Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Not Sure What to Title This

I have a weird situation in one of my classes. Well, I suppose it's not that weird. It's something that I remember from the student-perspective from grad school, but it's the first time that I've ever seen it in a class of mine from the other side of the desk (perhaps because I don't teach grad students?).

Let's say there's this student. This student thinks s/he is very, very bright. When this student speaks in class, there is a sort of adversarial, know-it-all quality to the comments. And the student is bright enough, I guess, but there are lots of bright students in the class, and the tenor of the other students' comments is typically much more productive and exploratory, which is what I aim for in generating discussion in my classes - not the whole adversarial thing. I'm not terribly bothered by the student - nothing so far has been inappropriate or uncool to other students in the course but rather just totally irritating - but over the past week it has come to my attention that many of the other students in the course loathe this student. Enough that they have begun to make comments to me indicating the loathing.

Now, I'm not sure there is anything that I need to do about this. I don't let the student dominate discussion (though I get the impression that if I did allow that then the student would, and so perhaps some of the loathing of the other students comes from the fact that they have other classes with this student where that is happening), but it's so weird because I remember feeling that kind of loathing, and I think a lot of it came from feeling like I couldn't believe that the professor didn't see through the blowhard student, see that the student wasn't so great but rather that the student was a bully. The thing is, I see that the student is a bully, and I don't think the student is so great. But at the same time, I think that students like that sometimes need to learn the hard way that they're not so great, and that involves giving them enough rope so that the other students will hang them.

But here's the thing: when I was a student, I always quietly seethed about this kind of student, and I never would have dreamed of expressing my feelings openly. And so it's weird that I'm getting the feedback from a variety of other students in the class. They're not complaining.... it's more like they'll just make a comment that's sort of joky but that indicates deep dislike, almost like they want me to know that they feel sorry for me that I have to deal with the student, and also to know that they aren't like that student. I've been very diplomatic in not really responding to these comments, doing a sort of nod-then-change-the-subject thing, but I'm finding it interesting, and it will be interesting to see how things play out through the second half of the semester, particularly with the material in this particular course, which may well give the other students the ammunition and fortitude to slam the know-it-all one.

So have you ever experienced this with your students? Is there something I should be doing that I'm not already doing so that the just-beneath-the-surface loathing doesn't become out-and-out warfare? (Note: I don't really think that it will become warfare - this class is filled with really smart, thoughtful students who aren't types who'd typically lose it with this sort of student. But then that is why it's weird that they're indicating this hostility to me, too - normally, they'd not do that.)


k8 said...

I remember all to well being in classes (as a student) with students like those. They drove me batty. I normally quietly seethed, but once or twice I engaged in a little verbal aggression.

I've only had one egregious example of one of those students in one of my classes. For better or worse, after a unit in rhetorical analysis in which students learned to identify all sorts of rhetorical fallacies, some of his fellow students started calling him out for using specific fallacies. Before that I had to make sure he didn't completely dominate the class. Afterwards, not so much.

I think the best we can do is make sure that all students have the opportunity to participate and that the "special" student doesn't completely dominate the class. Most students recognize when we do this - your students certainly do. If nothing else, the experience will prepare them for the workplace and future meetings. These people exist everywhere.

Brigindo said...

I think if they're making joky but revealing comments to you than that means you're handling it perfectly. If you were letting the student dominate or buying into the student's view of him/herself than your other students would either quietly seethe or express some hostility/injustice to you. However since they are expressing sympathy for you in having to deal with this student than I take that to mean they respect you, care for you, and feel that you are all on the same "side." Now we don't have to have our students care for us but I think it facilitates their learning when they do.

And yes I totally agree that some of the hostility they feel towards this particular student probably comes from previous interactions in other classes. I've had students express similar comments about know-it-all's and they often mention other classes. And this can happen fairly frequently in graduate classes.

phd me said...

I agree with brigindo: you're handling it well. That your students feel comfortable enough to complain about the student in a casual way means they aren't ready to fire up the torches just yet; they're irritated but okay with your approach.

I've had quite a few students like this, in undergrad and grad classes. The best I can come up with is to let them talk (within reason) and then encourage additional discussion, either through my own questions or calling on students I know can hold their own. They usually quiet down when they fail a few major assignments, which they inevitably do.

AcadeMama said...

I've had a few of these kinds of students over the years, and on occasion it has turned out that the students who shared their feelings were sometimes "feeling me out." Not to just see if I shared their irritation, but sometimes to see if I'd empathize with them, as one student genuinely felt as if she were in a hostile class environment because of the "problem" student.

I've started making it a point, about midway through the semester, to take a minute and remind students that if they feel uncomfortable, unsure, or uneasy about their freedom to engage others in class discussion, then they should feel free to come talk to me.

Rachel said...

Wow. I'd think a serious face to face talk with the student is the best next step. You can't let one disrupt so many. Even if the rest of your students can take care of themselves, they might be looking to you for guidance on how to make the situation better.

heu mihi said...

In grad school I had a fellow student like this in *two* of my seminars--she was actually an undergrad taking graduate courses for some reason, seldom did the reading (I sat next to her once and the spine of her course packet clearly hadn't been bent), talked endlessly, and loved loved LOVED calling things "Heideggerian" and "dialectical." She drove me nuts. And I kind of wanted my professors to indicate that they felt the same way; one of them started challenging her a lot about halfway through the semester, and that helped.

But then once, when I was meeting with the other professor, she said something about "certain elements" in the class that made it clear that she didn't think much of this student, either. Her revealing that surprised me--it seemed sort of unprofessional (although I gleefully reported it to a fellow-loather in the class, of course!). So I think you're right to be noncommittal when students make comments to you about him/her.

Ben said...

So, this kind of student, I think I can see what you are saying. The primary annoyance comes from that their view of themselves is disproportionate to what it actually is? And that they are up front about it? Bullying also implies close-mindedness, and this combativeness that says, "I'm right, you're wrong"?

Joanna said...

To veer off topic a little bit (sorry), 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.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for all the comments everyone. First, let me just note for the record that this student is not being disruptive or inappropriate in how s/he responds in class. It's a tone thing more than anything else, and a bit of know-it-all-y narcissism. For this reason, I'm reluctant to drag the student into my office for a talk, as what I'd have to say would amount to, "You do realize you have a crappy personality and people don't like you, right? And that's not because you're so awesome but rather because you're not terribly interesting - you get that, too, yeah?" and I'm not sure that this would be helpful to anybody, and I think it could actually make the problem worse. So, for now, I'm trying to encourage the student to see perspectives outside hir own, to actually take some risks in the way that s/he thinks about things, and to be very careful about not letting this student steamroll discussions.

Joanna asked about my techniques for stopping a student from taking over, but I think I should probably do a whole post about that (not that I'm some expert, but I can talk about what has worked for me and why). As for what students can do, if you really feel trampled upon (which from what I heard isn't what my students are feeling), you should express that concern to the professor. And if the professor says nothing, you should go to the department chair. It's the professor's job to make sure everybody gets to have a voice in a class. If the professor isn't doing that, they're not doing their job. At least that's my opinion about that, but I'll have more to say about that when I post about managing discussion and classroom management stuff later (either tonight or this weekend sometime).