Professor’s ‘yawn’ rant offers a lesson in viral video

Even if lecture capture technology isn't used in a classroom, a student could record an embarrassing moment on a cell phone.

Cornell University Professor Mark Talbert’s search for a student who yawned during class was first seen by about 200 students. The recorded rant had been viewed 218,000 times on YouTube as of press time—and educators say it’s a reminder that anything said in a lecture hall these days can be held against you in the court of viral video.

Talbert, a senior lecturer in Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, was recorded in a late October lecture searching the hall for a student who had yawned loudly in the middle of Talbert’s presentation.

Talbert asked the more than 200 students to identify the person who had yawned, adding that the “overly loud” yawning had become too frequent.

“My bad side is as bad as my pleasant side is pleasant,” he said. “Don’t push me that way. … If I hear one more of these overly loud yawns, get up and walk the hell out! Yawn outside! Stay out of class—whatever it is you need to do to get over it.”

Talbert, who later asked the class for an anonymous tip revealing the yawner, continued: “You should be asking yourself, ‘Why am I the one loser that has to [yawn] when 220 know better? Don’t push me to this point again.”

Talbert, who did not respond to an interview request from eCampus News, told The Cornell Review Nov. 15 that he sought out the interrupting student because the yawn seemed intentionally loud and disrupted his lecture.

“It wasn’t a yawn, it was a loud yawning sound, you know, like when somebody wants to put out the message to the auditorium that he’s bored,” he told The Review. “Everybody’s yawning, including me. It wasn’t a yawn, it was somebody making an intentional loud bored noise week after week after week. It’s like, look, you don’t have to come if it bothers you.”

Professors and lecturers said that while viral video lectures could be embarrassing for educators, knowing that a breach in decorum could be seen by hundreds of thousands might discourage professors from classroom meltdowns.

“I think a little bit more oversight could be a good thing, and I think that’s what [lecture capture technology] provides,” said Aron Goldman, an instructor at the Amherst College Center for Community Engagement in Massachusetts. “We’re going to do embarrassing things sometimes, but that just comes with the territory. … But when it comes to basic decorum, we really have to make sure we don’t say anything that we don’t want printed on the front page of the New York Times.”

Raymond Rose, an online education advocate who has worked with colleges and universities to create web-based learning programs, said the Cornell video could have gone viral even without a lecture capture system. Cell phone cameras, he said, are nearly ubiquitous among college students.

“It is a reminder that what you do in a classroom can and will be subject to capture, if not by a formal video capture, [then] by a computer or a cell phone,” Rose said. “You always have to assume that whatever you’re doing is going to be recorded somewhere. … You need to think about how you’re going to perform all the time.”

Oliver Renick, a Cornell junior majoring in materials science and engineering and executive editor of The Cornell Review, said the campus reaction to Talbert’s video “was one of shock and hilarity.”

“Given the petty reason why Talbert blew up … students thought the video was an absolute riot. It’s been a campus joke for an entire week,” Renick said, adding that he’s seen professors keep their cool even when tested by the most insolent students. “I’ve never seen a professor do anything like that, and I’ve certainly shared a classroom with rude students.”

Professors who know they’re being recorded, Renick said, should take note of political careers that have been hindered—or destroyed—by off-the-cuff remarks that became an internet sensation.

“They need to tread softly,” he said of educators whose lectures are recorded. “In a day and age where political correctness is often the demise of public figures, people in leadership roles have to take an extra degree of caution.”

Goldman said the occasional cringe-worthy lecture-hall faux pas shouldn’t discourage instructors from using lecture capture programs. Being able to broadcast ideas, theories, and video lectures across the web, Goldman said, is worth the risk of embarrassment.

“[Talbert’s] reaction was quite natural,” he said. “I’ve had that same feeling too, but I’ve never externalized that feeling quite like that. … It’s easy to get a big power trip going. He just got carried away.”

Like video lectures, eMail messages to and from professors are also subject to international scrutiny once they’ve been passed to enough in-boxes and posted on Twitter and Facebook.

Scott Galloway, clinical professor of marketing at NYU’s business school, responded to an eMail message sent Feb. 9 by a student complaining that Galloway had dismissed him when he came to class an hour late.

Galloway responded with a 424-word message reminding the student that “there is a baseline level of decorum … that we expect of grown men and women who the admissions department have deemed tomorrow’s business leaders” and urging the student to “get your [expletive] together.”

The eMail rant was posted on popular news sites and blogs. In an eMail message to eCampus News, Galloway said the eMail “speaks for itself.”

Tammy Peery, chair of the English Department at Montgomery College’s Germantown, Md. campus, said videotaping lectures — with officials lecture capture systems or by camera phone — could create carefully-edited internet hits that make educators look petty and mean spirited.

“While … part of the solution is to always be civil and professional, it is always super easy to take snippets of recordings and video out of context and make them look damaging,” said Peery, who was ranked Maryland’s top online instructor last year. “I want my faculty to be aware that it could happen to them. It’s yet another reason why many of us require that cell phones, in particular, be stowed during class.”

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