Leaving the room

I have long had a bit of a pet peeve that I think I’m finally coming to terms with: students getting up and leaving in the middle of the class meeting, whether to just leave for good for the day, or to leave for a little while and then come back (presumably to go to the washroom or make a call or something).

This happens quite often, every year, every class, and it’s happening more and more. For a long time I wondered if it was happening more in my classes than in those of my colleagues, which might explain why no one else complained about it. My partner teaches statistics in the Psychology department, and it rarely happens to him; but that’s easily explained by the fact that his students are often terrified of the class and don’t want to miss anything he says in case it could help them on the assignments and exams.

I started putting expectations on my syllabi a number of years back, saying (among other things) that if students come to class, they should commit to staying for the whole class period. I do tell them that if they really need to go to the bathroom, they should of course do so because I don’t mean by this rule to cause major physical discomfort. It’s just to say that what goes on on the classroom is a cooperative endeavour, and when people are getting up and coming back in numerous times, it breaks the flow of the discussion and the sense that we’re all working together.

Now, let me say that I don’t think I’m asking for anything unreasonable here. Often my classes are 50 minutes long. Some are 75-80 minutes, and I think it should be physically possible to stay in a room for that long. When the classes are longer than that, I always give a break partway through, usually of at least 10 minutes. Sometimes students get up and leave and then come back just about 10 minutes after the break, which is really puzzling.

Well, giving expectations on the syllabus and talking about them in class, plus reminding people of the expectation when a number of students start leaving, hasn’t worked really well. This year I tried doing a cooperative activity to make up class ground rules (which I’ll describe in a different post). I thought that would help, because we would all “own” the rules more. But it’s not making a difference so far in my 80 minute class.

I decided to start thinking about the whole situation differently. My very first reaction, many years ago, was to think that students were just bored in my class and I had to make the class more interactive and engaging. That was probably true to some extent, and I think I’ve come a long way in that regard (with still a significant degree of improvement needed!). But now I am beginning to think that the issue may be different. It may be related to the semi-informal atmosphere I like to cultivate in my classes, especially when they are seminar/discussion-type courses. I like to try to create an atmosphere of collaboration, where we are all working together to try to figure something out. That is not just something I do to facilitate engagement–it is how I genuinely feel about teaching and learning, since I’ve learned so much from students over the years. Perhaps this informal atmosphere is contributing to the sense that students feel it is okay to get up and leave and come back whenever they want, because the usual authority barriers are lowered, at least a bit. I don’t know if that is what’s happening, but it might be.

That led me to think that maybe this isn’t actually a problem, and really it’s a kind of holdover in me from an earlier-held sense that I need to remain in full control of my classroom and what goes on in it. It’s as if I don’t believe that consciously, but it keeps spilling out in unconscious ways. I saw a presentation by Stephen Bloch-Schulman at the 2011 Pacific APA meeting on “undisciplining the classroom,” where he says he allows students to get up and walk around, write on the board, leave, etc….whatever is helpful for their learning, just so long as it doesn’t distract from the work going on in terms of discussion. It was kind of an eye-opener, and I’m just starting now to think he might have a point. After all, just because I can sit and participate in scholarly activities for at least 75-80 minutes doesn’t mean everyone can or should be able to do so. Maybe some people need a break so they can come back more ready to engage.

There is still a part of me, though, that feels like the atmosphere of work and collaboration is broken when someone leaves, especially in a small class (one of my classes is focused on seminar-style discussions, and has 17 students). It’s as if an important member of our team has left, and we can’t quite continue on in the same way. So perhaps it’s not all just based in an outdated sense of mine that I need to keep control.

For now, I’ve decided to try something new: give a break in a class that’s shorter than 90-120 minutes. I’ll either try to find a natural time to give people a few minutes to get up and move, leave, or whatever (one student sat back in his chair and put on headphones for awhile), or offer everyone a break when someone starts to get up and leave. I think I threw my students off last week when I offered this after someone got up and left, because I decided to do it on the spur of the moment. I had to tell them: “seriously, yes…does anyone want to go to the bathroom, take a break for a few minutes, then come back to our discussion?” One person said yes, and then they all realized I really was serious. I’m going to try this compromise for awhile, while I ponder further the idea of “undisciplining” my classroom.


  1. Hello prof. Hendricks,

    I discovered your blog because I decided to start looking at the profiles of professors whose classes I’ll be taking next semester (kinda creepy), and I’m enrolled in PHIL 449A, which I’m really looking forward to.

    I’m majoring in political science with a focus on political theory, and I think the concept of negative/positive liberty that political theorists so often discuss may have something to contribute to this very interesting topic regarding discipline and education. Perhaps one can simply categorize discipline into positive and negative discipline.

    Negative discipline would be a mere restriction of liberty and discipline of the body through some kind of coercive power. It doesn’t seem like this occurs at all in your class.

    Positive discipline, on the other hand, occurs when you can, with good reasons, justify limiting the student’s liberty not only for her own good, but for the good of the class. In that sense, setting ground rules and telling students to respect the class and not break the atmosphere could be considered a form of positive discipline. In a way, positive discipline is in itself educational, because it involves inducing knowledge to the student’s mind so that the ultimate decision that the student makes to not leave the class during discussion would be fully rational and genuinely come from the student; positive discipline produces ’empowerment’ as its end product.

    To me, Bloch-Schulman’s process of “undisciplining” that you described above is really a form of reaching positive discipline. “Just so long as it doesn’t distract from the work going on in terms of discussion” seems like a fairly rigid ground rule to me, and where there is a rule, there is discipline. I would consider undisciplining as a process of movement from negative to positive discipline on a continuum between the two.

    Anyways…not sure if any of this helps…but I actually wonder what Foucault might say about the idea of a positive discipline.

  2. Hi Darren:

    Thanks for your comment, and I look forward to meeting you next year! I like the distinction you make here. The only question I have is in relation to the last sentence in the third to last paragraph. I am not sure how one might manage to develop knowledge enough so that one decides on one’s own to stay during discussion. That would be the ideal, of course, but I’m not sure how to do it. Just hope that after awhile they start to see the value of participating actively in (or at least carefully listening to) the discussion? Maybe that would work through just continually experiencing the discussion and seeing that it’s useful. It would be good if it’s that easy!

    By the way, finding a natural time to take a break seems to be working just fine…

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