How to Act like a Decent Person in Class

I have a “That Guy” in one of my classes this semester.

In the riveting movie adaptation of my life, I think “That Guy” would be my sworn nemesis, always trying to hinder my success and frighten me by jumping out from behind corners while wielding an intimidating medieval weapon. I know this sounds like such a first-world problem (god forbid some kind of socially awkward individual slightly infringe on my higher-education class time or annoy me with an innocent action) but it doesn’t make sense for me to dread going to class because I’ll find myself distracted much of the time. To clarify, “That Guy” isn’t someone who is awkward in a classroom setting but rather is someone who distracts from the learning environment. I usually find myself exposed to one “That Guy” per semester and perhaps you’ve encountered one as well (I should also note that the title “That Guy” can apply to any gender – a year ago I had a female “That Guy” in two of my classes. I suppose I should have picked a more gender-neutral term since I’m not saying that only guys can be “That Guy” but I’ve been using the title for so long that I suppose there’s not much point in doing anything about it now).

Okay, I’ll admit it – I didn’t mean for my first real post on this blog to be so snobby and negative but as of three weeks ago I began my final semester of college and perhaps some of my anxiety is making me a little grouchy. I consider myself to be a reasonably patient person but for the past five years I’ve been a full-time student and along the way I’ve realized – usually due to uncomfortable circumstances – what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a classroom. My guidelines that follow are most applicable in a college classroom or lecture hall but I think a lot of professional situations warrant more of these behavior tweaks.

  1. Please refrain from crinkling wrappers or rustling bags of food or candy. This particular pet peeve of mine makes #1 on this list because it is the #1 way to drive me to set myself on fire. To be fair, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with eating in class or munching on snacks. It’s just the packaging that I can’t stand and find extremely irritating. Additionally, I think we’re all familiar with the person (or maybe we’ve been that person, as I certainly have!) who tries to delicately open a bag of chips or candy during a lecture, carefully crinkling the wrapper with agonizing slowness. It’s better to just rip it open in one fell swoop, pour some of the contents into your hand or on your desk, and get the whole process over with.
  2. Mumbling is the root of all evil. There’s nothing wrong with have a voice that’s on the quieter side or having difficulty articulating words. What is bothersome about mumbling is when an individual who definitely possesses the ability to speak loudly and clearly to the professor chooses to mumble at a barely-audible tone. The subject of the mumble is either (a.) a person extrapolating on the subject at hand in what comes off as pretentious to the people around him or her or (b.) some sort of snide or often not-funny remark. This is especially rude during classes in which the professor speaks English as a second language and cannot hear or discern English words when they’re being mumbled. During my college career I’ve been in two classes taught by non-native English speaking professors and both classes included a That Guy (one of the classes was a That Couple!) who would berate the professor in a low tone. It’s also especially uncomfortable when the mumbler is called out by the professor to speak up or to clarify and the mumbler in response tends to smirk and say: “Nevermind.” Ugh.
  3. Technology in the classroom is a wonderful thing when it isn’t being used for movies or games. Sometimes I’ve used my laptop/iPad to check my email or facebook during class and to be honest I should probably stop doing that considering how it can distract some students. In any case, playing games and watching movies are probably the most absorbing of rude classroom activities. I use the word “absorbing” not only to denote the absorption of concentration but also the absorption of the concentrations of everyone behind you. I know this can be a serious peeve for professors, and I’ve actually witnessed professors throwing students out for doing something so obnoxious on their laptops. I think phones are forgivable and mostly non-distracting (unless they aren’t set to silent) but I’ve noticed there’s a lot of variance in professors’ tolerance of the devices. I’d recommend checking with your professor/lecturer before deciding to text in class lest you end up like this guy.
  4. Racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. comments are never funny, they just make you look like a jerk and make everyone else feel super uncomfortable. I think this is the most common “That Guy” scene I’ve experienced. A person tries to crack a joke or make a sweeping generalization about a group of people and the room gets eerily quiet. I think the person most uncomfortable in this scenario is the professor, who isn’t sure whether to ignore the comment or to approach the subject with a firm reprimand. Try to broach subjects constructively and keep it within the context of what is being discussed (such as within a text or historical time period). Be careful when making comments such as “the female mind…” or “Hispanic people are/do this…” because you’re encroaching upon generalization territory and might make others uncomfortable.
  5. Avoid foul language. This is another guideline to keep in mind if you want to avoid making people uncomfortable. Although I’ve certainly had chill professors who don’t really mind profanity and even use it themselves, in most cases the most polite thing is to keep your language clean.
  6. Pay at least a little attention in class even if you prefer to multi-task during lectures. I mean, anyone can choose to not pay attention if they so desire. But it wastes class time for a professor to constantly be answering questions that were already addressed earlier. Additionally, in discussion-based classes (such as my Literature classes) a lot of the time the discussion will go in circles because people will constantly be reiterating each other. For instance, sometimes I find myself getting excited to talk and when people bring up a point I wanted to make I might find myself indignantly keeping my hand raised just for the purpose of furthering (read: repeating) someone else’s point. What I find to be helpful during class is to keep a small list (and I mean small, usually only consisting of one or two items) of topics or questions. If the professor or another classmate addresses one of the topics, I’ll cross it off and perhaps add another later.

I hope that I don’t sound too snobby by making this post. These are just things that I try to keep in mind while I’m in class and they’ve significantly decreased the level of awkwardness I feel about my own behavior. Sometimes it’s tricky especially to transition between high school and college and to go from a strict classroom environment to a more relaxed one. Early in my college career I think that I just pushed boundaries to see what I could get away with (coming in late, using profanity, and eating loudly to name a few obnoxious examples). That kind of behavior is distracting and hey, college classes are expensive and rigorous so I don’t feel as though I’m being too unreasonable here.

What are some of your classroom pet peeves?


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