The New Decorum

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I don’t get it. It’s true it’s been awhile since I was a college student, but I recall a wholly different experience… some might call it alien compared to what the norm is today. I’m reminded of the differences, and I always get astonished, though I shouldn’t, every time I come across real life accounts on the ‘net about what life is like nowadays in undergraduate education.

A Website called seems designed to be a kind of teacher’s break room on the Internet, with a regular stream of messages regarding faculty-student interaction, both within and outside the classroom. The inevitable culprit in any perceived breakdown in decorum and academic protocol is traced to what are now accepted behaviors with digital mobile devices, if not more specifically social media.

It’s been three years and a bit since I was in a college classroom as a teacher (or “prof” as all students generously bestow as a title), but even cursory and only occasional glances at the chatter among working faculty today tell me it might as well have been a larger span of time.

In the current era there is a decided preference for mobile devices, as opposed to the organs for speech and hearing, to communicate. I’m talking about children, adolescents, and what I’ll call post-adolescents—mainly college and graduate school age students on the normal educational track; adults who return to school for re-education or a career makeover doubtless present a whole different set of problems to their educators.

Users will text, let’s say, with individuals in close proximity, sometimes in continuing intimate bodily contact: hip-to-hip, or shoulder-to-shoulder, never mind simply in the very same classroom, if not also contiguous desks or seats.

Without getting into the particulars of other kinds of behavior, which are covered well enough in the two blog posts I have listed as links below, the result of this constant digital traffic, combined with what I can only call a gigantic breach in what I think—I am pretty old, and the old memory, you know?…—used to be called things like etiquette, decorum, and protocol, all of the rules for which I also seem to recall we learned long before we got to college. And what we didn’t learn could be conveyed, and usually was, in a short speech, less than two minutes, by the “prof” at the very beginning of the first class meeting of a course. Rarely was there a question, except the inevitable, “does everything on the syllabus count towards our grade?”

Between the endless stream of attention diverting exercises, facilitated by all the apps, media, devices, etc. etc. and the complete breakdown of a common understanding of what is supposed to be polite behavior in any social setting, including the classroom—you know, conscientious regard for your fellow human beings, peers or elders—it’s a wonder any learning goes on at all. But wait? Does it? Well, of course it does, but I alway assume under great duress and stress at times for all participants.

Personally, I’m appalled, and I’d love to hear from anyone with a thought or two, including the current college-attendees (who might be able to explain in a plausible and rational way what could sit well with a humanist—you can look it up—what permits such carrying-on in civilized society).

The links, as I said, are below. I’ll just finish by saying that back in the day, for example, we could get through a semester of readings in the British and American Novel of the 19th century, let’s say, with the requirement that we read the individual entirety of each of about 15 novels, attend lectures, participate in class discussions, hand in an essay of at least 20 pages, take two exams: a mid-term and a final, and somehow manage not to miss more than three un-excused class meetings. The classes, incidentally, met three times a week for a semester. The syllabus usually consisted of a typewritten sheet, mimeographed, with all the book titles of required reading, dates, class meetings, and any pertinent rules printed on one side of the sheet. We already knew not to cheat, plagiarize, or lie. The rest of what we needed was in something called the Official Catalog of the University. There was no email. We knew our professor’s office hours. We didn’t know their home phone numbers, and we knew never to call them at the English Department (in this case), because we had to run the gauntlet of the department secretary, who conducted herself more or less as a combination of Gorgon and Cerberus. To be completely fair and forthcoming, I do remember when necessary exchanging actual hand-written correspondence, usually in the form of notes, with faculty. The mechanism was a pen, paper, an envelope, and the faculty member’s “mailbox” in the English Department offices. Do students still use pens?

Today, apparently, a typical class requires the distribution of a syllabus booklet, often in PDF form, but often as well printed out for the student’s convenience, and sometimes easily exceeding 20 pages. It consists of the usual rundown of the curriculum for that course, with a class by class agenda as to what will be covered each meeting for the term. The rest is administrative detail covering every conceivable protocol with regard to academic behavior, within and without the classroom, what, in precise terms and with as little ambiguity as possible, constitutes plagiarism, what defines an excusable absence from class, the penalties for late arrivals, late assignments, etc., and so forth and so on. Having taught as recently as three and a half years ago, I know it takes quite a bit to fill 20 pages with the sort of minutiae that any intelligent 18-year-old, with a reasonably civilized upbringing, and the ability to read the university (or college) catalog, where the general underpinnings for proper academic and social behavior on campus still are already spelled out, and vetted by the institution’s office of the general counsel, as well as several bodies of academic administration.

If I had the time, and any deeper curiosity, I’d delve deeper into what possibly could have happened in a little over 40 years—I mean sociologically, psychologically, and anthropologically—to determine such a sea change, and I don’t mean merely the length of the in-class syllabus. In the meantime, read these two blog posts, and ponder it for yourself.

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