A conversation I'd missed
While I've been in dog-paddling land (water?), I've not been keeping up with my blogroll as well as I'd like. I had noticed these discussions at Dr. Crazy's (and the places where she links), and wanted to get back to them. I didn't really think I'd have a lot to say, though. Funny, how things change.
Normally speaking, I don't have much of an authority problem in the classroom. First, I'm old enough to be the mother of pretty much all my students. That wasn't true at the CCs where I taught, but there, they dynamic was so different, and I think many of the older students came with a different mind-set that said, "respect for teachers." Second, I know my stuff. The students seem to know that I know it -- although they regularly try to stump me. The good students know I come across as a hard-ass, but that I am happy to make allowances when there's good reason. Life happens.
I'm also confident enough in my classroom that I am pretty easy-going. I allow the students to make smart-ass comments, unless they're rude towards someone. I will occasionally allow students to make a call on how we approach something -- if they really don't feel like formal group work on a particular day, I'll bag it and restructure, perhaps my letting them review for a second with just one neighbor. It hasn't hurt me so far.
When I have had challenges to my authority, though -- not to my subject knowledge, but actual challenges where a student thinks it appropriate to tell me they don't like something about how I'm teaching -- it's always from young men, and it always stems from bruised egos and hurt feelings. I am not mean to my students. I will call them on things -- this semester, I've had to stop class and do The Stare, and have even simply asked, "why is it that I'm talking, and yet you are talking at the same time?" Still, I generally keep a relaxed, productive classroom where students feel free to offer their opinions.
That doesn't translate to written comments. I sometimes write things on papers like, "good point!" "Nice example!" -- and in my closing comments, I always try to say something encouraging. But mostly, especially when students don't follow very explicit directions or Just. Can't. Write., I'm blunt. Not mean. Just blunt. The same is true on Blackboard. When students go off on tangents, or post comments that aren't within the guidelines, I will generally validate what they've said (unless they're asking something that's in the syllabus), and then remind them that they need to follow the guidelines.
But I'm not touchy-feely. I'm not obliged to offer false praise to protect my students' fragile egos. And you know what? I'm not going to muddy the waters of grading by saying a bunch of nice stuff and handing out a D. That can't be good for anybody.
Why am I going on about this? Because I had a student chew my ass in class the other day. I had no idea how to handle it. We walked in, sat down, and I asked if there were any questions before we started. And this student went off on me. He felt he had been disrespected, and not only wanted to let me and the world know that I was out of line, but that he was no longer going to do a certain type of assignment because ...well, frankly, I stopped listening at that point. I stopped listening because I was madly doing about 15 things, all in my head -- trying to figure out all the following things: "Do I tell him to shut up and take it up with me outside class time?" "Will that make things worse?" "OMG, I am now totally fucked, and this class will never listen to me again and this is my favourite class!" "What the FUCK is he talking about??? I know for a fact that I was not rude to him! should I pull up the correspondence on the screen and let the class see that this young man is way the hell out of line?" "How can I fix this?" "Why am I just standing here? Why am I saying nothing?"
In the end, he stopped, I said I was sorry he felt that way, because I honestly couldn't remember saying anything that should have been taken as he'd taken it, but that I would check after class, and that if he didn't want to participate and was willing to throw out ten percent of his grade (and I did not say, "by being a big crybaby"), that was his option. We went on to talk about the reading for the day, and the student politely took place in the discussion, and even engaged with me pleasantly. The whole unpleasant episode took about 5 minutes, but I'm still entirely disturbed by it a few days later. I'm worried about the class, and I'm worried about evals. And I'm annoyed with myself, because I know that race and gender and class played parts in my not responding. All of a sudden, lots of stereotypes come into play. One's actions will reinforce some of them at the expense of others. Which ones would you pick?