Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hostile Students: In Which I Continue to Procrastinate by Answering a Reader Question

Oh, today has been a day of bargaining with myself, it surely has, and in which the grading has not gone according to plan. See, I remembered I'm giving a test in my class tomorrow (I can surely finish up grading their papers in there!) and that I have to meet with some students hours before that (surely I can do the other class's grading during the downtime!) and that I can easily complete basic grading for the other class by tonight's deadline without actually offering substantive comments on one of the assignments (It's only worth 3% and they have until the end of the semester to do the revisions based on my comments!). In other words, I'm an idiot. But so let me get to the question.

Adjunct Whore writes:

"i was seriously hoping that you would, or could, or had an inclination to comment about strange encounters with hostile male students."

I've been thinking about this since I saw the comment. It's not that I haven't had hostile male students. I surely have. But I don't think I've actually had many "strange encounters" with them. I surely have had male students who've pushed boundaries, in some way or another. I've surely had male students who revealed their hostility on course evaluations, even though they were silent and brooding throughout the semester and kept their hostilities in check until they could castigate me anonymously. But typically, my strangest encounters have actually been with female students. They are the ones who have, historically, left me stymied or uncomfortable or at a loss or just angry. But before I get to those, let me get to the "hostile male students" question.

First, my male students (hostile and non-hostile) typically come in two particular forms:
  1. The traditional male college student. Subsets of this include weird and outcast sort of students, hipster sort of students (typically in bands), nerdy and not-quite-hip boys who are really freaking smart, frat-boy sort of students and their close cousins, conservative sorts of students who just didn't happen to join fraternities.
  2. The non-traditional (usually much older than me) male college student. They're all typically married with kids and take everything very seriously. There are also some weirdos, but they are typically harmless.
I've only had hostility expressed directly (and strangely) by traditionally aged male students. (This isn't to say that I haven't been challenged by non-traditional male students, but typically if I meet the challenge, they decide I'm ok and are among the best students I've ever had.) The traditionally aged male students, though....well, when they've directly expressed hostility, it's been in the following ways:
  • Writing weirdly sexually objectifying papers about women, in an attempt to bait me into proving that I hate men.
  • Challenging my grading, insisting that they know more about writing papers than I do.
  • Refusing, after repeated kind, and then not-so-kind, reminders to call me anything other than "Miss" or "Mrs." Crazy, or in the worst cases by my first name, or even "sweetheart" in one memorable instance.
  • Open rudeness in class, and open hostility in class, when I correct them or ask them to support their assertions.
The thing is, usually after I grade them, or after I shut them down in class, they just become silent and surly. I've never had a hostile male student directly threaten me or go to my chair about me, write me an inappropriate email or confront me in office hours. They either drop my classes, or they write horrifying comments (feminazi, bitch, whore, not qualified to teach because she's a feminist) on their evaluations of me. I do a fair amount of hand-written assignments in all of my classes, so I can tell you that those sorts of comments have only come from the frat boy/conservative types and the weirdos. And those particular students (not all or even most of the male students in those categories) were horrifying to the women in the course as well - this sort of attitude was not reserved solely for me. The hipsters? Those boys who wear smurf-style hats and band t-shirts and flannel? As a rule they totally dig me. As do the nerdy not-quite-hip boys.

In part, I think that I've been very lucky that I haven't had any directly intimidating or strange encounters with these hostile students. I in no way think that I'm immuned to such a thing happening. But I also think that the sort of (male) student who is hostile to me is also hostile because everything about who I am is intimidating to him. I think that I haven't faced direct confrontations in large part because they don't know what to do with a person who doesn't respond at all to their efforts to intimidate or to belittle, or who doesn't respond in the ways that they're used to women responding. So either they withdraw from my courses, or they lie in wait until they can fuck me over on course evaluations. Our (fucked up) evaluations leave ample room within which they can do this. And yes, it has hurt my numbers. But it hasn't hurt my feelings. I'd rather they think that I'm a bitch than that they can steamroll me. If they stayed in the course, I figure it's because they were learning something in spite of their hatred of me.

As I noted, however, I've experienced much more... consternation... about the hostile female students whom I've encountered. Without exception, these have been non-traditional female students (either of around my age or older), and these students have, typically, had absolutely no respect for me or for my authority as the professor of the course in which they have enrolled. They have been overtly (as opposed to subtly) disruptive in class; they have been openly hostile to me in office hours; they have failed to follow directions or course policies, and have demanded that I make exceptions to those directions and policies for them; they have complained to my chair about me; they have accused me of trying to stop them from making better lives for heir families; they have called me racist; they have called me a know-it-all, who "just doesn't understand" their take on the material because I'm "not a mother"; they've called me a lesbian, or claimed that I gave them a poor grade because I'm bitter because I "can't get a man."

I should note that I've had some great non-trads who are women, and who have done excellent work in my courses and who have earned exceptionally good grades. A lot of the hostile female students' responses seem to have a lot to do with the fact that they think that because I'm a woman that I should cut them special slack, or that I should "be understanding" when they don't do their work. Honestly, I'd rather have an aggressive male student write a paper about women's breasts and how it's a woman's "natural" role to serve men and call me a whore on his evaluation of me, while yet he follows the course policies to the letter, than deal with a female student in office hours who claims that the fact that we both have vaginas means that I should throw my course policies out the window, or that because I'm not a mother that I don't have the authority (with a terminal degree in the field) to evaluate her interpretation of a literary text. Also, I have a lot more patience with a fucked up male student who has internalized patriarchal attitudes (haven't we all?) than with a fucked up female student who uses my feminism against me and who tells my chair that I've discriminated against her, when I've followed policies of which she was aware from the first day of class and when those policies have been applied equally to every other person in the course.

I will say, the accusations that I'm a "man-hating feminist" on evaluations from those hostile male students are hilarious to me, when the majority of them have done far better in my courses than those hostile female students who think I'm supposed to give them an A just because they are women.

But so, if I have any tips for dealing with hostile students, of whatever the gender or persuasion, here are my tips:

  1. Have strong course policies, and follow your syllabus to the letter. Build in enough flexibility that you never go against your own policies (for example, rather than saying "no late papers ever, even if your house burns down" [because surely if a student's house really did burn down you'd go against that rule], be clear that a late paper for any reason carries a certain penalty) and that some things are up to you ("You can request an extension, but only in x circumstances, and it's my prerogative to say no if you don't have a draft, etc."), but in general, don't be terribly flexible ("As long as you email me before the paper is due with any excuse, I will give you an extension with a negotiable deadline and you can receive full credit on the assignment") and don't make exceptions to stated rules. Don't change when things are due, and don't offer leniency in public and explicit ways. Sure, this is legalistic and annoying, but it goes a long way toward stopping complaints before they gain any traction.
  2. Conduct as many transactions via email as possible with hostile students. A written record means that you have something to show higher ups if that time comes. (This has saved me more than once.) It gives you a leg to stand on. Also, it keeps you out of personal interactions with potentially dangerous people.
  3. Know your shit. If they spot a weakness, they'll exploit it. If you show a clear command of the course material, a command stronger than anything they can come up with, that goes a long way to shutting them down when they challenge you. And "shutting down" doesn't need to be aggressive - it can be subtle and funny and kind. The point is, you need to shut down students who are trying to fuck the class up.
  4. With that being said, you can't please all the people all of the time, and it's better to make a disruptive student feel bad than to ruin a whole course by accommodating somebody who's tryng to sabotoge you and the course. The good students will hate you, too, if you don't shut the bad eggs down (something I only learned in my first semester on the tenure track, even though I'd already felt it when I was a student).
  5. If you feel threatened by a student, only agree to meet with that student with another person (preferably your chair or another authority figure like a dean) present.
I'm not sure if any of this is helpful, or if what I've written speaks to AW's concerns. But that's my experience in dealing with hostility. Do my faithful readers have anything to add?


k8 said...

I think all of your advice sounds great!

I've had the "pleasure" of having a threatening student. He'd move into my personal space, trying to make me step back/end up in a corner or against a wall. He constantly lied and would become hostile when I called him on it. He scared the hell out of my other students. I knew some of the women were uneasy around him - after he finally dropped the course some of the male students expressed their relief as well.

What did I do? I documented like hell. I was in constant contact with the Dean of Students. This was pre-Virginia Tech and the policy was that they couldn't do anything unless he explicitly verbally threatened me, which he hadn't done. It sucked. I NEVER met with him alone. He finally dropped when I told him he would have to meet with me and the program director. After he dropped I found out that he had pulled the same stuff with other instructors - all female. I was still jittery all semester.

The key thing, though, is that I never let him know he bothered me. I remained calm but firm. When he invaded my personal space, I never backed away. I stood my ground and looked him in the eye. Fortunately I kept my wits about me and remembered my social worker mother's advice for dealing with this type of abusive personality.

That was my first semester teaching. I've had a few other odd students through the years (one was my last appointment at a night shift at a satellite writing center location where I was basically alone), but none left me feeling as physically threatened as this guy.

I did, however, once have a male student who argued with me about MLA citation style, telling me that I was wrong - and that the MLA book I was referring to was wrong, as well. He did not win that argument, although he never admitted he was wrong. Good times!

life_of_a_fool said...

Hmm, I agree with your logic of getting things in writing. However, some conflict can be diffused by in-person communication, and not letting things go on in email, where tone can be absent/misread/etc. I once had a (female, late 20-something) student tell me that no one had ever treated her as badly or unfairly as I had in her entire life. This was after an email exchange, that went on for longer than it should have (if that assessment was true, she had a pretty charmed life, but. . .) Within 30 seconds of actually talking to me face-to-face, she was fine, we were fine, and she did not derail the entire class like she so easily could have.

So, with at least some students, in person individual communication can help A LOT. I suppose it depends on the kind of hostility and/or the kind of person.

Regardless, I do think it's a good idea to keep your chair informed of tense situations that may blow up further -- because they're prepared if the student takes it to them, because it's documentation if things really get out of hand, and hopefully your chair will back you up (I also had a hostile, aggressive male student "threaten" to go to the chair when he disagreed with my written policy. I said o.k., you do that. He did, the chair told him it was up to me, which the student then reported back to me (still, I think expecting me to change my mind??) and I said, uh huh, see my written policy. He then dropped the class. Heh.).

I also really agree with your comment about shutting students down (and humor is a great idea, at least to start), and that if you don't, more students will start disliking and disrespecting you, plus you'll still have the original problem.

Dr. Crazy said...

LoaF: I typically only resort to the "email only contact" after having one or two in-person meetings. I agree that with some students in-person meeting can go a long way to fixing a stupid situation. I only noted the "email only" thing because if one already knows they're hostile, then one needs a record. Keeping it in person or via phone past that point can lead to problems for the instructor, and I'm all about eliminating those. But I meet with students in person *a lot* (I have no clue about profs who say students don't attend office hours- mine and beyond are typically full up) and so it's only after meeting that I resort to the "I'll email you and that's it" option.

Kate said...

I would add: report them. If a student makes sexist, racist, or suggestive remarks to you or in a paper or an email that makes you uncomfortable, report them. I have done this once this semester because we have a mechanism set up at my university that makes this fairly easy. You need to shut them down, but you also need them to understand the greater implications of what they're doing.

And ditto on the strong policy thing.

Other than the two points above, I'm a ridiculous softie, more than I probably should be.

Virginia S. Wood, PsyD said...

I once taught a fellow who sat in the front row and was totally disruptive. I tried the usual things to shut him down in class, and when that didn't work, called him aside and had a private chat.

I warned him at that time that if he kept it up I was going to separate him from his little buddy who sat next to him and facilitated a lot of the disruption. He did it again. I separated them. I felt like I was teaching 3rd grade, not freshmen in college.

It made him mad. Really mad. He immediately became threatening in subtle but unmistakable ways. He took to coming to class, for example, in paramilitary drag and giving me the hairy eyeball from his perch in the front row.

My solution was to inform the university police department. I taught for the rest of the semester with the door open and one cop (God bless 'em) or another would make a point of strolling by at least once every class period. And my department chair--God bless her, too--said I could eject him from the course altogether if I wanted to. It made all the difference in the world knowing that Admin had my back.

Rachel said...

I agree that meeting with the student AND someone else makes a lot of sense. I've never had this situation, but would definitely want someone in my corner!