Friday, October 24, 2008

Classroom Management, Crazy-Style

In the comment thread to my recent post about a student who is inspiring loathing, Joanna wrote the following:

"I would be really interested to hear how you prevent students like this from completely taking over the class. And also, if you have any thoughts on how us poor trampled upon students can resist this behavior if the professor doesn't step up."

Rather than bury my answer in the comment thread, I thought I should make it a post of its own. Let me say first that when I was a student I really despised classmates who spoke in class but who really didn't contribute to the conversation, if that makes sense. It's not that these classmates of mine were always rude (they weren't) or that they did something that made the classroom a hostile space (they didn't). It's just that every time they spoke it's like they sucked all of the air and energy from the room. I think there are pretty clear ways that one should deal with rude students who make the classroom a hostile space, beginning with stopping that behavior immediately in class (typically, for the first time, with a bit of humor, and for the second time, sternly), moving on to having a private conversation with the student, and finally to getting administrators involved if things don't improve. I've taken these steps when it's been necessary, and I've got course policies that explicitly outline appropriate participation in discussion and interactive activities to back me up. In other words, when a student is truly out of line, I don't think it's necessarily that difficult to put a stop to the behavior with a minimum of fuss.

Things become murkier when we're talking about students who aren't truly out of line but yet who threaten to derail an otherwise great class just by their tone and their presence in the course. These students, to my mind, don't truly deserve to be punished by me or reprimanded by me for what they're doing.... but I do think I have to find ways to manage those students, for the benefit of the class as a whole but also for the benefit of the student who threatens to derail or to dominate. See, I think that students who engage in this sort of behavior (I almost wrote posturing) do so because it has worked for them in the past. This is how they've learned to stand out, and they don't have the self-awareness to understand that they aren't necessarily standing out in a positive way. I think that also some of this sort of behavior can be bound up in insecurity, which the student tries to counteract by being the loudest or most frequently heard voice in the room. I've had a fair share of this sort of student, and here's how I go about handling them.

[Aside: my class sizes are small, even the lower-level ones, and my teaching is oriented around discussion and getting students to interact more than anything else. I lecture infrequently, and even when I do lecture, I typically break up lectures into 10-15 minute increments interspersed with some discussion or with group activities.]

1. Such students typically come to my attention very early in a semester. While they don't usually do anything inappropriate (being rude to other students, etc.) they do typically offer a response to a question that I throw out to get discussion going that in some way challenges the premise of the question. Again, nothing wrong with doing that, on the surface. However, I learned early in my time on the tenure-track that if I took the bait and let the student direct the course of the conversation through that challenge that the other students in the class clammed up. And once that happened, the discussion got way off track, devolving into a conversation between me and that student, with the other students looking bored and/or annoyed. So now, when this sort of student presents that first challenge, I typically respond to it briefly, but then I return to my original question, explaining why I'm starting there, but insisting that we return to it. This sends a very clear message: Dr. Crazy is the sheriff in town, class, and she has reasons for what she does; it's my party, and I pick what's on the menu. I noticed once I started using this technique that the other students in the class quickly would raise their hands when the original question was posed the second time, and the discussion that would result was typically really great. And the challenging student? The challenging student would either decide to play nicely according to the rules that I set out, or they would at least shut up long enough for the other students to speak.

2. Such students also typically restate what other students have already said in discussion, or they will bring in outside material that has nothing to do with our topic for the day, as a way of attempting to dominate the discussion. My typical response to this tactic is to address it head on: "Yes, that is an interesting point; I believe that Sally said something similar 10 minutes ago. How would you build on what she said?" or "Yes, that is interesting information that you're bringing in. But how does it relate to Peter's comment that came just before yours about the poems that are on the syllabus for today?" You'll notice that I do continue to engage the student, asking a question in response to the comment that they made, but I also make it clear that I know that they were trying to take us off track. Moreover, I force the student to engage with the classmates who are also part of the discussion. The student needs to know that it's not just the two of us who are in the class and that I expect that students engage with one another as well as with me.

3. Sometimes, the student will just refuse to engage with a text period. Typical ways of doing this are "it's boring" or "I think any interpretation is valid because all interpretations are subjective" or "we're reading too much into everything." This typically results in what I now think of as my "anti-intellectualism" speech. I've given it a bunch of times now. Sometimes I'll pepper the speech with questions, too, in which I ask us to think about what it means when we say something is boring, or I ask students to explain why we bother reading if there's no point in interpreting. "Why are you in this class?" I have asked. Not in a "get out" sort of way, but as a real question. "Why are you here? Why am I here? What are we all trying to get out of this? Why do people read things that are 'boring'? Bother making interpretations if any interpretation is as good as the next? What's the point?"

4. Whatever the Potentially Dominating Student is doing, though, I make sure that I'm doing everything in my power to get other students talking. How? Sometimes this is one-on-one. A student comes to my office hours to talk about a paper, and they'll say something insightful. I ask them to bring that up in the next class. Or I'll just note in passing to a student who contributes infrequently that I really enjoy when they make comments, and I wish they were commenting more. Sometimes I make them do a small activity in groups, and then I focus discussion when we reconvene by questioning the individual groups. (When doing group stuff, you've got to move the PDS around, so no one group is stuck with her for the whole semester.) Sometimes I'll just say, if the PDS has been really the only one talking, that the PDS just can't comment for the next 15 minutes because the rest of the class isn't pulling their weight. (I don't only do this with PDS types of students; I also sometimes will do this with really great students who are carrying a class. It's important to note this because my students are used to me doing this, and it's very clear that it's not done in anger or to be mean to the student that I tell to let others speak.)

5. I try to establish a good rapport with the PDS, getting them to come to meet with me in my office about papers, giving them lots of feedback on written work, etc., because sometimes when they're more comfortable with me, the dominating behavior stops. Or, if it doesn't, I have enough a rapport that I can more easily talk to the student about why they're style is not working for the class as a whole.

And finally, sometimes, when all else has failed, I have found that a very pointed critique of something that the student says, in which I fully engage with whatever lame and yet pompous comment the student has made and yet also clearly demonstrate each and every one of the flaws in the student's comment, fixes the problem. Sometimes they need me to prove to them that I'm smarter than they are. This is totally the Option of Last Resort, and I don't like to do it, in part because I don't like to be The Enforcer in that way with my students and in part because it can freak the other students in the course out. Ideally, if I do all of the other stuff that I do to get the rest of the class really engaged and learning, one of the other students in the class does this and then that day becomes forever known as the Day of Liberation and the PDS is finished. Note: if a student does succeed in this feat, I do not allow the other students to cheer. That happened once, and I quickly put a stop to it. The point isn't to make the PDS feel bad: the point is to get the PDS to see that their point of view isn't always right, always the most important, always the only valid one.

But what if a professor doesn't see the PDS as having a negative influence on the class? Or what if they don't care? What can students do? Well, you can always talk to the prof. This doesn't always accomplish much, but it's worth a shot. It may well be that if the prof knows that others are bothered that the prof will then step up and do something to fix it. But the only other piece of advice I have is to raise your hands. If everybody else is making a concerted effort to talk, and to keep the discussion productive, that cripples the PDS. It can be useful to make a plan for how to do this with your classmates' prior to the class meeting. (I organized such a resistance effort once in a graduate seminar that I was taking.) If everybody just sits there rolling their eyes, well, to some extent, "everybody" is making their bed and has to lie in it. Let me emphasize, though, that I'm not saying that students are responsible if they're being victimized by a classmate. I think that is totally on the professor if that's going on. I'm just talking about how to handle a classmate that is irritating and making a class suck for you by being so irritating - not one who is abusive.

I'll close by noting that I'd targeted my PDS this semester as potentially disruptive in the first week. And I've been working to keep this student in check consistently to this point. What surprised me about the student comments in the past week or two was not that this student was a potential problem, but rather that the other students so actively didn't like PDS. The students who've brought PDS up did not do so in such a way that they were expressing a concern about how the course was going or about the level of respect in the class's discussions. No, the comments were more of the venting variety, like, "Wow, that person really sucks. I cringe every time that person even seems like s/he might speak." The comments didn't indicate that they feel silenced (and, dude, they shouldn't - all of these students participate up a storm), but rather that they wished they could silence the PDS - like forever.

My hope is that maybe I can make a dent in my PDS's armor, and get PDS to have some kind of epiphany where the PDS stops sucking so hard. I feel like that would be really cool, if it could happen. That said, I'll be happy even if that doesn't happen, because while I'm great and all, even I do not have the power to eradicate all suckiness in the world. Nah, I'll be happy if I can just keep on being aware that I need to be vigilant about the PDS, keep the class going smoothly with lots of participation from everyone, and keep things on track with our conversations in the class. Honestly, this has been one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I've ever had, teaching this class this semester. And my students - even the PDS - seem really to be digging it. That, at the end of the day, is what the whole thing is about, yes?


Mamalooper said...

Putting on my psychology hat here - the situation in your lecture is scapegoat-ish. Typical group behaviour - the group "needs" a scapegoat and someone "volunteers" to be that scapegoat by some dumba** behaviour that is annoying.

Anyhow, sounds like you do a stellar job of handling it - wish I had had more profs who were as aware of classroom dynamics and drawing out quieter students.

Dr. Crazy said...

Yeah, it is scapegoatish... and I think that impulse comes from insecurity, too, of a different kind than the PDS.

You know, I think I'm so attentive to drawing quiet students out because I *so* was never a quiet student. When I first started teaching, it was bizarre to me that some students didn't talk, and I thought that it was something wrong with my teaching. Now, I realize some students need different ways of talking than others, and I realize that not everybody is terribly comfortable just blurting out answers in an impromptu way. In other words, I think I might be more sensitive to this stuff precisely because it's not who I was as a student, and I feel like if I'm not careful, I could easily become one of those profs who just ignores those quieter or less assertive students.

The History Enthusiast said...

Thanks for posting on this! I've been thinking about this a lot recently, mostly because of a nasty situation a few weeks back.

Long story short, we have in-class debates every so often where I split the class in half and they have to argue one side of a position. This last one got really competitive (not in a good way) and some of the guys got really aggressive. When one very self-assured girl took them on, she was accused of being a bitch. Thankfully she didn't hear the comment, but it was kind of a nightmare. I talked to the whole class on Wednesday about what we can do collectively to make these debate days comfortable for everyone. It went pretty well, but we'll have to see how the next one goes.

Joanna said...

Thank you for responding to my question! This is good stuff and an interesting read.

The most irritating student who was in one of my classes was a guy who would (a) interrupt the female students (b) change the subject completely and (c) just in general talk way too darn much.

I don't know if someone talked to him about the interrupting thing but I noticed that he did it and then I noticed that some of the other women in the class almost never talked. I had made up my mind that the next time he did it I was going to call him out directly -- but after that, he never did it again.

He still did the changing the subject thing - it seems like for him that was next best thing to interrupting - but I got pretty aggressive about changing it right back when it was my turn to talk. "To get back to what Susan was saying..."

So in the end, I guess we worked it out. Though, all along I was disappointed that the prof never told him to quit being a jerk. Unfortunately I did not have the impression that the prof noticed how rude the student was being, especially since he was so selective in his rudeness (he tended to engage with what male students said at least sometimes, while totally ignoring what the female students said and going on to talk about something completely different).