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Disruptive Student Behavior (T-Shirt Slogan Edition)

t-shirt image for disruptive student series For the past few months, ProfHacker has published a series of posts on the “disruptive student.” These disruptive student behaviors range from the student who talks too much (answering all questions) to the student who only talks to her/his friends (with little regard for the rest of the class), from students who display a disruptive amount of skin (our most recent post in this series), to today’s post: students who display offensive/insensitive slogans on their clothes.

For clarity, we are defining “disruptive student behavior” as behavior that impedes learning and teaching in a classroom.

In our last post, “too much skin edition,” we wrote about the dilemma most of us face in a university classroom, how seeing too much of a male or female student’s body can be problematic for a professor but also for other students. A concern about too much skin can be a regional one (tropical climate? too many clothes would seem odd [and hot]), but it also includes issues of age and gender. Overall, though, it’s a complicated issue.

Today’s issue is no less complicated. Wearing t-shirts is a common wardrobe component for most (all) college students. Many of these shirt display university letters or logos. Many come from sporting or concert events. Many display a student’s desire to be a part of a larger political or social issue. Many students see their t-shirt logos as funny or as “a joke.” Others make statements by what they wear. Some of these statements can be offensive to the faculty or students who view them.

When it comes to students’ clothing, where do we draw the line between what’s acceptable for them to wear/display and what is not? Is it our job to draw that line? Here, we offer two real-life scenarios, and then we invite you to tell us how you’d handle either one or both of the situations. In this series, we are writing about sometimes sensitive student behaviors, and ProfHacker is not a place to criticize or laugh at (or about) students in a mean, less-than constructive manner. There are other websites that publish such comments. Our goal here is not to criticize students or provide a definitive answer to the problem presented. Instead, we wish to open a dialogue and find out how others in higher education handle similar issues while respecting the students we teach.

The following two scenarios depict two real-life situations. Please understand, however, that these are just two of potentially thousands of examples. Names, locations, and teaching situations have been altered.

Scenario #1: You are teaching a general education class at your institution, a mid-sized public institution that is (almost) open access. The student body is diverse in both age, race, gender, and socio-economic status. The class is fairly large (50+ students) and you are in a tiered classroom. The content of that day’s lecture is not controversial or politically charged. Students are alternately dozing off or taking notes as you work through that day’s lesson. A student comes into the classroom late, and as the door is at the front of the room, you and all the students turn to look as she noisily walks in the door. You notice her t-shirt. As she walks up the steps to the top of the tiered classroom, other students notice her t-shirt, too. You hear gasps erupting from many students. What’s she wearing? A t-shirt with images of aborted fetuses on it. On the back? “I’m pro-life!”

Scenario #2: You are teaching a course in your major area, and during the previous class session, you informally discussed national politics. Even though you are careful to not let your own political biases affect the class, most students assume your political leanings. You are at a more selective institution than the institution in scenario #1, but you are still a public university. Your student body does have racial diversity, but most of the students come from middle- to upper-class families. As you stand at the front of the room before class begins, male and female students file in talking and laughing. You notice the t-shirt on one man about the same time another student does. What’s he wearing? A t-shirt with a likeness of President Obama kneeling. The slogan says, “Obama sucks but does he sw*ll*w?”

In these scenarios, what would you do if the t-shirts offended your sensibilities? Would you allow the students individual freedom to wear what they desire? Would you ask them to leave? Turn the shirt inside out (covering the slogan)? What if the visible slogans offended the majority of your class because of the racist or misogynistic messages displayed?

In short, what would you do if a student wore a t-shirt depicting racial, homophobic, misogynistic, or anti-semitic messages? Please leave suggestions in comments below.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Billie Hara]

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