Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

A Teachable Moment About Maturity

Or, dealing with a seriously problematic practical joke in a class

I was recently reminded that college or university life is a serious transition for first-year students. They need time to adjust and becoming more mature (with a false start or two along the way) is very much a part of that process. I think there is a tendency among some faculty to wish students behaved the way they themselves did (or believe they did) when they were freshmen those many years ago. When I think back to my own freshman self, I sometimes wonder how mature I was at 18. Oh sure, I worked hard at my studies, but I am fairly certain I did some things that would make me cringe now, like the time my resident adviser (aka an RA) caught me slathering one of my dorm mate’s door knobs with peanut butter (yes, really). I no longer recall why I was moved to do that to my friend’s door, but I have the vague sense that it was supposed to be funny. Har, har?

That notion of what’s supposed to be funny but ends up backfiring came to mind recently. Here’s what happened (think about what you would do or how you might handle what went down): I am teaching a first year writing course this semester. My students submitted their first short essay, a brief but focused 300-word piece they revised several times in the first weeks of the semester. One essay contained an expletive in its very last sentence. I knew the author slightly but not well enough to know if this was a joke (“Say, Dr. Dunn, you’re not embarrassed by that word, are you? It's just a little joke—har-har!”), a test (“Let’s see how he reacts to this!”), or possibly a typo or a spelling error (no, not likely—among expletives, this word is, well, in a class by itself--it's definitely the bomb).

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I reread the sentence to make sure the obscenity didn’t “work” well—it didn’t. It didn’t seem to belong there and, in any case, the class is effectively on expository, not creative, writing (har, har). I wrote the student a note at the end of the paper. I said that I was neither offended nor upset but that I did wonder why the word appeared in the essay. I further suggested that while I was not a prude or put off necessarily by such language, he should be aware that some faculty members would not accept work with that or related words in it under any circumstances. (I neglected to inform my student that I actually learned to curse with gusto—even skill—in my youth while learning how [not] to play golf.) I then gently suggested that such language really did not rise to college-level work and that I looked forward to an explanation.

One quickly came: An email from the student—his message indicated upset, agitation, embarrassment, and worry—indicated his roommate had slipped the word in an earlier paper draft as a joke (apparently the student’s laptop was open on his desk). The student reported deleting the word but then his roommate—that funny guy (har, har)—put it back in the last draft. The roommate assumed my student would proofread the essay one more time before submitting it for a grade. Bad assumption—har, har!

I emailed back saying I understood, that I didn’t find this situation especially funny but did not hold my student responsible, etc. I did tell him, however, that I wanted very much to see his roommate in my office posthaste. Half an hour later, my student—visibly upset and with roommate in tow—arrived at my office. The roommate offered an immediate apology, which I accepted, but I then told him that the real issue here was apologizing to his friend, that not all instructors would be so understanding nor would they necessarily look further to find out what was really going on (i.e., assign a failing grade and ask questions later). I further indicated that such practical jokes are really only funny when they don’t harm the well-being (or academic standing) of others. I did not display anger—maybe some disappointment to encourage a little guilt—and then I pointed out that sabotaging someone else’s homework was probably actionable, as was meddling with files on another person’s computer.

The roommate perked up a bit and began to look quite concerned—he hadn't thought of his joke in those terms. I then suggested that while this was not a clear case of lying, cheating, or stealing, it was vaguely in the conceptual neighborhood of such problems (had any of those three problems been implicated directly, then I would have had to pursue the issue through college channels instead of handling the matter myself). I then told both students I considered the matter closed and that I did not expect to revisit the situation with them again. Both were relieved.

Are first-year college students less mature now than in the past? Maybe, but I’m not so sure. My RA didn't read me the riot act when I was peanut-buttering that doorknob—he told me to apologize, clean up the mess, and not do it again. I learned from my experience and so, I hope that my student and his roommate learned something, as well. Har, har.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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