So. A colleague of mine came to me recently with a problem. The colleague is a guy, he's tenured, and he is in the middle of a situation in which a student treated him with an utter lack of respect and challenged his authority.
And of course most of you, either by experience or second-hand, know how this story goes. As so frequently is the case when it comes to such interpersonal challenges with students, the student has been one for whom professor bends over backwards, and the more the professor resists shutting the student down, the more the student pushes, until ultimately, BLAMMO! KABOOM! The grenade is thrown, and the professor is left to handle the debris.
Now, the details of what the student said or of the exact situation aren't ultimately important. What is important is that once I got over my outrage on my colleague's behalf (and really, this particular situation is totally outrageous, even by my world-weary standards), and as I started trying to help him to strategize about potential ways to handle this student and the situation moving forward, something that shocked me quite a bit more than this student's behavior came to light: this was the very first time that this ever happened to my colleague.
That's right. Never before - not when he was a T.A., not when he was a new hire, not in any course-specific context - has he ever had an overt challenge to his authority in the classroom. Now, I'm sure he's a great professor and all, and unlike me (and every woman professor I know who demands a high level of performance from her students) he's got uniformly great ratings on Rate My Professor, but come on people. He's been teaching for 10+ years. And never a challenge like this? Never a situation like this? I get at least one of these a year if not in each and every semester. Still. And early on in my teaching career it wouldn't be just one student - it would be tiny little cells of students within a section who'd try to overthrow me.
I remember the first time that it happened. I was in graduate school, and it was about three weeks into the term. I was at the end of my rope. I'd done all of the things you're supposed to do to make the classroom a collaborative and positive environment, I'd tried to be nurturing to my students, I'd tried to be gentle, yet firm. And things were only getting worse. Worse and worse. Not only was I dreading teaching the class, but it was clear a good number of the students were dreading the class, too. And, fortunately, I ran into my dissertation director, and he advised me in no uncertain terms that it was my job to get things back on track, even if it meant I had to play the heavy. But that's oppressive! But that goes against all of these theories about creating a student-centered environment in the classroom! Well, he replied, how exactly are you being an effective teacher and doing your best for the students in this class if you don't stop this from happening in your classroom?
And you know what? He was right. And no, I never entirely fixed things that term, but I learned a lot about what it means to create an environment in which all students can learn and in which I can be the best teacher possible. Maybe it's not warm and fuzzy, but maybe warm and fuzzy isn't the primary thing a classroom should be. Maybe warm and fuzzy can only happen once a baseline is set for civility and respect, and maybe that starts with how I allow students to treat me.
And yet, I didn't really believe that what happened in that semester would recur regularly throughout my teaching career. No, it doesn't happen in every class that I teach, nor does it happen in the majority of classes that I teach. Maybe it happens with such regularity because I teach four sections a term, so students get more bites at the disrespect and incivility apple. But whatever the reasons, it does happen consistently, in ways subtle and not so subtle.
Subtle: The student who refuses to call my Dr. or Professor Crazy, after many, many corrections.
Not-Subtle: The student who complains to the chair that I marked him/her down for consistent proof-reading and grammatical errors on an assignment in an academic writing course, because the student should be able to be "creative" and to write however he or she sees fit.
Subtle: The students who criticize me on course evaluations because "she acts like she knows more about the material than we do." (Note to students: I do know more about the material than you do. In a professor, that's really a positive, not a negative. If I don't correct you when you get something wrong, I'm not actually teaching you. I'm not sure how to teach without demonstrating, or "acting like," I know more than you do. Sorry if that upsets you.)
Not-Subtle: The student (or in this case group of students) who constantly chatters while I'm lecturing, distracting me and other students who are trying to pay attention, after I've gently told them to cut it out.
Subtle: The student who assumes that course policies, clearly stated, don't apply to him/her, and looks aghast when I enforce them.
Not-Subtle: The student who confronts me in front of the whole class, asserting that my selection of a book for a course was "inappropriate" and that I'm not qualified to make judgments about what books belong on a syllabus.
I could go on. But the point is, authority is not something that I just have by virtue of the facts that I'm the lady with the Ph.D. and that I'm the one who grades. I've never experienced being "a professor" as insulating me from challenges to authority, nor have I experienced it as a position that uniformly and without exception accords me some special kind of respect. And so I've always been surprised when in conversations with colleagues (of the male variety) when they talk about these things as a perk of the job, that one of the things that they like about being A Professor is that it's an occupation that commands Respect.
Look, even as a professor, I've got to walk in there and earn respect. Every freaking day. Because when they see me, they don't see A Professor. And that's whether I wear my teacher costume or jeans, that's whether I look stylish or frumpy, that's whether I'm stern or whether I'm "nice." It just doesn't matter.
The up-side, though, is that after years of handling this shit, it no longer hurts my feelings, and also I have an arsenal of tools at my disposal for handling it. All one can do is to develop a thick skin and to do one's best to nip such things in the bud as much as is possible before they get totally out of hand. And you know, as much as that does suck, at least I haven't had one of these situations get totally out of hand in years (and knock wood that this continues). I've become competent in shutting down the disrespect before it gets to the level where I need to create paper trails and get my chair involved. That's got to be worth something, right?
But that was the other thing that came through in my conversation with my colleague. For him, this was like this totally outlandish and awful thing that happened. He was at a loss. He had done all the right things, really had gone above and beyond, and all he got for his trouble was shit. On the one hand, I understand his anger and his shock. And maybe he is even right to take it personally. Since this isn't a regular part of his job, maybe it is, actually, personal, and maybe he's right to feel personally hurt and affronted.
On the other hand, though, I kind of feel like the ability to take it personally and to have hurt feelings over this sort of thing is also an effect of (hetero, white) male privilege. So while I do empathize, and I've been there myself, and my colleague also recognizes - though perhaps for the first time concretely - the privilege within which he's been operating, so he's not at all an entitled jerk.... With all of those caveats in place? Cry me a river. Now you see how the other half lives.
6 years ago