In the pile of things lurking in my mailbox upon my return from my travels were my teaching evaluations for last term. I am always curious about what I will find in my evaluations. I had an overall positive feeling about my class last term, but there are some things you don't know about how students perceive a class until they fill out the evaluations.
In the evaluations for my class this time, every student except one said that they learned a lot. Every student except one said they would recommend my class to others. Every student except one said that they would recommend me as an instructor. Every student except one said that I treated students with respect, was approachable, gave timely feedback, was organized, and so on.
I know which student hated the class. This student was unremittingly rude throughout the entire academic year. Is it better to know in advance that at least one student hates your class, or is it better if you don't know until you read your evaluations? Neither is good, of course, and in this case, knowing in advance that this student hated me and my class did not help us resolve the situation, and made for some unpleasant moments throughout the year. The student was unwilling to consider that the problems stemmed from anything but my failure as a teacher and a person, and attempts at friendly conversation went nowhere.
My initial hypotheses were that (1) the student had trouble learning in a classroom setting and expressed this frustration in some unpleasant ways; or (2) the student was having problems outside school, and these were of such severity that the student's academic life was also affected. Hypothesis 1 was discounted by various lines of evidence, and I was never able to figure out much about hypothesis 2 except that this student did not display rude behavior in every class, leading me to revise my hypotheses to consider data related to the student's selective rude behavior.
The data: out of six professors in my department, the student was blatantly rude and disrespectful to three, and polite and respectful to three. Call it a coincidence if you will, but the three of us in the hated category are female, and the professors in the respected category are male. I considered the possibility that the male professors were oblivious to some of the more subtle aspects of the rude behavior, but when I described some of the more dramatic examples, it became clear that this student behaved in a different way with different faculty and had been doing so for a long time.
I've learned over the years that you can't please every student in every class. Perfection is not possible, and it's a moving target from class to class depending on the students, class size, fall vs. spring term, topic/level of class, instructor energy level, and no doubt a long list of other things. You can't spend too much psychic energy being upset about one unhappy student in a class that otherwise seems to have been successful.
Even so, it's hard to write off a student, even an unpleasant one, even a sexist one. This student has now graduated, and will likely continue being rude to women in authority positions and polite to men. I regret that the student's time at the university, including a year of classes with me, made no apparent dent in a rather twisted world-view.
6 months ago