Reacting to the college classroom jungle

Reacting to the college classroom jungle

Danielle Zukowski

Whenever someone walks in late to a college classroom, I notice the tendency of many to glance toward the door at this sorry student. It’s only a brief second but just enough for a head turn and stare down with this individual. No matter what the class is doing, be it a discussion, lecture, or small group activity, whenever I hear the door creak after class has begun I notice someone looking to see who it is. Sometimes I catch myself doing it as well.

It always intrigues me as to why we do this. Do we want to know who the person is? Considering how many people we have at the university, I feel like it’s unlikely that we would be well-acquainted with the person walking in.

A lot of the time even weeks into class I notice a student I hadn’t really paid attention to before. I don’t think we really recognize or uniquely identify each of our classmates. It’s uncommon to know each classmate’s name but yet we look at the door. Maybe we’ll recognize them but, especially in lecture halls, they’re just another face in the crowd. Honestly I don’t even think we really consider it much. We look back at the door, but I don’t think we really look at them or think about who they are. We just glance.

So if we don’t know this person, are we just looking back to essentially shame them? This person is probably just trying to slide into their seat unnoticed, but the awkwardness of being tardy is just accentuated with those glimpses. It certainly slightly elevates the embarrassment of walking in late when everything in the room stops and the class’ eyes are on you whether intentional or not.

It might just be more of innocent fascination. Are we just easily distractible puppies? We hear a sound and we jump to drop whatever we’re doing for a moment.

From a psychological standpoint, it makes sense to pay attention to changing stimuli in our environments. When differences aren’t occurring in the surroundings, we become neutralized to the constant stimuli therefore are more focused on what the professor or our group members are saying. We pay less attention to the environment because it is unchanging. However, when a new stimulus is introduced to our surroundings, we become curious.

Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense to be motivated to pay attention when something changes. This could be our animalistic instinct kicking in to perceive whether this change is a threat to our safety. Although, we probably don’t have the danger of predators in the classroom, we still are animals and we react to our environments in ways that will promote survival. So perhaps this head-jerking impulse to look up at a late student is more reflective of our defense mechanisms. We scan the environment and look up just in case the individual does pose a threat.

For whatever reason it is that we turn our heads, it seems to be a reflex in many of us. It’s such a little thing that we do, but maybe when you’re sitting in these unchanging environments, look around at your classmates and try to take notice of some of these little things a lot of us do. People watching can often bring about a curiosity about human nature and our motivations. You might even start to get a better understanding of others and yourself.