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Next entry: Neil Turok on teaching the best maths students in Africa
Previous entry: The department for children, schools and families takes complete care of the children
Thursday April 03 2008

Indeed:

Some professors threaten to confiscate students’ cell phones if they go off during class. Laurence Thomas has his own approach to classroom distractions. If the philosopher at Syracuse University catches a student sending text messages or reading a newspaper in class, he’ll end the class on the spot and walk out. It doesn’t matter if there is but one texter in a large lecture of hundreds of students. If you text, he will leave.

Last week someone did, and he did.  As you can imagine, there’s been quite a row going on about this.  Professor Thomas has explained himself at length, but many are annoyed.

For me, this is a matter of contract, or if it isn’t, it should be.  What was the deal?  Did Professor Thomas make it clear beforehand that this was his attitude, not just by saying it to his class, but when negotiating his job in the first place?  Did students who enrolled to be taught by him understand that if one of their number, over whom they surely had no control, texted in Professor Thomas’s class, then Professor Thomas would leave, and were they willing to take this chance?

A situation in which texters were threatened with expulsion, and if that didn’t stop them were duly expelled, but in which the class then continued, would make more sense.  Is that, for some reason impossible in this case, or at least annoyingly difficult?  If it is, then my sympathies, on balance, are with Professor Thomas.  Students are supposed to be adults, not unruly children.  If he can’t control who he lectures to and how they behave, he can at least control how he behaves.  He can stop lecturing.  If that’s the deal, then Professor Thomas leaving is a valuable lesson: deals can have unwelcome consequences.  And, deal or no deal, if you piss people off, they may not want to have anything further to do with you for a while, or maybe ever.

I daresay this guy would say that a decent professor ought to be able to hold the attention of his class without resorting to threats to leave, and from time to time actually leaving.  If Syracuse university agrees, and reckons that Professor Thomas’s lectures aren’t good enough to be worth all this rowing, they can sack him.  Unless the contract they have with Professor Thomas says otherwise.