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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.