Professors tend to have specific expectations of how their students ought to act in the classroom, and so it’s important that you know and understand what I expect from my students in terms of classroom behavior. These expectations are not arbitrary demands on my part, but are commonsense etiquette intended to help sustain a positive and effective learning environment.
I believe, and I am sure you’ll agree, that in many ways the college classroom is a place unlike any other. It’s a sanctuary where we come together to create and renew ourselves as a learning community. It provides a safe and open space for thinking, discussing, debating, brainstorming, and sharing ideas. In the classroom, we should be able to lower our defenses and talk honestly about controversial issues without any fear of being attacked or ridiculed; at the same time, we should be able to respectfully disagree with each other, and critically evaluate each other’s views, without losing our tempers, or, indeed, our friendships. The classroom may not be a sacred place like a church or a mosque, but it deserves to be treated with an element of solemnity and reverence.
When you are in a classroom, it is imperative that you follow its etiquette.
Practice Humility: Each of us in born in a state of utter ignorance, a state that we must strive to overcome as much as possible throughout our lives; this lifelong struggle is known as “learning.” Practicing humility doesn’t mean being submissive to your teacher; rather, it means being willing to change your mind if the evidence so dictates. You are most likely to learn when you adopt an attitude of openness towards new information, fresh insights, and viewpoints that differ from your own. Keeping an open mind does not require you to accept every new idea that comes your way; it only means that you are willing to scrutinize your existing views in light of new information, and that you are willing to give new ideas your full and sympathetic consideration.
Show Interest: You may occasionally feel that the topic being discussed in the classroom is of no concern to you, in which case you may be tempted to shift your attention to something more interesting. It is crucial to keep in mind that not everything that’s worth learning is likely to be exciting or entertaining at the same time. Just because a topic fails to provide you sufficient mental stimulation doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant, or that you can afford to stop paying attention. Do not allow any feeling of boredom that you might experience affect your attitude or demeanor in the classroom. Make a genuine effort to act as if you are totally interested in the topic at hand, and you will soon begin to feel a real interest.
Be Present: Presence in the classroom is not the same thing as attendance. There is a significant difference between merely showing up for a class meeting and being fully present with your whole self. Presence means that your mind is focused on what is happening in the present moment, and that your senses and faculties are fully engaged with what is most relevant to your learning. You may have other concerns in your life, but worrying about them during a class meeting will only reduce the quality of your learning. Whenever you catch your mind drifting away, gently bring it back to the here and now.
Listen Carefully: Don’t just hear what others have to say, but actually listen to them! The purpose of listening is to understand, as accurately as possible, what it is that the speaker is trying to convey. You can’t listen very well if you’re simultaneously thinking of how you’re going to respond. You stand to gain valuable insights not only by paying attention to your professor but also by carefully listening to what your classmates may have to say. This is particularly important if you disagree with them and wish to respond, for you are not likely to respond intelligently if you have not made a sincere effort to understand them first.
Speak Up: Learning is an individual process but it happens best in a social setting through exchange of ideas. Unlike large lecture-based classes held in huge auditoriums, this particular class will not succeed if you do not express yourself verbally on a regular basis. You don’t have to have a brilliant comment in order for you to speak; it is perfectly fine to make an ordinary observation or ask a question that you think is “stupid.” In a learning context, there is no shame in making mistakes or in giving “wrong” answers, though failing to ask for help when you need it can be costly. Do contribute to the classroom conversation whenever you can, but try not to dominate it.
Be Respectful: Good discussions require a non-threatening environment, but this cannot be the sole responsibility of the professor; students too play an important role in creating such an environment. Try to contribute your share in maintaining an open and welcoming climate in the classroom where everyone feels at ease. Respect in this context is the opposite of selfishness, which is a preoccupation with one’s own needs and a disregard for the needs of others. Make a deliberate effort to be respectful to others at all times, even when you think they are not being respectful to you.
Wait for Your Turn: Interrupting a speaker often indicates s failure to control one’s impulses; it may even be construed as a sign of arrogance or rudeness, even if you’re only being impatient. If the professor is speaking, please listen with your full attention. If you wish to say something, raise your hand and catch your professor’s attention first; then lower your hand and wait for your turn. If a classmate is speaking, let them complete their thought before responding—your interruption may distract or discourage them.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that as your professor I am just as responsible for following the above etiquette as you are. If you see me violating any of my own standards for classroom behavior, please do me a favor and bring it to my attention through email or see to me in person (but not during class). I need your feedback, just as you need mine. If you don’t tell me that I did something wrong, then I may never find out; and if I don’t know that I’ve made a mistake, then I won’t be able to fix it.