Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What? You Thought This Would Never Happen to You?

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.


The Steel Magnolia said...

Wow. I'm on your side of the fence. I have those subtle challenges all the time, and I've had whole class act a total fool and then bitch me out in the evaluation. And I've had the, "you pick the wrong books and can't tell me my writing is wrong" comments, too. I can't imagine a term going by without something like that. Sucks. But, like you, I've learned to handle it.

Rose said...

Say it, sister. Happens to me all the time.

Unknown said...

Every single year in at least one class...

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yep. My fave is the student who is used to being the brightest in the class (always a guy), who is doing C work in mine, so has to correct me on little things ...

PhysioProf said...

The students who criticize me on course evaluations because "she acts like she knows more about the material than we do."

That's totally fucking hilarious! My experience has been that if you make it clear that you do not give one single flying fucking shit what your students think of you, and that your ego is 100% indifferent to whether they actually "respect" you, then students tend to treat you with respect. I think this is because students pull the kind of wackaloon shit your describe in order to get a rise and to play dominance games. That only works for them if the professor plays too.

Belle said...

Wackaloon shit... love that! I get this in nearly half the classes every term. This is why I don't like teaching US History; challenging conservative thinking in my uni is always problematic and produces (in my classes) not so subtle challenges.

Your colleague needs to get a grip.

Dr. Crazy said...

PhysioProf - but how can they be playing a dominance game when I don't see the eval. until after the class is over? That's what strikes me as so weird about that one.

I think you're right, to some extent, about the not giving a shit.... I found that the more I talk openly about wackaloon shit my students have said to me in the past with current students, the less of it I get, and I think the fact that I'm not all ashamed about it makes all the difference in the world. Also, I think word on the street is now that I don't play nicely with wackaloons.

Dr. Crazy said...

Belle, yes about the colleague needing to get a grip, but to be fair, he approached me when it had just happened, and seriously: if what happened to him had happened to me, even with my cold and bitter heart, I'd have been taken aback and maybe even upset. I'm sure he's cool now, but in the moment? And with it being his first encounter with this phenomenon? I'm willing to cut him some slack.

Unknown said...

Hell yeah. I've seen every shade of that subtle to not-subtle rainbow of student insult and, like you, I've become (almost completely) immune to their shit and willing to give as good as I get.

Recently a student told me that a bunch of students from one of my classes take another class together right after mine, in which students behave really outrageously towards the prof. My student said that whenever this happens, all the students from my class look at each other and whisper, "Dr. BSG would never let that happen!" This story put me totally over the moon. (The teacher is a newbie young woman -- and I think, "just give her time.")

Thanks for the great post.

The History Enthusiast said...

Is it terrible of me to wish that what happened to your colleague would happen to some of my male friends? I don't want them to get really upset or hurt, but at the same time I am so tired of them saying that I must be making this shit up.

Dr. Crazy said...

I hate my colleague now. The student apologized. Energetically. Gross. I hate boys.

AliceAcademic said...

Ditto on the hating boys. Can you say more about how he got the student to apologize? I'm teaching for the first time, and I'm getting a lot of subtle disrespect, and it is upsetting. It hasn't been disruptive, but I don't want it to get there. What do you do to command more respect? Is this something you can really change?

Dr. Crazy said...

He didn't do motherfucking *anything* to get the student to apologize. The student just emoted spontaneously, I suspect because the student was mesmerized by the monument of his big, straight, white dick. So there are no lessons to be learned from his situation, other than that we all should get penises of our very own.


But Alice, I can tell you this from my experience. I've always had better luck if I acknowledged the disrespect (whether of me or of students in the class) and just stated outright that the specific disrespectful behavior was not acceptable. When the issue is with one student, I typically have started by approaching the student privately.

When it's a bunch, I call them out on the behavior (usually chatter) publicly. I always explain the why of it (much in the way that those nanny shows suggest that parents explain why something is unacceptable to their unruly children). Example: a bunch of students are chattering in the back of class while I'm lecturing. I stop midstream and remain silent until the room is silent. And then I say, "It's impolite to talk while another person is talking, and more than that, I'm the professor in this classroom. Other students have paid good money to listen to me talk. You're not only disrespecting me, you're disrespecting them." I pause for effect, and then I go on with the lecture as if nothing has happened. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If I've already taken a student aside privately to advise them about their behavior in the course, and then it continues, I just shut them down in class, by acknowledging their comment and changing the subject. Example: "Yes, that's one way of looking at it. What about thisotherunrelatedthing, Other Students in the Class?" And if the offending student raises his/her hand, I don't call on him/her. I'd rather hurt one student's feelings than facilitate an environment in which the majority of the class is rolling their eyes and feeling dissatisfied. YMMV.

But for what it's worth, I'll also say this. When I've failed to take a direct approach - when I've tried to ignore disrespect, in that it wasn't obviously disrupting a class - that has always gone badly. By the time it got disruptive, I had no capital with the students (both the disrespectful and non-disrespectful), and so I couldn't effectively manage the behavior. The worst evals of my life have come from those sections in which I hoped that the students would equalize on their own. The respectful students hated me for not calling out the disrespectful ones, and the disrespectful ones just vented their spleens against me. Again, YMMV, but for me the best approach has been to be assertive and direct and to nip such occurrences in the bud early and often.

SilverRowan said...

I have to say, this "The students who criticize me on course evaluations because "she acts like she knows more about the material than we do."" Made me snicker. Seriously? wow.

but as a recent undergraduate there have been times when the profs needed standing up to. The time one was refusing to accommodate a students hospitalized diabetic coma. The time a prof was withholding good grades from students unless they did work that served to make this prof a profit. Nasty stuff, but what you are talking about is ridiculous, and good luck!

Maude said...

My problem right now is I'm tired of enforcing and they know it. I call students out; I ask them to leave. It's now coming down to a battle of wills. I will prevail, but I will most likely pass out the last day of class and not wake up until February.

Bardiac said...

I'm still agog that it was the first time he'd ever dealt with this.

Shannon said...

I do the same silence, calling out thing in my large classes (although I first do the evil eye, extended stare thing which works in most cases). The thing that really pisses me off about that is that you can just see that for many of the students, I'm stepping out of my gender role - I'm being the bitch - and they don't know what to make of it. There's some research on student evaluations that shows female professors don't get dinged on evaluations UNTIL they step out of their gender role (that it, we stop being kind and nurturing). The total catch-22 about it is that we are MORE likely to face the situations that require us to act that way.

Rebel Girl said...

Great post - this stuff happens to me every semester.

anummabrooke said...

Crazy, I linked to you in a responsive post, but I don't think you'll get the trackback from WordPress:

The upshot is that I'm glad you wrote such a constructive post on the topic. And in my experience, yes, we (white) men see less of it and so are broad-sided when it comes along.

Bavardess said...

I'm torn. I think it's good that your colleague got a reality check (although the fact the student then apologised kind of reduces its value). But I'm appalled that students actually behave like this on a regular basis.

All through undergrad, the worst I saw was a bit of chatting/cell phone use, but usually as soon as the prof shut it down once, it didn't happen again. I certainly never saw anything like the outright disrespect for the professor's expertise/position. If you think you're smarter than the professor, why are you even wasting everyone's time at university??

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I had to grouse at all my classes today. And two classes thought I wasn't all that grouchy. Argh. I did also have to say, "oi! people! trying to start class here! standing in front of you not being heard!" They laughed and settled immediately, all muttering various levels of 'oops!' and 'sorry!'

Every once in while I just stop and remind the freshmen that my having a friendly and discursive classroom is predicated on the idea that they will all behave like adults and interested students. And sometimes, I threaten to change the course into a lecture course where they will be responsible for putting everything together all by themselves, without my creating assignments that allow them to fail better and learn.

Usually, I get two kinds of challenges -- people who know I like them and think I'm not going to fail their lazy butts, and the aforementioned smart boys. One of whom actually wrote that, "she thinks she knows more than anyone else, and has to show it," comments on an eval.

My word is 'suckshie'

PhysioProf said...

PhysioProf - but how can they be playing a dominance game when I don't see the eval. until after the class is over?

There was supposed to be a paragraph break between the first sentence of my comment and the rest. I meant the "dominance game" assertion to apply in general to student wackaloonery, not specifically to the teaching eval douchery.

AliceAcademic said...

Thanks a lot for the suggestions! I'm not looking forward to it, but I guess I'm gonna have to pull aside some disrespectin' doods and give them a talking to.

Joe Beckmann said...

What remarkable naivete on YOUR part! The easiest thing in the world when confronted by a know-it-all-student is to give them the chalk and ask them to teach! Fighting them only makes them stronger and you more pathetic, regardless of your tenure, your status or your "need for control." I always think it immensely rewarding to be confronted by bright students, and to engage them in their own intelligence on behalf of themselves and their peers. Sometimes they're right, sometimes wrong, just ... like ... me.

There's a famous story of Eric Bentley at Columbia, who had a student with one of those half hour questions in a 90 minute lecture hall with 400 other students. After the question, Bentley nodded, and simply resumed his lecture. In that particular case, they were there for him and not for each other, and that was the right thing to do (a little disrespectful to the pompous student or Eric-to-be, but you takes your money and makes your choice).

At the same time, I once worked with a brilliant teacher in North Carolina who, quoting one of her own mentors, suggested, "if you want them to get a warm feeling, ask them to pee their pants." We're not here - or there - just to feel good. But sometimes they really DO know more than we do, and that should be celebrated not insulted.

The History Enthusiast said...

Joe, I would have to disagree.

First, if I were to hand the chalk over to a student and say, "If this is so easy, why don't you teach!" then the rest of the class would immediately lose respect for my position. As much as I internally *want* to make that sort of statement, to actually DO it looks incredibly petty and immature. Now, perhaps there are ways to address disrespectful students that we have not yet mentioned in this forum, but your first suggestion is not particularly viable.

Second, you state: "I always think it immensely rewarding to be confronted by bright students." That is absolutely not the issue, as I see it. Please, Crazy, correct me if I am wrong. The situation that many women faculty confront on a regular basis is students who refuse to acknowledge our expertise and ask questions that are intended to point out our faults or inconsistencies. These are not students who are seeking to forward the discussion, at least in my experience.

H said...

Oh yeah. It actually took me years to realize that the pervasive disrespect is much stronger for women professors, and that a woman professor who is intellectual and demanding will get terrible evaluations from many students. Men (white men I should add) get much more respect and are considered tough but fair, challenging in a good way. Unfortunately the old boys feel the same way about their female colleagues. I had my Chair come down on my like a ton of bricks for not bending over backwards and going against my syllabus to be more sympathetic and motherly to a student who failed to show up to take an exam after saying specifically that she would be there. We women are supposed to be warm and fuzzy and coddling, giving all students high grades and gold stars. It is not my nature to do that, particularly when I am teaching a total of 400 students in four lecture classes for science majors.

Joe Beckmann said...

History enthusiast, you misunderstand, or, perhaps I wasn't clear enough. In the first place, I've been very lucky in academe, and have escaped teaching large lectures for the past 30 years. When I did, however, or perhaps I should say EVEN when I did, I did it precisely as I would advise anyone else: I walked into an introductory education class, that had 75 people, ranging from sophomores to 20 year professionals returning for re-certification, and said, "I've never taken an ed course. This course has been described to me as history-anthropology-psychology-politics-economic-philosophy. Your task this summer is to teach me the "Foundations of Education," and we are to define the field."

That's it. I handed out a 1 page biblio, and the rest was what came up. It not only had the highest evaluations in the history of the school, but the Assistant Dean of instruction came up later and asked "what in the world did you do?" Explaining it, he wandered away in a daze.

And they DID cover those fields, as any inquiring mind of any 20 to 35 year old in such a circumstance would.

When a few complained that "discussion" was "inappropriate" with a group of 75, I encouraged them to meet separately. When they chose to meet at the same time, I said, "fine." At the end of the course I met their group. They hadn't done what we'd done. Instead they had scoped the field, read some books, wrote to each other, as you might expect bright students anywhere. That was fine, but, as they discovered from one small group with my penetrating questions, it wasn't a full course.

This garbage about control and respect ignores the reality that you DO know more. You don't need to brag about it, you need to use it. You don't need obeisance, you need engagement. You don't need compliance, you need more strategies of direct instruction. You don't need their awe, you're the one being paid, and they pay.

And don't give me sexist crap. I worked daily with the first elected out gay person in America for 4 years. She and I had even taught together. Respect is earned, by leadership. Knowledge is used, and pretty powerful. Engagement is meaningful, and trumps by a long shot the kind of bullying that seems so desperately adhered to in this group!

Incidentally, when I taught with my friend the first gay anything in America, we worked for Saul Alinsky's widow in an interesting interdisciplinary program now long gone. Read a little about organizing and process before you play the bully card. It's a card of incredible weakness, as Dick Daley discovered.

Dr. Crazy said...

History Enthusiast,
I think you've got it right. The issue here isn't bright students engaging or challenging the professor with substantive questions, comments or insights. (I'd take issue with the word "confront" - I don't think of my classroom as an adversarial space, and I think "confrontation" isn't really the right way to frame academic "conversation." That may just be semantics, but for me there's an important distinction there.)

I'd also say that the dynamics in a classroom are very much inflected by local institutional culture (my students get VERY irritated when there is one student in a course that dominates discussion, and they blame the professor if the professor lets that behavior continue) as well as, which this post does note, things like gender/race/sexuality. While it may be viable for a professor of a particular identity category to let a student go on and on with a question and just not respond, a professor of another identity category may not have the latitude to take such an approach. Such an approach depends on the students in a course *recognizing and validating* the professor's authority prior to the instance in which this occurs.

It also assumes that if the professor takes that approach that the student will be aware of the social cue that the professor is giving - that such lengthy, off-topic, etc. questions are not appropriate. In my student population, if you don't handle such conduct directly, the student is likely to continue with the behavior, and the other students in the course are likely to see the professor as ineffectual. I know this because I tried that approach when I first started teaching here - and it didn't work.

The point is ultimately not to insult students. (Did I ever say it was?) It is, however, to make sure that a certain level of discourse is maintained in a course. A culture where engagement and respectful disagreement are welcome, but where all students in the course see the classroom as a space that the professor makes safe for all contributions. Once disrespect enters the picture, and if the professor lets that continue without addressing it directly, I really do believe that the classroom stops being a safe space in which all of its members can learn and participate. YMMV.

The History Enthusiast said...

You're right, Crazy. Confront may not be the most precise word. That was just on my brain since I have two very confrontational students this semester.

Joe Beckmann said...

One more thing, History Enthusiast, teaching is not a competitive event, for anybody, anywhere. It's collegial and it's fraught with mutual respect. When I hand chalk to a student (more often now a marker on a SmartBoard), it's not to say "if it's so easy, you do it." Quite the reverse. It rather says, "I respect you enough to help others." Teachers do get to choose their fights, and I choose to compete only when everybody wins. That's why I'm the teacher and they're the students. How else do you earn those "big bucks?"

Dr. Crazy said...

I posted your last couple of comments, but I think that the discussion is edging toward (if it hasn't already gotten there ) rude and disrespectful on your part. In your comments here, you've called me naive, you've suggested that when THE talks about gender that it's "crap" and you're refusing to admit that there may be another perspective on this stuff than your own, and you suggest that your experience trumps everybody else's.

You're right: teaching isn't a competition, or shouldn't be. Neither should a comment thread on my blog be a competition. So let's keep the conversation collegial, yes?