Chief Targets of Student Incivility Are Female and Young Professors

May 04, 2010

When it comes to being rude, disrespectful, or abusive to their professors, students appear most likely to take aim at women, the young, and the inexperienced, a new study has found.

The study, presented here on Sunday at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, involved an online survey of 339 faculty members, roughly evenly split by gender, at nine geographically dispersed colleges and universities of various institutional types. It was conducted by three researchers at the University of  Redlands: Rodney K. Goodyear, a professor of education, and Pauline Reynolds and Janee Both Gragg, both assistant professors of education.

Most previous research on college professors' experiences with incivility has focused on their mistreatment at the hands of other members of the faculty. The Redlands researchers' study focused solely on faculty members' experiences with incivility at the hands of students, surveying college faculty members of various ranks, from part-time instructors on up.

The study looked beyond the classroom, asking faculty members about their experiences with student incivility in the course of any class-related activities. The types of student incivility it covered included passive behavior, such as sleeping or texting in class; more actively disruptive behavior, such as coming to class late or talking on cellphones in the classroom; and behaviors that appeared directed at the instructor, such as open expressions of anger, impatience, or derision.

Only about 16 percent of the faculty members surveyed reported not having experienced student incivility at all, but that aggregate figure masked a wide gulf between men and women in terms of the likelihood of their recalling such incidents. When the researchers broke their data down by gender, they found that 24 percent of men, and just 9 percent of women, could not recall incidents of uncivil student behavior, Women were also much more likely to report that the uncivil behavior they experienced was severe, or to say that they had been upset by it.

When the researchers broke down their data in other ways, they found that the oldest and the most experienced faculty members they surveyed were the least likely to report encounters with student incivility.

Given the universal nature of some of the student behaviors examined, such as dozing off in class, it may be fair to ask whether some faculty members were just more inclined than others to have let student incivility roll off of them and not recall it or see it as worth reporting.

Other possible explanations were offered by one survey subject who said students "seemed to smell the vulnerability of the professor seeking tenure," and another who said, "There has actually been a decrease in uncivil behavior in that I grow older and more frightening."

This article was updated to correct the reference to the University of Redlands.