Student refuses to stop surfing the web during class. Professor shuts her laptop. Result: professor sued, arrested, suspended.

A Valdosta State University student refused, after repeated requests, to stop surfing the web during class.  The professor shut her laptop.  As a reward for noticing when a student wasn’t learning, and caring that she wasn’t, the professor has been sued, arrested for battery, and—the least forgivable, since completely under the administration’s control—suspended from teaching.

Commentary fails. The only silver lining is that other students have apparently supported the professor.

I have an opinion about this. If you do too, I think a certain university president ought to hear it.

(via my brilliant ex-roommate Larry Saul at Lawrence of Academia)

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

26 thoughts on “Unbelievable.”

  1. The only unbelievable thing is that in 2011, there are still university instructors who believe they have the right to treat their students like children. Entitlement much?

    Postsecondary education is not high school. College/university students are adults and have all the legal rights that implies. University instructors do not own their students the way K-12 teachers own their children.

    A university instructor has no more right to touch a student or their property than a supervisor has the right to do the same to an employee or one person has the right to do to another on the street.

    If a student is wasting their time in class without disrupting the learning environment for others, then that is the student’s loss and the student’s problem. Physical intervention is no more appropriate in the classroom than it is appropriate in the workplace or in a public space.

  2. Curmudgeon, I’m sorry, but you are wrong. If a student is in class and is manifestly not paying attention, they are actively harming the classroom environment and are interfering with their classmates’ ability to learn. I don’t know the facts of this case regarding whether any harm was inflicted to the student’s person or property, and from what I can read at the link I would have recommended that the instructor order the student out of the class rather than take the legal risk inherent in interfering physically with the student’s person or property. But the student has no right to be permitted to continue to be a disruptive influence in the class; arguably, the professor has an obligation to prevent such behavior if at all possible.

  3. I have to say that there’s a possibility that Rybicki should have been arrested and suspended: it’s all in how hard he closed the laptop and how quickly. If it was slow and soft and the student refused to move her fingers, then this does strike me as ridiculous. If he slammed it quickly and hard, it strikes me that it’s not unreasonable that he would be sanctioned and arrested. I checked the article, and it doesn’t make it clear which of the two was the case.

  4. The professor its providing a service, and compensated. the teacher doesn’t own the situation. Its unfortunate that as learning has extended beyond childhood, our models of classrooms still remain in teacher as owner. And, physical escalation uss rarely three right way to resolve conflicts.

  5. Though I have absolute sympathy with this professor because of the frustration students like this cause, I do in part agree with Curmudgeon. University students are adults–we professors do not have the right to touch them, especially in anger or frustration. In the same way that we wouldn’t slam the laptop closed of a stranger who was watching a loud Youtube video at a coffee shop. We’d ask them politely to stop, then possibly talk to the store managers about distractions.

    The resource we have as university instructors are both grades (I build into my syllabi requirements for participation) and the ability to kick a student out of class. If I have a student who is not paying attention, I tell them to leave the class and that I’ll see them in the next class session. Typically, they know the consequences for this kind of action. It’s not good, if they care at all about a passing grade.

    I do routinely teach alongside instructors who treat their students more like children—bossing them around, treating failures to turn assignments in as personal affronts. I think these approaches are misguided. My students are not my children. They’re adults who have come to me seeking knowledge and training. I give it to them, or help them find it, so long as they are willing.

  6. If the student had started whistling during the class, would it have been advisable for the professor to attempt to physically stop her? I’m not sure closing someone’s laptop should be battery, but this approach to maintaining the classroom environment seems very unwise.

  7. As a university professor, who was once a college student who had his own decisions to make, I completely side with Curmudgeon. Give the student the choice to close the laptop or leave.

    “The comments from those saying that they were in class suggested doubt about the extent of the injuries to the student’s fingers and surprise that the incident had led to an arrest.

    Asked if he had ever caused physical harm to any student, he said “absolutely not, never.”

  8. In future, professors will know to simply call the campus police to escort potentially disruptive students from the classroom, the same way that rank-and-file employees of retail establishments are trained to leave robbers and shoplifters alone and call security guards or police instead.

  9. paul is right. Professors need to know that there are a lot of students who want to get ahead through nagging, provocation, or accusation, and the only way to deal with them is to be more adept at manipulating the system than they are. It sucks, but this is our America.

  10. One other point: anybody here believe the professor would have chosen this particular approach had the student been a male football player?

    His annoyance is understandable. His chosen approach was wrong.

  11. I agree that most of the commenters: the prof tried to do the right thing the wrong way.

    When teaching law school, I was reasonably laissez-faire. I tried to discourage them from using laptops, warning them of the dangers of mindless stenography, and the importance of active listening skills. But if they wanted to use laptops (or worse yet, tape recorders!!!), I let ’em, although I tried to encourage the surfers and game-players to sit in the back row. I didn’t have to do this very often; they were usually already there. Fortunately, I never had an intentional disruptor.

    However, I wonder about college students. Law students are definitely grown-ups, albeit a bit wet behind the ears, and occasionally lapsing into frank adolescence. By all means, let them hang themselves, if it amuses them. But undergrads? They’re often not grownups, although it is often useful to treat them as if they are.

  12. All the commenters who say that the professor should have ordered the student out of class are ignoring the strong possibility that she would have refused to leave. (See the comments on the article that I linked to.) Yes, one could call campus security in such a case. But are you completely sure that campus security–not to mention the administration–would then back the professor? After all, the same “they’re adults-and-they’re-paying” logic would apply to the student’s presence in class as applies to touching the student’s things. Seems to me that many people would consider calling security much *more* of an overreaction than closing the laptop–and that most professors would rather be sued for simple battery than for kidnapping.

    Finally, would those who support the “they’re adults and hands off” logic adopt the logical consequence–i.e. that professors have no right to ban laptops from class altogether, provided the students are willing to keep them on mute? What about banning heckling (which is called free speech when not inside a classroom)? Is there *anything* surrounding the learning environment that should be within the professor’s power to regulate?

  13. Mr. Sabl, there is a difference between physically handling a student’s property and banning the use of laptops in class.

    But you have pointed to the most effective solution to websurfing in class: gravely advise the students that, because Student X insists on browsing the internet, *no one* will be allowed to use laptops in class.

    Peer pressure is the best way to manage classroom discipline. Don’t be the one leaning on the student; get her peers to do it for you. They are very effective.

  14. I’ve been in many classes and meetings over the course of my life. I can’t imagine being distracted by a student or colleague “not paying attention.” I can’t imagine how I would tell, in general. I suspect that professors who worry about such behavior are far more distracted by it than any of their students.

  15. Bob, it’s a manner of behavior, and of the style of the classroom or meeting. If it’s a big lecture hall, with 150 in the seats, then someone quietly reading a book in the back row isn’t a problem; to be disruptive they’d have to be chuckling loudly or bouncing around or something. If it’s only a dozen or two, then someone who’s obviously off in their own world can be noticeable and distracting. And if there’s a classroom participation component, if the instructor is asking the audience for responses, someone who’s disconnected can bring the whole proceedings to a halt.

  16. The consensus already seems to be that the professor was out of line in forcibly closing the laptop, so this clarification is probably unnecessary/superfluous, but my point was not that the male football player would have hit the Professor. Rather, it’s that at least one reason the Professor felt “empowered” to do what he did is because he knew he could physically impose his will on her. Which makes it a fairly obnoxious, and unprofessional, thing to do. Bullies aren’t only classmates.

    Not the best example to set for his class, really. But there is a learning experience to be had here, and not just for your friend and his class.

  17. Andrew, I routinely have students take notes on laptops in my classes. I’ve even occasionally caught one reading his or her email. But though I find it rude, it’s not my responsibility whether they choose to learn what I’m teaching them. This is why grading exists. Students who slack off generally receive poor grades.

    If a student is disruptive, that is another case altogether. My methodology would be to politely ask the student not to be disruptive. If this didn’t work, I’d ask them to conduct their disruptive behavior elsewhere, outside of the classroom. If this still didn’t work, I’d probably momentarily stop class to go and call campus security and have the student removed from the classroom. If the campus police somehow didn’t believe me, or refused to remove the student, I’d drop them from the class that very day. If they continued to come to class despite being dropped, I would then have grounds with the campus police to remove them.

    But I will say that I’m generally respectful of my students and treat them like adults. So I’ve had very few of these sorts of problems.

  18. I have to admit, it does distract me when I see people browsing on their laptops. One time I watched a girl spend an entire lecture ordering make-up online. It was fascinating (my professor… not so much).

  19. The professor’s actions were inappropriate. The student’s use of a laptop is not sufficient distraction unless she runs a projection of “The Shining” off it onto a sidewall. Andrew, heckling inside a classroom and using a computer on mute inside a classroom are disparate. Reasonable people are able to distinguish between the two and recognize that some activities are more distracting than others. Noise is an obvious no-no, and so is any activity that is excessive in nature (waving arms in the air wildly,etc).

    How about sleeping or silently tapping the tip of one’s nose?

  20. It’s very simple. You order the student to stop, and if she does not stop, you order her to leave. If she refuses to leave, you summon the police. Under no circumstances do you touch her or her belongings.

  21. I’m having a hard time understanding why Sabl and others are under the assumption that surfing the web rises to the level of classroom disruption. The story does not mention that she was typing hard, that her computer’s speakers were on, or even something so over-the-top like porn, that it could be considered disruptive to other students, even if they were trying to focus on the lecture.

    So to answer Sabl’s question: what more would you like to regulate when the professor’s class, his office hours, his assignments, texts, and lectures are all controlled by said professor? For a student (esp. commuters), a professor already determines a large chunk of time and money around a professor’s all-too-important class.

    WiFi is here to stay, and if students using that offends your pedantic sensibilities, maybe teaching isn’t your thing?

  22. A question to the ultra-liberals here defending the student: what do you think the nature of the contract is between students and institutions of higher education? Are they simply customers in an informational coffee shop? I don’t think so. The university is required to offer competent teaching; the students are required to make a good-faith effort at learning, which calls for more than just showing up. At least showing the disposition to be stimulated and informed – the obligation cannot extend to the rapt adoration of groupies.

  23. One thing none of you have mentioned is that a seat in a public university classroom is not purchased solely by the student; thus, the free-market model does not apply.

    That seat is a common good, and it is a scarce common good, with thousands of people yearning to purchase it but turned away. Furthermore, having an attentive person in that seat increases the value of their seats for the rest of the students — somebody who participates in class, or joins intelligently in conversations outside of class, enhances the education of all around her (even those who could not get into that class but can learn at least tidbits from somebody bursting with relevant information). Somebody who fills a seat without studying imposes unnecessary costs on her classmates and her community.

    And remember that the nation as a whole contributes funds toward that classroom because of the perceived value of having members of society who know the things being taught in that class. A student who takes up space in that room without learning what’s being taught steals from every taxpayer.

    As a caveat, I wouldn’t be so harsh without the phrase “after repeated requests.” A student who is usually attentive can make a fine contribution despite an occasional attention-wander.

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