University Students Behaving Badly

Author(s) Deborah Lee
Publisher Trentham Books Ltd
Published 2006
Pages 154
Price £17.21
ISBN 1858563690
Reviewed by Ms Sarah Cornelius
University of Aberdeen
Review published 20 February 2007

This is a timely and interesting book which deserves a wide readership. It is not a book about the types of bad behaviour which disrupt the daily business of most academics. And as such it is not comparable with more practical books on behaviour issues in different sectors of education such as those by Wallace (2002) or Rogers (2006) which focus on practice in the classroom or lecture hall. Instead this is a book written by a sociologist which presents revealing and sometimes disturbing case studies of completely unacceptable behaviour, including bullying, physical violence, stalking and inappropriate sexual remarks. The response of management in each case is described and discussed, and in several examples, a woeful lack of support is evident. The analysis draws throughout on a feminist-sociological perspective and addresses issues of gender and identity to help explore each case study.

The bulk of the book is devoted to case studies. These are contextualised by an opening chapter which reviews more generally the issue of sexual harassment, bullying and violence at work. Comparisons with the NHS are drawn throughout the book, and it is interesting to make the connection between unacceptable treatment of hospital staff by patients, something which frequently receives media coverage, and the more hidden issue of unacceptable behaviour by students towards academic staff in Universities.

The readable case studies are organised into chapters which present experiences of different types of staff. These include newly qualified and early career female academics, ‘feminist-identified’ female academics, more experienced female academics and male academics. The case studies are all based on interviews conducted by the author.

One case study which particularly caught my attention was that of Brian. Brian encountered resistance from postgraduate students to his attempts to introduce student-centred group work. The response from a manager to the situation - ‘the safest thing to do in a university is to give a lecture’ (p95) - led Brian to rethink his teaching and learning strategy and it was not until over a year later that he felt able to return to some of his more student-centred strategies. It is not just in this case study that the response from management seems inappropriate and unsupportive. In a more disturbing example Emily was threatened and physically shaken and shoved by a student. One of her co-workers laughed and commented ‘”he is a bit of a jerk” and that was it’ (p37). Clear it is not just management who need to be more aware of these issues, but all of us working in Universities.

The book ends with a call for action. The point is rightly made that ‘under-developed teaching is not necessarily the reason for unacceptable student conduct and even if the teacher is inexperienced, the answer to the problem of unacceptable student conduct is not simply […] staff development’ (p26). Lee calls instead for awareness raising through campaigns, policy development and CPD at all levels – senior staff, managers, academics and students – to encourage the development of an understanding of what behaviour is acceptable from students. She mentions some of the environmental and social factors that affect student behaviour (e.g. large classes, living conditions, mental health issues), and the point is made that whilst these issues do not excuse bad student behaviour, an understanding of them will ‘help academics realise that they are not always to blame for difficulties with students’(p118). A better understanding of our students and their behaviour would provide a helpful context for the development of strategies and policies to address the issue of unacceptable conduct.

The book is well written and presented. The style is accessible and the content throughout is thought-provoking. One minor irritation is that quotations from case study participants are presented in the same format as (some quite lengthy) quotations from other sources – perhaps a different style would help the reader distinguish quickly between first hand evidence and secondary published material.

This book would be particularly useful for those involved in professional development of lecturing staff and management as a source of case study materials. It provides resources which are an excellent starting point for discussion and as such Deborah Lee’s objective to widen the debate on the issue is clearly met. However, I would be hesitant about recommending the book as required reading for new academics on the grounds that some of the cases involving violence and bullying might be off-putting, and the result might be, as in some of the case studies, that academics are tempted to leave the profession.

Wallace S (2002) Managing Behaviour and Motivating Students in Further Education. Learning Matters.

Rogers B (2006) Cracking the Hard Class. 2nd Edition. Paul Chapman Publishing