleep in the back row of the classroom.  Oddly, though, she would fall asleep with her head hanging forward, her long black hair falling down in front of her face.  The girl sitting next to her would try to wake her, but to no avail.  That girl was asleep.

          Sometimes the position of her head and neck would start to worry me.  I didn't want her pitching forward onto her face on our hard, cold floors.  Also, I didn't want her to hurt her neck in that position.  So when her friend couldn't wake her, I would go back there (a very short distance--the room was not large) and adjust her so her head was propped Sam-like against the back wall.  When the class was over, we would wake her for her next nap--er, class.

          In each of these cases, the student was not a slacker.  Quite the contrary.  They were working way too hard, and it was taking a definite toll on their poor young bodies. They were like people who doze off while driving.  They mean to stay awake.  They do everything they can to stay awake.

          But they can't stay awake.

          I don't take that personally.  I know I am a pretty lively teacher, and most students find my classes interesting, informative, and even entertaining.  The ones that fall asleep are not usually expressing boredom, just exhaustion.  And in most cases that exhaustion is honestly come by.

          Of course, there are those who are unable to stay awake because they drink, do drugs, party late, or play videogames all night long.  But I don't get too many of those.  I usually scare them out fairly early in the semester, once they come to realize how demanding my class is.

          I won't actively take off points for a student's falling asleep in my class, though I do warn them that they might well be missing things they need to know to get good grades on exams or when writing their essays.  If that happens, it will inevitably affect their grades. Once warned, though, they can do with that information what they will.

          But there is another kind of inattentiveness that truly does annoy me.  For example, when students sign in on the attendance sheet, but then use my class to work on homework for another class, write letters home, chat with friends, or anything else obviously obnoxious, I am very stern.  I will call them on it in class, and warn them that if they are in class physically but not "there" because they are obviously doing other things, then I will just cross out their name on my attendance sheet.

          I don't get too much of that yet, but I do get some, and it is much more than it was even a few years ago--mainly, I think, because students are getting less and less training in how to be real students as they progress through grade school, middle school, and high school.

          But what astonishes me is how blatant these students are about not paying attention in class.  They aren't burying themselves in a crowd at the back of the room.  They are sitting front and center and openly waving their disengagement in my face.

          One day a student sat right under my nose in an otherwise empty desk, nonchalantly working a crossword puzzle, as if he were in an airport lounge or a coffee shop rather than an English class.  I said to put the darned thing away, of course, and told him how outrageous such behavior was.

          I was so put out by it, that I told the story in all three of my other classes, in a "Can you even believe the nerve!" sort of tone.  Many of the students looked as shocked as I felt at the audacity of his behavior.

          And then, just one week later, a girl in one of those other classes sat right there in the front row, right in the center, right under my nose, with a folded newspaper on her otherwise empty desk.  Doing a crossword puzzle.

          I let her live. This time.

          Just this week I had to add a note to another student's graded paper, explaining to him that his habit of sitting right under my nose and instant-messaging on his cell phone was incredibly rude and insulting, and that it would not help him in the least when it came time for me to figure grades, since I would count every day that he did that as an absence.  What is most bizarre is that I have corrected him in class on three separate occasions for this behavior.  And yet he was still doing it--though he has stopped since I put the warning in writing.

          Here's the thing.  I suspect these kids no longer even know that it is wrong to act like this in class.  They don't realize how inappropriate it is or how much it can hurt their grade in a college class, both by preventing them from learning what is being taught and by annoying the bejeesus out of the instructor.

          There is so little discipline (on this issue see my article "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum"), and so little is expected of them in school before they get to college, that it doesn't even occur to them that a college instructor might take umbrage at such behavior. If they have always been allowed to behave this way in school and have never suffered any consequences for it, then why should they expect things to be any different in college?

          And in their school experience up to the time they get here, most of them have managed to get A's and B's without reading their textbooks or paying much attention in class anyway, so why should they think it essential to pay attention in college?

          Of course, these very same students are usually the ones piling into my office toward the end of the semester, begging me to tell them how to get an A or a B in my class--or in some of the more severe cases, how to get a C.

          On occasion, just to show them what it feels like, I have treated such a student to a little display of my own.

          The kid walks into my office and sits down.  Then, as soon as he begins to talk to me, I turn away and start reading a book, grading a paper, or checking my e-mail.  Sometimes I open the student newspaper up big as you please, right in his face, if he is one of those who have tried that in my class. I continue to ignore him and occupy myself with other things until he says something about it. 

          And then I say, "Don't you just hate when people do that to you?"

*See "America's Sleep Deficit" and "Why Am I Always So Tired?"
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