A Few Thoughts on Discipline and Punishment in the Classroom

With the end of the Spring semester just a few weeks ago I have finished three years of teaching at my current institution. During our third year here we have to finish a third-year pre-tenure review, which I found to be as unenjoyable an experience as you might imagine by that name. While I found some of the process confusing and ultimately unmoored, that doesn’t appear to be an indictment of my institution in particular and seems to be the norm generally for these sorts of bureaucratic exercises. Really though I suspect the impetus behind these reviews comes from a good place and I was encouraged by some of my colleagues to approach it as a moment of self-reflection. Some of that should be a way to acknowledge for yourself the good things you’ve done over the course of the three years, but it also offers a place to consider weaknesses to work on in the coming years. I’m sure that all of this is not unproblematic and there are nefarious neoliberal tropes underlying all of it, but I am also very committed to becoming a better teacher and found this a good way to make use of the required bureaucratic exercise. One thing became clear to me as I read over my students evaluations and those of my more established peers: I am not a very good disciplinarian in the classroom and more importantly I do not know how to work on that within the pedagogical framework I have tried to construct.

First, I hate nothing more than begging. Those who have in the past contributed to online fundraising efforts may find that surprising, but by begging I don’t mean virtual panhandling. Asking for money from people willing and able to give is simply asking. They don’t have to and I do not hold it against them if they feel their money is better spent on other things. Begging in the sense I mean it can only take place within a situation that is effectively governed by a contract where one of the parties only carries out their obligations because they are required to. I mostly teach courses that students take to complete their general education requirements and while they have signed up to a liberal arts education most students resent what is required of them to attain a liberal arts education. When I first began to teach in the US I did find myself wanting the students to like the classes and it felt like I was begging them to. I got over that pretty quickly as it just feels pathetic and embarrassing. But I didn’t give up because I trusted in the contract, I gave up because I saw the (not very good) Hannah Arendt biopic and realized how many of the students I come across could easily become camp guards (or may become part of the prison-industrial complex) after graduation. I began to read a lot in critical pedagogy (mostly works by Friere, bell hooks, and George Yancy). And that work has been really useful and I’ve come to be very happy with the direction of my teaching. But when it comes to dealing with issues of discipline and punishment in the classroom I’m a bit lost. In fact, when I take punitive measures against my students for using their cell phones in class or not attending or even doing something really stupid and unambiguous like plagiarizing I feel like I am back in that position of begging them. It feels like I’m begging them to care about the work, to care about the class, to care about becoming a more interesting person, to care about what’s being said in class even when it’s the boring but necessary parts.

The thing is, when students aren’t interested in taking responsibility for their education then it isn’t clear to me what the response should be from the perspective of critical pedagogy. What kind of ways can we think about accountability without lapsing into punitive thinking? Is the classroom an appropriate space to think through these sorts of prefigurative ideas? Or is the classroom too overcoded by the same carceral logic as the wider society? These kinds of questions are even more pressing for me because of how many first-generation college students I have in my classrooms and many more who are products of a society that has not prepared them for the kind of work that I ask them to do.

15 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Discipline and Punishment in the Classroom

  1. You mention Freire. Have you read his book coauthored with Ira Shor, _A Pedagogy for Liberation_? Shor’s students are also first-generation and the problems he encounters in teaching are similar to yours. Freire’s contribution on the subject is more theoretical; he argues that the teacher possesses rightful authority in the classroom, deriving from their subject knowledge, and this gives them both the right and responsibility to hold students to rigorous standards.

  2. No. I have had a few student evals say that I needed to “enforce” or find ways to “make people” do the reading. These are not neutral verbs. And my evals from my colleagues did specifically mention classroom management in terms of cell phone use and finding a way to make all students involved. I suppose I’m importing the term disciplinarian. Is that a problem, you think?

  3. I haven’t read that text, though I’ll add it to the list. If I wasn’t clear, though I’m not really sure I’m into the language of rightful authority, it’s not a matter of trying to get out of my role as a teacher. I never doubt my power to hold the students to certain standards. But I’m not sure how to address in a useful or consistent way when they fail to meet those standards. I have wondered if a kind of “restorative justice” framework is better than a purely punitive model.

  4. I don’t know. I mean, I guess I just associate the term “disciplinarian” (and discipline, to some extent) with a pedagogical era in which children got the back of their hands slapped with rulers. And only the wealthy were able to get a university education. I can totally understand your distaste for terms like “enforce.” And “classroom management.” And I get why you can see the specter of discipline behind them. But it does seem to me like some of the issues you’re raising (concerns about students checking out of the classroom space, concerns about students who appear to be taking zero responsibility for their education) would benefit from being decoupled from discipline as such. I think this is a great question: “What kind of ways can we think about accountability without lapsing into punitive thinking?” I feel like asking for respect in the classroom might be part of this. Finding ways of showing students that we respect them, and their ideas, and their time, and asking them to respect us, and our ideas, and our time. This is basic. I think the creative inspiration, the love of knowledge stuff (the stuff we *really* want to be doing) is other level. But I don’t think that either of these need to be discipline driven.

  5. The finding ways to ask for respect is what I mean, though. I’m talking discipline in terms of moving beyond that. Maybe I’m missing something, cause this has not felt like an easy problem in my classrooms.

  6. I tend to try to look at this from the prism of fairness. If students who don’t cheat hear that other students cheat and get away with it, they are justifiably upset. When I punish plagiarizers, I no longer have the emotions of anger and affront I used to, and just see myself as acting in the interests of all of my students (the plagiarizers included.) The same goes for reading; the students who come and read should not be obligated to do the work for the other students who didn’t do it outside of class. It is not fair to them. I started doing short written reading quizzes, about three a semester, in my last couple years teaching college students. It resulted in more students doing the reading, and a way for students who read who don’t talk much to share their ideas. (I stopped assigning short writing assignments on book readings because they are an invitation to massive levels of plagiarism.) As far as attendance goes, it’s better for the classroom environment when the people who don’t want to be there aren’t there.

  7. I guess I just don’t think of addressing things like cell phone use in the classroom, or dealing with plagiarism, as disciplinary measures in the first place. I get that they can be “handled” this way. But the cell phone thing can also be addressed with humor. And I guess I see addressing plagiarism less as a punitive plea for students to care, and more as one of the few things I can do to curate a classroom space where hard work and original thought is actually meaningful, and appreciated. Some of our students *do* care about that and, unfortunately, there won’t be tons of spaces where their ideas will be taken seriously on a very deep level, after they leave college. Discovering plagiarism is a great way to hit rock bottom as a teacher. It’s super depressing. But I also don’t see the prohibition against it as an empty law that the university arbitrarily doles out. So when I address it, I don’t see myself as a mere functionary of that law, exercising its authority. I guess I see myself as trying to make sure that the students who stayed up all night to write the paper, and do the research, didn’t do so in vain. I feel like, if I don’t address the theft of intellectual labor in the classroom, I’m doing an injustice to those students who are learning to be thinkers themselves. I want them to know that their labor matters. Maybe no one really cares, and nothing matters, and I am just a Don Quixote. But at least he got to spend time outside, looking at windmills, and hang out with Sancho Panza.

  8. When it comes to reading, I let the students decide what we discuss. They have to ask questions about the assigned text or offer critiques. I bring my reading notes, but I don’t have a predesigned lecture. I find that we eventually get around to most of the major points in the course of the semester. The ideas don’t come out as programmatically and we probably sacrifice breadth to some extent, but I’m willing to give that up if means that ideas can emerge more organically out of their interaction with a series of texts. If they haven’t done the reading, though, they really struggle during the discussions.

    I think the classroom management thing re-inscribes the idea that you are their teacher in a sense that is continuous with their experiences in high school. As hokey as it sounds, I try to think of the class as a community. In order to let that community function, I have to cede as much of my authority as possible. It’s up to the students to decide what that community will look like. I ask the students what they expect from me and what I can do to help them learn. I tell them what I think makes for a healthy community and see what they think. I encourage them to suggest readings and topics (usually supplementing the existing module, but sometimes introducing entirely new elements). Not everyone will be willing to engage, but that’s true of any community. It reframes disciplinary issues as matters of respect for and solidarity with one another. Someone texting in class shows a lack of concern for the other members of that community. The problem with plagiarism isn’t just that someone cheated. If a student is plagiarising that shows a lack of commitment to the group. He or she hasn’t been doing the work necessary to contribute to the community. This doesn’t solve the problems you mention, but I think it’s a potentially healthier way of thinking about the issue. Rather than ‘how can I manage a classroom in a way that doesn’t enact problematic modes of authority?’ you get ‘what’s my role in creating a space in which students take ownership of the classroom?’

  9. Beatrice,

    I don’t know that I’ve explained myself well and so feel like what you’re saying is mostly something I affirm, but doesn’t take account of the problem I’m trying to get at. When I say “disciplinary” I’m just thinking in the general sense Foucault uses the term for in Discipline and Punish. So asking them to respect the space is a disciplinary action in the sense that they are being formed to be good citizens of the classroom. I take that to be an ambiguous formation and am not meaning to assume that it is all bad. My issue comes more from the question of punishment. I’m not suggesting that plagiarism shouldn’t be addressed or that it is not a real issue. I’m not saying that I would like to find a way to not hold them accountable when they run afoul of such standards. I’m asking if failing them or the other punitive forms makes sense within the wider pedagogy that I find valuable (and that Thomas touches on with more clarity in his comment). So, to make an analogy, it isn’t that holding someone to account for murder is just an empty function of the law, but that doesn’t answer the question of how best to think of justice in that situation. Does that make more sense or do you think I’m still totally lost at sea?

  10. Sure, that makes sense. I feel like my resistance is to the use of discipline and punish as constructive terms for pedagogy. It may very well be the case that asking someone to respect me is a disciplinary action in the Foucauldian sense. But I think there are other ways of naming that action. And some of those other ways of naming the action reveal aspects of the action that a Foucauldian analysis might not.

  11. LIke thomaslynch suggests, there are a couple of ways to think about this. One is to become part of the institutional bureaucratic processs and seek to have everything measured and measurable and disciplined and disciplinable.If you do this then you may win university endorsed teaching awards, the managers will like you and students will write and think in a rote-learning pattern. This is in many ways the path of least resistance and will make you a professional academic. The other is to think of a class and a course as an intellectual community. Plagiarism occurs for a variety of reasons and the central one is when we assign work that can be plagiarised easily. In my classes i get them to set their own essay questions in conversation with me. This ensures that within the parameters of the course they are writing on something that interests them and they therefore take responsibility for what they write. This is not a magic bullet regarding plagiarism but it reduces it significantly. Plagiarism tends to occur when students are disengaged and only want to get the pass credit for the course. So student engagement is the key and engagement is not ‘teaching tricks’ or ‘flipped classrooms’ or break-out sessions or multi-media lectures or the like. It comes from having someone talk WITH them, using a whiteboard to riff ideas on so they can see how your thinking and questioning ocucurs, in a discussion WITH them. When they get excited about thinking and thinking in different ways, in transgressive thinking, in being able to continue to ask questions then you see a culture shift. Most students are bored by tertiary education and I don’t blame them. Our role is to get them engaged and interested in ideas. In teaching in such a way, because it is so different from the directional focus and discipline of most of their other courses, they rise to the opportunity and become very engaged. Just make sure you never ever take a tertiary teaching course or workshop- they boil the life and excitement out of teaching. Secondly, in response to readings for the course I get them to write what I used to call a critical response but now just call a blog spot. In this they demonstrate what the reading has made them think of in a critical manner. They have to fashion an argument arising from the reading, not telling me what is in the reading but where reading it has taken them.

  12. I’m a lecturer, but I’m also a (doctoral) student, so I’m struggling with these things from both sides at the moment. After my Masters degree, I spent quite a few years doing my own work before I started a doctorate. Although there were difficulties and some painful moments, I look back on this time as deeply enjoyable from an intellectual point of view. This was in part because I allowed myself to follow my interests, and I didn’t force myself to do anything I didn’t want to do. It was, as much as I could make it, a desire-oriented research programme. It was creative and rich, and I made connections that I would not otherwise have made.

    One of the difficulties at the moment, however, is to try to find a way to keep that desire a part of my process, even when I have university bureaucrats breathing down my neck, requiring that I put what I take to be arbitrary limits on the process. Whilst I understand that some struggling with less than enthralling material is probably a feature of many sustained projects, and probably necessary in order to bring certain kinds of project to fruition, my intuition is that what is presented as necessary is usually far from it, and that, at the least, desire is as important as any so-called academic necessity, if not more so.

    So, the next question for me would be, if I am serious about my work, and I want desire to be an important part of my process, why would I expect less for my students? How to allow that kind of desire-led work to be a part of their process? From this perspective, if a teacher is not contractually obliged to discipline students, or to force them to read things they don’t want to read, what would be the value of doing so? (I fully understand that such obligations often exist). On the other hand, nothing stops a teacher from showing their own passion for the material, which can be motivating for students.

    I hope I don’t come across as having reached a solution to this, however, as it is certainly a current difficulty for me.

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