How to Deal With This Classroom Situation

I have an odd teaching etiquette question. But first, some background.

I am teaching Administrative Law at 8:00 am three days a week. It's the first time I've ever taught at 8:00 since I'm not naturally a morning kind of a guy. More nocturnal, if anything. I didn't even take 9am classes in college or law school if I could possibly avoid it. But in order to get the kids off to school we have to be up by 6:15 anyway, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.

And it turns out I like it. The 50-person class is surprisingly lively at that hour, and the class doesn't break up my day as much.

But an early morning meeting time also seems to have created an increased potential for a new classroom situation that I am not entirely sure how to deal with. Yesterday, a student actually fell asleep in my class. In the front row.

Dull as I may be (and it would have to be me — Administrative Law is a delightful and interesting subject), I'm pretty sure that this has never happened before in 13 years of teaching. Never? Well, hardly ever—there was that one time when they had a big free beer bash in the quad just before my 6:30pm class, and one of the night students whose day job was construction had about four too many, and, well, never mind. (He was very apologetic the next day.)

So, what is the etiquette when a student just slides quietly into Nod? If he had been snoring, I'd have had to do something, but he was quite a tidy slumper, so this time I did nothing..

The whole incident reminds me, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, of a story that was popular when I was a law student at Yale. Myres McDougal, the great international lawyer, was emeritus by the time I got there, but his v e r y slow southern drawl was as distinctive as ever. The story was that when, as a young man, he had taught at Columbia, they had given him a lecture room with a ground floor and a balcony. Supposedly, one of the Columbia students fell asleep in the front row of the balcony. McDougal looked as his seating chart, called on the student next to the sleeper and asked him to please waken his colleague.

The student supposedly responded, “You put him to sleep, you wake him up.”

Well, should I?

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29 Responses to How to Deal With This Classroom Situation

  1. Heidi says:

    Just post about it on your blog. I’m sure word of it will get back to the student in question.

  2. David Weigel says:

    Once in a class I had, the professor noticed the student sleeping soundly, and as it was near the end of class anyway, asked us to quietly leave the room. We did, leaving the slumbering student. The professor was the last to leave, and slammed the door. Of course, we all hung around to watch the staggering student come out the door.

    I don’t think there were any sleepers after that.

  3. Bricklayer says:

    Is any part of what a UM Law professor does aimed at instilling students with a sense of respect for the profession and their collegues? If so, the answer should have been obvious to you. Next question is if part of the job duties are to enhance the public perception of UM Law students, or at a minimum not harm it.

    Heidi assumes far too much about the notoriety of you and your blog.

  4. ruidh says:

    My first reaction would be to shoot him with a water pistol. But that seems a little harsh.

    You could talk privately to the student on the first offence and shoot on the second.

    Could you use the incident as an example of officiousness of Administrative Law Judges? “Mr. N., you are charged with sleeping in class. How do you respond? Guilty! Procede to immediate punishment.” <squirt!>

  5. Heidi says:

    I don’t need to assume much at all about the notoriety of the blog; I have a great deal of faith in the AIM-induced law-student rumor mill, the only thing on the planet that propagates faster than light. It only takes one student who reads this blog, who turns to her seatmate and says “Hey, aren’t you in Professor Froomkin’s Admin Law class? Who was asleep?”

    The next thing you know, everyone in the university will know that this guy was asleep in Admin Law. Including the person himself.

  6. Ed Bott says:

    When I was at UCLA, I worked nights to put myself through college. The worst class was always at 8:00 AM, when I had just come off a long 11:00 PM – 7:00 AM shift.

    I actually fell asleep once (and only once) in that class, which was an Econ class taught by a fiery Marxist whose name I have long forgotten but whose face is burned into my memory. He woke me up and gave me a public lecture. I would have appreciated it if he would have asked me to stay after the class and spoken to me privately.

  7. Ben Hyde says:

    He’s slipped into the back channel!

    I have a very high opinion of sleep. I’d let him sleep. If he’s nodding off in class then when awake he’s not getting much either.

    After class I might roust him, and ask if he’d rather I wake him in the future.

    But then, I did very well in school only once I began skipping most of my classes and vigorously substituting the text book for alternate materials.

  8. Chuck says:

    Let him/her sleep.

    Then near the end of class, simply write on the board,
    “Now let’s all quietly leave for our next class”

    ” Good Morning, Rick.”

    Or whatever his name is…

  9. norbizness says:

    As somebody who slept through a goodly portion of my three years of law school, I say give him a cash prize.

  10. Sean says:

    If he needs to sleep, let him. He is paying to be there and as long as no one is harmed by snoring, so be it. The only harm is to his grade and the subject. I have sat through many lectures were I was so tired that despite my eyes being open, I absorbed nothing. Sometimes a 5 minute nap can be very refreshing for the person to begin absorbing content again. For sure, making a public emabarresment of the person would be insensitive as one cannot know the private reason for their fatigue.

  11. Michael says:

    I suppose I should add that I’m mildly amused and not at all personally offended: people have complicated lives, there’s a lot of nasty bugs going around right now, etc.

    My major worry is the effect on other students. Not only would I hate to start a trend here, but I would not like them to be distracted, nor to think I didn’t notice.

    As for me, I’m pretty sure that I haven’t fallen asleep in class since about 11th grade. But don’t ask about faculty meetings.

  12. Chris says:

    I’ve had it happen a couple of times in my classes–there’s a nice way to deal with it. (We can’t assume that sleeping is from boredom; students have many obligations that might make sleep sometimes a luxury).

    If you’ve a good rapport with your students & the sleeper is distracting you or the class, just nudge the kid & say with a smile “C’mon, you’re making me look bad here!” Students appreciate the chance to save face when they goof, and usually it isn’t personal.

  13. Paul Gowder says:

    Just let him sleep. He’s responsible for his own education, it doesn’t hurt the other students — and he chose to take the ghastly morning class. Non-disruptively sleeping in class is, at worst, a victimless crime, and surely if it were a problem for him, he could go to bed earlier/ask a classmate to wake him/whatever.

    When I was in law school, I took this — dear god, I still shiver to remember — 8 am TAX class.

  14. Levi says:

    I say let him sleep, so long as he’s not disturbing anyone. As an undergrad, I worked between two and four jobs, and I found myself sleeping in lectures so frequently that I eventually gave up attending lectures, substituting careful reading instead. I’m sure I missed quite a bit that way, but there was no way I was going to be able to both pay for school and stay awake in lectures.I did manage to stay awake in small courses, and I learned a lot there.

    So I’m sympathetic to sleepers.

  15. Levi says:

    Granted, my experience was as an undergrad, not a law student. I suppose he should probably be taking law school more seriously.

  16. arthur says:

    This is a regular issue in legal practice, since sleeping jurors are not unusual. I try to be repsectful. Once I was in the middle of an oral argument when the extremely senior federal District Judge obviously had fallen asleep. It was dififcult to keep arguing to no one, but it would have embarrassed him if I had just sat down. The clerk nudged him awake before I finished.

  17. arthur says:

    This is a regular issue in legal practice, since sleeping jurors are not unusual. I try to be repsectful. Once I was in the middle of an oral argument when the extremely senior federal District Judge obviously had fallen asleep. It was dififcult to keep arguing to no one, but it would have embarrassed him if I had just sat down. The clerk nudged him awake before I finished.

  18. Kenneth Fair says:

    Given the number of “sleeping lawyer” cases we’ve had here in Texas, you could look on this as actually being good legal training!

  19. Observer says:

    I agree with the comments about “speak to him/her after class”. Remember the golden rule … how would you like to be treated in this situation?

    OTOH, I recall decades ago that a judge in a High School debate fell asleep. After the participants stood around looking at each other for a while, the next speaker got up and began his speech with “I think it is time for America to WAKE UP [hits desk loudly] to the problem of poor health care!” It worked.

  20. I also attended UCLA (poli sci, class of 85) and worked nights to put myself through school. I also fell asleep in class at least once.

    In the case I remember, the prof didn’t say anything at the time, but at the end of the class asked me to remain behind for a word. He said to me, quietly, “I noticed you dozing. I don’t appreciate that.” I told him I wouldn’t do it again, and I didn’t. End of story.

  21. fiat lux says:

    A quiet sleeper is not disrupting the class, and it’s the student’s problem if he misses vital material. If it’s not bothering you or the other class members, let him be.

    If it is bothering you, a few words to him after class should be effective.

  22. Michael says:

    If it’s not bothering you or the other class members, let him be.

    Well, I guess a large part of my uncertainty is that I don’t know if it’s bothering the other class members or not.

  23. Mithras says:

    I guess a large part of my uncertainty is that I don’t know if it’s bothering the other class members or not.

    Pick a smart, observant one and ask.

  24. Michael says:

    Regarding the very first comment, above: Heidi Bond was right.

  25. Jonathan says:

    The size of the class is also crucial. As an undergraduate I had “Maths for Natural Scientists” lectures with well over 100 people in the classroom. In those classes waking a sleeper would have been far more disruptive than the sleeper themselves – in fact towards the end of the term there would always be a few people sleeping in the lecture (which was that boring). Some of the science lectures were much smaller groups where sleeping wasn’t tolerated – a student who fell asleep in a class of 6 was reported to his Tutor. I think 50 is closer to the big class scenario than the small one.

  26. annief says:

    I’ve been practicing law for 15 years and I’d like to think that I was rather talented. I spent many of these years as a criminal litigator. Despite my rather successful and well-respected career, I didn’t start out as a star. While at Duke Law School, I slept through easily ten to twenty percent of my criminal law classes. The professor was very good and I loved the subject. Despite that, I worked 40 hours a week at a bar and tended to come home at 3am. The early morning class did me in. My professor never said a word to me, but she would sit on my desk when lecturing. Not more than 5″ from her back, I would be sound asleep with my head in my hands. I actually apologized to her at our last reunion. She started laughing and said she recalled a few years ago reading an article in the paper about one of my cases – she couldn’t believe my chosen path given my lack of enthusiasm years prior. My sleeping was never a lack of enthusiasm – just a lack of sleep. I recommend asking your student what on earth is their issue. Of course, having taken Admin, I think I would have slept through that out of sheer boredom. Cheers. AF

  27. M says:

    I used to take a class of naval apprentices for an extra class at the end of the day. Unfortunately they were also getting up extra early to practice for a rowing race. They badly needed to pass this course, so we had a rule that on any one afternoon we would wake up a sleeper twice, but the third time we let him be.

  28. I’m with the “leave it be”, or at most “ask politely after class” group. Public embarrassment is simply meanness.

  29. brandon says:

    Im a student and i fall asleep in class all the time, its not because the teacher’s lectures are boring or im just totally uninterested…its because i just simply can’t stay awake. Most college kids probably sleep only about 5 or 6 hours a night and a class in the morning is nearly impossible to stay awake in. even my afternoon classes i struggle to stay awake. as hard as i try there is just no way for me to keep my eyes open. i tap my feet, i fiddle around to try and keep moving but its useless-my body just wants to rest and there’s nothing i can do but drink 3 cups of coffee or some kind of energy drink to keep me up.

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