Codes of Conduct: Undergraduates

Codes of conduct are a fundamental part of the way that I teach, and yet, I continue to feel ambivalent about them. While I have a well-developed set of rules that I like to go over at the beginning of the year – actually, I have 2, the other is for my TAs – I always worry that perhaps the process is demeaning to my students or that they will feel infantilized by such a rudimentary exercise. I’m not sure I will ever get over this concern; however, I don’t see myself axing the “classroom rules” portion of my introductory lecture any time soon either. This is because it sets the tone for the semester. It helps me to establish my position as the authority figure, to define the place of technology in my class, and (hopefully) to create an atmosphere where students feel safe in asking and answering questions. So what are my rules?


Before I get into the rules proper, I always preface my remarks with a brief description of what students can and can’t expect from the course. This is all the stuff that faculty considers basic, but which is not necessarily obvious to our students. When teaching the modern western history survey, for example, I start by reminding people what a survey is. I tell my students that the class will be “an introduction to some – though by no means all – of the major political, technological, and social shifts from the period dating from 1600 forward, with an emphasis on state making and breaking.” I then explicitly state that the content of the course is based on my interpretations of facts. Students will be exposed to contrasting interpretations, and given time to express their opinions at the end of the lecture, but the core of the lecture is my construction. I finish this section of my spiel by alerting those enrolled to the fact that I do indeed run an interactive classroom, and that they will be given regular opportunities to get their hands dirty with the history. If this doesn’t sound appealing, now is the moment to flee.

Equally important, I tell my students what they won’t get. Sticking with my western civ example, I note that the focus on politics means that, by necessity, there will not be as much information about social, cultural, or economic history as I would like to cover. I also warn my class that they will not get to dig into the really interesting minor historical episodes, unless they choose to take up those themes in their research paper. Finally, much to their chagrin, students are told that lecture notes will not be posted online, and that my slides will go up after every class but not before. The latter is something I do to try to train them to deal with real presentations, which seldom come with a nifty set of Power Point slides that you can print off in advance.

From here, I move on to my rules proper:


[There may be a little bit of this going on as well]

1. Respect! This is the rule which underwrites every other rule that I have. Respect can’t just be expected, it’s earned, and it’s the product of reciprocal relationships. I get that. Thus, I tell my students that – if nothing else – they can count on me always to treat them with respect. The catch is that I expect the same in return. Moreover, I demand that students respect one another as well. Since all of my lectures involve an interactive component, and many of my classes have semi-regular discussion groups attached to them, it is absolutely fundamental that students feel like they can share their opinions in a safe space. Therefore, I am careful to spell out the rules. Disagreement is fine, but differences of opinion should open discussion up, and not shut it down. Differences of opinion should be rooted in evidence, and must always be left within the confines of the classroom. Since I am apparently pretty terrifying, this mini-rant usually does the trick and students enjoy the freedom to speak their minds, challenge my interpretations, and get help with half-baked ideas from their peers.

2. No using cell phones. So, I stole this from a meme, but it’s true: I know you’re texting, no one just looks at their crotch that much! I do my very best not to be boring, so I ask that people who make the effort to attend lectures actually pay attention to my delivery of them. Some students have children, or are responsible for sick or elderly relatives. If that’s the case, as I tell my class, cell phones must of course stay on and be answered in case of a family emergency. But the rest of the world can put them on silent and put them away. And this is because, as you may have guessed, it’s disrespectful to me when a student texts through an entire lecture and then come see me because they don’t understand the material. Even more importantly, it’s disrespectful to the entire class when a phone rings and we all have to pause. What will I do if I catch someone texting then, you ask? As an early modernist, I will use traditional methods. I will not throw a fit, nor I will I kick a student out – I will simply make sure that every other student in the room is looking at the offender and getting progressively more annoyed while I pause and wait for them to finish. And yes, I know, I am evil.


3. Responsible use of laptops only. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not ban laptops. They do add some challenges for instructors – we all know what it’s like to compete with the alluring blue glow of Facebook – but I think the pros outweigh the cons. Thus, I encourage my students to bring their laptops or tablets. Moreover, since most classes are now wifi equipped, I even tell my students to use these devices more extensively. If a student desires clarification regarding terminology, or some more background information on a particular topic (especially during discussion time), I actively encourage them to “Google it.” I tell them in my best crotchety old lady voice: “When I was in university, if I wanted to know something, I actually had to go to the library and look it up; you have the sum of human knowledge at your fingertips, try to make use of it.” What I don’t tolerate is playing solitaire, watching movies, online shopping, Facestalking, etc… Once again, this is a matter of respect, and I explain to my students that my concern is that they will distract their peers, who have full view of their screen in a classroom with stadium seating.

4. Be punctual. This is my final rule, and like all my other rules, it’s based on my demand for respect. Coming in late is disruptive to other students and disrespectful to me, and I make it clear that I have a zero tolerance policy. That said, in reality, I’m often lenient (especially for 8:30 classes), but as I said, I think it’s important to set the tone. I do not enforce this rule by locking the doors – which is something my own professor’s used to do. Instead, I do it by employing the same public shaming tactic I use to deal with everything else. For the most part though, tardiness isn’t a problem because if one can successfully create a respectful environment, in conjunction with delivering engaging lectures, students make the effort to come, and to come on time. Oftentimes, if I’ve done my job well, those who come late even approach me after class and offer an unsolicited explanation for running behind.


[The stocks]

Depending on the class, I might add a few smaller items, but these rules are at the heart of the classroom code that I present every semester. I’m curious to know what my readers think. Are they useful? What additional rules do you have? And how do you go about setting the tone?


3 thoughts on “Codes of Conduct: Undergraduates

  1. It’s funny how much of our enforcement boils down to ‘public shaming’ – what happens when we lose that?!

    Seriously, I do find it difficult to tell when a student is using their laptop/tablet for work and when it’s just there because they need to be constantly connected to the web. Googling at their fingertips is helpful, though.

  2. Hi Kean,

    The strange thing is that for all of my threats of public shaming, I’ve only ever had to do it once. Merely convincing people that I don’t take crap often avoids problematic situations entirely. But being serious for a moment, I entirely take your point. Public shaming is actually a questionable reaction on the part of an instructor because it can be psychologically damaging, and this is why I’ve been extremely happy to have *mostly* avoided the whole issue, and why you assume that admin is going to clamp down on it. We do indeed have to be careful about when and why we react to students, and this is why I find the code of conduct so useful in the first place. Students know what I do and don’t tolerate and why, and they know that I won’t simply disrespect them. If I react to something they are doing, it is with good cause, and they can’t say they weren’t warned about what would happen. Students seem to accept this because I hold myself to my own rules. I am very careful to never participate in internet forums that publicly mock student test answers or other such shenanigans, and I am always happy to have them push back against anything I do do, so long as they have an actual argument to back their position.

    In a perfect world, none of this would be an issue because we’re adults teaching other adults and so everyone “should know better.” But adults are human too, and I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never surfed the net or sat on Facebook during a particularly mind-numbing talk. Hell, I’ve even texted things like “I want to gouge my eyeballs out with a dull spoon” to colleagues sitting across the table. It’s all give-and-take, and I let my rules slide if I get the sense that my lecture is an utter flop. I always own a terrible lecture — I just feel like I have a moral obligation to acknowledge the occasional failure. So I guess the key is being “reasonable” (whatever that means)?


  3. Hey! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
    He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page to him.
    Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thanks
    for sharing!

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