Monday, June 16, 2008

Except One

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.

20 comments:

chall said...

ouch. I remember my first evaluation as a TA. All in the class, sans one, were happy with me. The one who disliked me wrote her complaints (since I know who she was not to mention 95% of the class were female) in terms of "TA[me] has a bad attitude"

And I think I knew we were going to have trouble in our communication since the first few times when she stated in the class room that "this course is silly, useless and can I leave the room now?!". I said yes, she sould leave. She then said she wanted to get a passing grade in the class, and I explained that if she left she couldn't pass the class... and if she didn't like th subject, maybe she needed to think if she would be happy in the future doing what we trained her to do since the course was key in her education.

It was still all my fault. Even when she handed in a lab report without a single interpunctation (dot, commas etc). Not a single one. Did I mention that there were no capital letters either.... and this was labreport in microbiology, not poetry... ^^

Squeaky Wipers said...

Are you 100% sure the student whom you think gave you the bad review is indeed the perpetrator? I ask because during my undergrad years, I believe I was the victim of mistaken identity for "anonymous" reviews.

I've always been a "to the beat of my own drum" kind of learner; meaning, I'm slow and have a lot of idiosyncracies. For example, I really need to focus, to the point where I cannot hold a conversation while I focus on setting up my experiment; some may perceive this as being unfriendly, and to some I'm an antisocial ragging bitch.

There was one TA with whom I had a bad "review" experience. She was my TA for a low level lab course, and then again for an upper year lab course (she is not a grad student, but a staffed lab instructor).

Anyways, I had her for an intro lab course during my FIRST semester of college. I was stressed to the max, and I would always show up during her office hours to ask questions, and/or even question some of the marked reports. Being young and naive, I wasn't as socially 'suave' as I could have been, and I feel she took offense to my inquizitiveness. Nevertheless, I gave the instructor and the course a good review because she was an effective instructor, and I enjoyed the course.

I encountered this TA again for an upper year lab course, and from the start when I reintroduced myself, the animosity was palpable. Her assumption that I gave her a bad review was the only deduction I had for her hostility. She is at least 10 to 15 years my senior so I couldn't have been caught flirting with her boyfriend or anything (jokingly). I wasn't able to switch lab sections, but fortunately I still ended up with a good mark due to stellar reports she couldn't do much to. The "lab conduct" portion of my cumulative mark wasn't great, despite the fact that I was a great lab citizen (cleaned up after myself, courteous to others, finished my stuff in a timely manner, etc.)

Perhaps my experience is one (of perhaps many) example[s] of the ineffectiveness and possible "side effects" of the "anonymous" review system; the tendency to "guesstimate" the authors is inevitable, and in my case, it distracted me from my studies.

Having worked in the industry with some "real world" experience under my belt, I understand the need for performance reviews to "calibrate" the worker bees. However, when I was a college student oblivious to the real world, I didn't appreciate being caught in the middle of that drama.

PhysioProf said...

Some people are just fucking assholes. And what's a real shame is that in addition to ordinary assholes, as a society we are still churning out misogynist assholes. It's a shame, because these misogynist assholes are soaking up all kinds of powerful messages coming from their preachers, the media, their families, etc that women exist to fuck and raise children.

Then they enter the real world, and they have to deal women as complete human beings, and they just can't fucking do it. This fucks their lives up to some greater or, if they can overcome their patriarchal indoctrination, lesser extent. Maybe this dumb fuck student in your class will wake up to reality some day.

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

A responsible teacher feels guilty about writing off a student's evaluation. And they shouldn't, without good reason (that one student may have spotted something, or had an insight, that everyone else missed). Except in a situation like this, where you can feel pretty confident that you aren't missing anything. Put differently, you had perfect evals for the semester. Wow!

As for the student, well, he's got some hard knocks coming down the road. I hoping for the kind of TV drama scene where he's put in a room with a female and male boss, and eventually the male boss sees just how nasty he is to his female boss, at which point he gets his walking papers.

Anonymous said...

That's unfortunate. Some female students have a hard time dealing with women in authority. Sometimes just pointing it out helps. Other times it is a lost cause. Perhaps she will read your blog.

Helen said...

Ugh. My sympathies.

On a sillier note, I can't help wondering if the "you just want to see sexism" trolls will show up for this one too.

Anonymous said...

I had a friend who was a teaching assistant for a laboratory class; she was partnered with a male teaching assistant, and she found exactly this kind of treatment from a male student of hers (disrespectful treatment only towards her). Actually, she had a lot of trouble with this student. The student was clearly from abroad (I reside in Canada), and we thught that perhaps he was not accustomed to taking instructions from females in authority positions where he was from... it was immensely frustrating for her, and she ended up getting a very bad review from him as well. I've heard of other instances of this kind of thing. It's unfortunate, and I hope that it isn't that common...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

My sexist student was a grad student. He was sitting in on an upper-division undergrad class of mine, and never missed an opportunity to hold forth *in my class*, using my frequent "are there any questions here?" pauses to do so. At one point, he interrupted my lectures because he had printed some illustrations out from the internet that he wanted to pass around to the class. I tried to soft-pedal it, taking him aside after class and asking him to make sure to be aware that the level of his participation didn't intimidate the undergrads. Problem Child actually talked over the end of my sentences *during* this admonition -- sentences that were telling him that he talked too much.

I thought he was just your garden-variety know-it-all. Then, I talked to another female prof, and two of his male profs, and saw that his basic discourtesy ran clearly along gender lines. Female Colleague and I are convinced to this day that he doesn't even realize.

meijusa said...

Neither the blog entry nor the comments so far mention the option of confronting the student to ask what's up with the rude behavior (during the term, not after evaluations) - which is the first thing that came to my mind. Am I off base?

Female Science Professor said...

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.

I did try to talk to the student, though I would not use the word 'confront' to describe my approach. My attempts at conversation/discussion were met with hostility.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

Oooh, have one of those in my current class. He acutually submitted a 26 page lab report that detailed my errors, ranging from not answering his "simple questions designed to be answered by a yes or no so as not to disturb the class" from using notation he is not used to, all the way to forcing him to be displeased at what he has (not) learned.

It was so bizarre. I had tried to answer his attacks for a while, explaining that his sitting in class, legs stretched out, arms crossed, eyebrow raised above a scowl denotes more than anything what he really intends. Also, he scares the shit out of the others (first semester froshers) with his questions.

His "report" so spooked me, that I sent it on to the chair of the examinations board requesting that he accompany me when I speak to the student, I don't want to do this alone.

Mr. SmartyPants didn't turn in a lab report this week (oh, and last week he didn't get done because I couldn't find the error in what he was doing in the lab that was obviously correct) and didn't show up for class, either. Maybe we have a solution here and he has dropped the course.

chemfan said...

I was a TA for 2 years for my favorite introductory level undergraduate course. Although they never actually let me see the TA evaluations (I think it has something to do with it being a small liberal arts college where I might be friends or roommates with one of the students) I did have a student verbally accost me in front of the entire lab AND the lab prof in my first year. He accused me of downgrading him for no reason, saying that he worked harder than everybody else but received worse grades, that I wasn't willing to give him a break in terms of assignments or finishing lab work on time. I calmly explained to him that he wasn't getting different treatment and told him to compare is grades to others if he wanted to see how I graded everyone else (while simultaneously thinking that bitching me out in front of everyone wasn't going to score him any extra credit points).

This student moved incredibly slowly in the lab, often keeping me and the professor there an hour after the lab was meant to end (which was 10 pm, by the way) but refusing our offers for help along the way. He turned in assignments late. He didn't turn in a few weeks of lab reports in the middle of the semester and was mad when I wouldn't let him turn them in for credit at the end of the semester (we weren't supposed to accept any late work but I would make small exceptions for students if they came and talked to me beforehand). I'm 100% positive that my evaluation by him was very very bad. Luckily the lab prof saw this confrontation and was as aghast as shocked as I was, so I was re-hired for a second year.

I later learned from his lab partner in a different introductory course that he would regularly come to their lab high. So maybe he had a problem with a female authority figure (or one with as much authority as a TA can muster). Or maybe he was just paranoid.

Davey Jones said...

FSP, the fact that you care about one student of 100 speaks volumes about your character. I wish all my profs cared as much as you did, and if they did I'd never have received a C in cell bio. That one student probably didn't belong in that class anyway, I'd kill to have you as my undergrad prof, and I hope I can be as considerate as you in ten years.

Davey Jones said...

Also I apologize for my sex for questioning the instructor of anyone based on gender...

Female Science Professor said...

Several commenters have made assumptions about the gender of the hostile student, though not all have made the same assumption. I specifically didn't mention it in my post because I wasn't sure it mattered.

Karen said...

I recently heard on a news station that when Geraldine Ferraro was running for vice president, it was voiced by women that they would not vote for her, because "how could she think she could handle the job as VP" when they themselves did not feel capable of being vice president.
If the hostile student is female, then is it possible that she does not think she herself could be a science professor, so neither should you?

I saw a hostile female grad student behave similarily towards a female postdoc. I often thought it was because the grad student did not believe she, herself, could be a prof, so she did everything to sabatoge the postdoc's career.

Doctor Pion said...

I can't help but wonder what will happen when this student gets out in the working world, where similar actions can have legal repercussions, and ends up with a female boss.

Anonymous said...

yeah, I do not think the gender of the student matters much. I've seen this from both genders. Oddly enough, I saw it less when I was in a male-dominated field. I wonder if that was because students perceived me as an "honorary male" or because I was appropriately "motherly." I do think there are some things male professors can get away with -- in the way they interact with students -- that female profs cannot. Of course this is true the other way around too.

All in all, it is a complicated picture. For example, I get the, "are you really and truly a real professor?" question a few times/semester. I am female and non-white. After a few years of collecting data, I noticed a pattern. I get the question from all kinds of students, but I get it from nearly each and every student of my race. One possibility is that my race/ethnicity is relatively more sexist, but I'd like to think it has to do with them being excited to see an example of what they may become (we're underrepresented in academia by about an order of magnitude with respect to the general population). This framing has helped me see the question not as a challenge to my authority or competence, but as something more positive. Well, most of the time...

Karen said...

I wrote in a comment incorrectly that a news station reported the lack of women supporters for Geraldine Ferraro when in fact the information was from an article by Maureen Dowd of the NY Times and not from a news station. Just to give proper credit,Ms. Dowd writes in an article about Hilary Clinton entitled "Watch Out, Meryl Streep! She’s a Master Thespian": "When I interviewed scores of women after Ronald Reagan won the women’s vote in ’84, I was stunned at what I heard. Many working-class women said they didn’t vote for Ferraro because they didn’t feel capable of running the country, so how could she?"

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog, and I love it!

I'll cop to assuming the student was male, though the commenters' experiences with women and their fallacy-riddled conclusions are frightening/enlightening.

I've long thought that sexist students should be thrown out of university for creating a hostile work environment for women profs. and the women students alike (not to mention the above average likelihood that a misogynist will rape). From the information you were able to corroborate with other professors, it sounds like it wouldn't be too hard to prove when a student is engaging in harassment motivated by sexism.

I don't know if self-loathing women should get the same treatment since I wasn't aware this problem existed among some of them. Probably they should.