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A conversation I’d missed

11 February, 2007

A conversation I’d missed

While I’ve been in dog-paddling land (water?), I’ve not been keeping up with my blogroll as well as I’d like. I had noticed these discussions at Dr. Crazy’s (and the places where she links), and wanted to get back to them. I didn’t really think I’d have a lot to say, though. Funny, how things change.

Normally speaking, I don’t have much of an authority problem in the classroom. First, I’m old enough to be the mother of pretty much all my students. That wasn’t true at the CCs where I taught, but there, they dynamic was so different, and I think many of the older students came with a different mind-set that said, “respect for teachers.” Second, I know my stuff. The students seem to know that I know it — although they regularly try to stump me. The good students know I come across as a hard-ass, but that I am happy to make allowances when there’s good reason. Life happens.

I’m also confident enough in my classroom that I am pretty easy-going. I allow the students to make smart-ass comments, unless they’re rude towards someone. I will occasionally allow students to make a call on how we approach something — if they really don’t feel like formal group work on a particular day, I’ll bag it and restructure, perhaps my letting them review for a second with just one neighbor. It hasn’t hurt me so far.

When I have had challenges to my authority, though — not to my subject knowledge, but actual challenges where a student thinks it appropriate to tell me they don’t like something about how I’m teaching — it’s always from young men, and it always stems from bruised egos and hurt feelings. I am not mean to my students. I will call them on things — this semester, I’ve had to stop class and do The Stare, and have even simply asked, “why is it that I’m talking, and yet you are talking at the same time?” Still, I generally keep a relaxed, productive classroom where students feel free to offer their opinions.

That doesn’t translate to written comments. I sometimes write things on papers like, “good point!” “Nice example!” — and in my closing comments, I always try to say something encouraging. But mostly, especially when students don’t follow very explicit directions or Just. Can’t. Write., I’m blunt. Not mean. Just blunt. The same is true on Blackboard. When students go off on tangents, or post comments that aren’t within the guidelines, I will generally validate what they’ve said (unless they’re asking something that’s in the syllabus), and then remind them that they need to follow the guidelines.

But I’m not touchy-feely. I’m not obliged to offer false praise to protect my students’ fragile egos. And you know what? I’m not going to muddy the waters of grading by saying a bunch of nice stuff and handing out a D. That can’t be good for anybody.

Why am I going on about this? Because I had a student chew my ass in class the other day. I had no idea how to handle it. We walked in, sat down, and I asked if there were any questions before we started. And this student went off on me. He felt he had been disrespected, and not only wanted to let me and the world know that I was out of line, but that he was no longer going to do a certain type of assignment because …well, frankly, I stopped listening at that point. I stopped listening because I was madly doing about 15 things, all in my head — trying to figure out all the following things: “Do I tell him to shut up and take it up with me outside class time?” “Will that make things worse?” “OMG, I am now totally fucked, and this class will never listen to me again and this is my favourite class!” “What the FUCK is he talking about??? I know for a fact that I was not rude to him! should I pull up the correspondence on the screen and let the class see that this young man is way the hell out of line?” “How can I fix this?” “Why am I just standing here? Why am I saying nothing?”

In the end, he stopped, I said I was sorry he felt that way, because I honestly couldn’t remember saying anything that should have been taken as he’d taken it, but that I would check after class, and that if he didn’t want to participate and was willing to throw out ten percent of his grade (and I did not say, “by being a big crybaby”), that was his option. We went on to talk about the reading for the day, and the student politely took place in the discussion, and even engaged with me pleasantly. The whole unpleasant episode took about 5 minutes, but I’m still entirely disturbed by it a few days later. I’m worried about the class, and I’m worried about evals. And I’m annoyed with myself, because I know that race and gender and class played parts in my not responding. All of a sudden, lots of stereotypes come into play. One’s actions will reinforce some of them at the expense of others. Which ones would you pick?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 February, 2007 4:46 pm

    You were ambushed and thus gobsmacked; whatever word describes it, nobody can respond when attacked out of the blue in that way.

  2. 11 February, 2007 4:48 pm

    I’m sorry you had to go through that–it sounds awful. I’m not sure what I would do.For what it’s worth, back when I was an undergrad, I was in a class where a student did pretty much the same thing to the professor, only she also targeted some of our classmates in her diatribe. Some of the students she alluded to weren’t, well, the most pleasant people, but as far as the professor went, I couldn’t imagine where she was coming from. Maybe to make up for that student’s rant, I went out of my way to give the professor positive feedback–and my conversations with classmates afterwards suggested that a lot of them did the same. The only person who looked bad that day was the angry student.In short–those students who disagree with the offender, and I’ll bet that they are many, will most likely not switch to his side as the result of this. More likely, they’ll empathize with you and recognize that this guy was way out of line.

  3. 11 February, 2007 6:32 pm

    Thanks! I’m still trying to figure out ways to keep it from happening again. Many of my colleagues have noted our students are a bit more contentious these days. By the way, I’ve added you both to my blogroll. Hope you don’t mind!

  4. 11 February, 2007 9:11 pm

    I’ve had that happen twice this semester, both times from angry freshmen male students. I do think it’s an authority thing. One of my friends here is a psych prof who specializes in adolescent/developmental psych, and she tells me that the 18 year old brain isn’t done growing yet, especially in males. In other words, they still have issues to work out.I’ve had this happen before in the classroom, and I finally memorized a quick response to nip such behavior in the bud: “I’m sorry you’re frustrated. But the classroom isn’t an appropriate place to air those concerns. I would be happy to talk to you before or after class or during my office hours. But right now, we’re going to move on.” The Laser Beam Stare usually accompanies that last sentence. An older-and-wiser female prof recently told me that she still gets challenges to her authority by young males. She’s learned over the years that if a student is a jerk to her, he’s usually a jerk to his fellow classmates, too, and they usually hate him. Taking her comment a step further–if you stomp on the jerk, his classmates will usually love you for it. I too agree that students are more confrontational than they used to be. On the other hand, the students I first taught a decade ago were so passionless and bland–so unwilling to commit to ideas or even to a major–that I prefer this slightly more energetic and confrontational bunch, because at least they have opinions now and then. 🙂

  5. 11 February, 2007 9:12 pm

    P.S. My last paragraph went on a tangent. And it doesn’t excuse the fact that a student was so rude to you. That sucks. But I do bet the other students hate him.

  6. 11 February, 2007 9:18 pm

    Whoa! That’s completely crazy! I’m even having sympathy anger for you. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I was in that situation – I would have been astounded that anyone would say something like that in “public” (i.e., in the classroom). I do think it’s a trend in students now. I think it’s still important to say something to the student about the environment in which they voice their objections. I think this student should know that if they feel this hurt/angry about something that they can discuss it with you, but that they need to afford you the proper respect in the classroom. It’s that simple – class, race, gender aside – you’re the professor and they are the student. You respect them and they need to respect you AND their other classmates. This is something that probably couldn’t have been productively said at that moment (b/c it sounds like he was spoiling for a fight), but I think you can still say it in a private meeting with that student. He needs to hear it and understand that that kind of behavior absolutely will not cut it! As for your other students, I totally agree with jb – if I had seen that in one of my classes and heard how cooly and calmly you responded, I would be completely horrified about and totally uninfluenced by his behavior. Ugh – I’m so sorry this happened! Keep us updated if you discuss it with him further!

  7. 11 February, 2007 9:34 pm

    Yikes, ADM, that’s total horseshit. No student should ever chew you out in front of your class.I had a similar incident a few years ago while still teaching at the big H. I informed the miscreant that he was welcome to come to my office hours to talk the matter of his grade and my comments over but that the topic was NOT open to discussion in class. He continued, and I told him to leave. He was so stunned that he left.After he left the class I told my other students that I was sure that college-age kids were too old for kindergarten discipline. They laughed, and my evals were fine.

  8. 11 February, 2007 10:17 pm

    Thanks, all! BTW, I did e-mail the student and pointed out that: I had treated him with much more respect than he had treated me; what he perceived as criticism was not impolite, and was necessary information for the class, if they wanted to do well, and that he was bright, but out of line — class time is never the place for that kind of thing. We’ll see what happens.

  9. 12 February, 2007 12:56 pm

    I’ll underscore previous comments – you were ambushed and it’s more than difficult to plan for that. And, yes, the males will challenge you to your face where the females will just gossip about you but probably not confront you. Now, the next step is to document all of this – including the email you sent to the student and any other notes you need to make (primarily rephrasing your blog entry and putting in a Word document you can file electronically and in print). And, then, if you do all of this, the student will not subject you to another outburst. On the other hand, if something goes up the food chain, you were covered. (I hate to say it but these types of things can filter to the dean and the story will have changed multiple times by then . . . just CYA!)Another contributing factor is that this is your first year at the institution and just as students appear to be more immature, they are treating you like a first year high school teacher and seeing exactly what you will take off of them. Problems that used to only exist in high school have now permeated up – esp. as society is giving young people the impression that they are owed something rather than having to prove themselves. You put that on top of the research that says we know that their brain is not fully developed and that young men are exercising all of their muscles to test all of their limits . . . And I agree that your not shouting back at him will mean most of the class will be on your “side” in the sense that they are there to be in class and not be part of an unnecessary melodrama.Handling it with grace without being run over is only something the rest of us could have hoped to have done – you never know because it’s rarely something you can anticipate.

  10. 14 February, 2007 4:58 am

    I definitely understand what you’re describing here. I teach at a small liberal arts college, and I had to discuss “attitude” recently with upperclassmen. I don’t mind “attitude,” but I do mind disrespect that crushes the healthy learning environment. I will call disruptive students into my office as if just for a chat and will tell them my views on their less-than-helpful behavior. I respect my students and expect them to respect me. You sound just the same! I think the one comment about telling a student–“The classroom isn’t the place for that kind of conversation” is a good approach. I am filing that for future use. I also agree that I prefer boisterous students with opinions over those who just sit there. Best wishes! (And good luck to us all who are tilling the field of higher education diligently!)

  11. 14 February, 2007 5:01 am

    I’m at Thanks for a great discussion!

  12. 14 February, 2007 7:21 am

    Urk! That’s awful. I would have been totally floored, and it sounds as if you handled the situation with grace and dignity. Oddly enough, although I’ve never had quite such an extreme example as you describe, the biggest challenges I’ve had to my authority have come not from _young_ men, but from men closer to my own age. I’ve had two or three quite unpleasant situations with men in their thirties or mid forties who perhaps had difficulty accepting authority from a woman of their own generation.

  13. 19 February, 2007 8:01 pm

    The first course I taught on we had persistent problems with the students, most of whom were doing the course part-time and were thus balancing it against jobs and so on, not having found time to do the reading that was supposed to underpin the seminars. One of my groups was much worse than the other (possibly because the second class got an extra hour in the library…) and there came the day when none of them had actually read the primary material for the class.Now I was new at this and probably could have handled it better. As it was I waxed slightly wroth and asked how they expected to get anything out of the classes if they didn’t find out what they were supposed to be about. One guy in particular took offence and tore me off a strip for being disrespectful to my elders, at which point I probably should have dropped it. Instead I put that same question to him individually and he told me that he wasn’t doing the reading for this course because he only had time to do it for one of his two and he thought the teaching on my one sucked so badly it wasn’t worth doing and again got very angry about being told off by someone maybe twenty-five years his junior for not doing his homework.Finally sense caught hold of me and rather than ask why he’d turned up at all with that attitude, I calmed down and tried to rescue the class by impromptu double-speed lecture, but not before said party had stormed out. He moved classes and did relatively well with the other teacher, and the ones who remained got a lot better after that first term.So what I’m saying is, “hey–you could have handled that so very much worse, as I can prove and document” 🙂

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