U.S. classroom etiquette surprises Indian student
Published: Sunday, November 25, 2012
Updated: Sunday, November 25, 2012 20:11
It was in my third graduate-level class in the United States when I was listening to the professor intently in a generally silent classroom. About twenty minutes into the class, I noticed the girl sitting in the first row — right in front of the professor — make noises. She casually opened her bag and brought out a bag of chips. I was shocked.
Then she opened it, and I panicked. She started munching on them. The crunching sound of each bite resonated inside the classroom where the only other audible voice in the room was the professor lecturing. Such a scene was unimaginable for me until then, since I came from a country like India. This would have been an act of irreverence that would warrant severe punishment from a professor back home.
Since then, I had seen many such instances in my classes. I had been to several lectures where students would freely sit with their legs propped up on a chair. In one case, a student walked in with an entire Chick-fil-A meal. He ate his lunch in class, remaining attentive and asking questions, and later wrapped up the leftovers and walked out to trash them. If this episode took place right on my third day of class in place of the chips episode, I would have had a heart attack.
This, in fact, is one of the starkest contrasts that I experienced between the student culture in American and the student culture in a third world country. Certain liberties and informalities in an American classroom setting would be completely unacceptable in other parts of the world. In a country like India for example, where we inherited most of our education system from the British, a classroom setting is almost always extremely formal.
All my life, I have called my professors and teachers as “sir” and “madam.” Indeed, we sat very still in classrooms, almost like statues, because, for us, this was a display of respect and obedience. One of my favorite and widely respected professors in Bombay is almost notorious for not allowing students to even drink water while class was in session.
I still vividly remember the stark silence that would fall through the classroom of about 120 students when our circuit analysis professor would walk in. As a former naval officer, he in fact still commanded the same respect and authority in front of his students. To think of even interrupting him in the middle of his class was a crime and a sin. Yet, he would always be respected by anyone who took his class as a very effective teacher and role model.
In my view, the education system in the U.S. follows the principle of treating students as equals with the professors, thus instigating them to rise up to such a level. But this could also mean students may miss out on some important lessons in life of reverence and manners. On the other hand, more authoritarian student cultures enforce discipline and order, instilling a sense of submissiveness and fear of authority.
Yes, in a classroom, the ability of the teacher to connect with students and transcribe knowledge effectively is of the utmost importance, and it transcends the need for students to adhere to any protocol. Whether the students sit ‘at alert’ or with their legs propped up, if the class itself is interesting, the buck stops there. But indeed, for international students who arrive here from across the world, such changes can be amusing and puzzling.
Sunil is a graduate student in the Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.