Thursday, January 27, 2011

Favorite Jerk

Last fall, I wrote about a student who was disrespectful to the TA of my course. I decided not to intervene unless the problem persisted. It did not. In the post, I specifically wondered whether I wanted to know the name of the disrespectful student (the TA did not provide the name in our initial conversation). I was concerned in part because I found that I was assuming it was a particular student, and maybe that wasn't fair -- maybe I was assuming the wrong person.

In any case, I did learn the identity of the obnoxious student, it was the one I assumed it was, and I ended up very much enjoying having this student in my class.

He had a gruff way of speaking and could be very abrupt, and even seemingly rude. He was often anxious. He worked very hard, was not exactly a 'traditional' student in some ways, and he did not always deal well with his stress.

He was unambiguously rude to the TA early in the term, but once the course was underway, he found that he was very interested in the subject. He asked lots of good questions (including some curiosity-driven questions that were only tangentially related to the course topic), and I even got him to laugh a few times. When he figured something out, he helped some of the other students. I found that I liked him. I would be happy to have him take one of my courses again.

I think it is important to have these reminders from time to time that negative first impressions of students can change into positive impressions with more interaction. Just as we hope our students will keep an open mind about us as professors (and people) and appreciate our hard work, so, too, can we enjoy teaching students who seem like jerks (at first).

14 comments:

Gears said...

Do you think this student behaved this way because of some sort of cultural difference? The reason I bring this up is because I am american but I am currently at a university in europe where the diversity is very high. There have been times when I've come off as "gruffy" or "rude" when that was not the original intention. (PS, not trying to stoke a culture war)

Anonymous said...

By 'traditional', do you mean male?

Eilat said...

On a slightly tangential note, I find that those kinds of assumptions are usually right. Not just about students, but in life in general.

Xolo said...

I have a student this semester who is similar to the one you describe. I came to learn that he has Asperger Syndrome.

My biggest challenge is how to mediate some of the harsh comments and critiques he has of what other students say (the class is a seminar).

It's going to be an interesting semester.

Anonymous said...

Was the student an international student? I ask because when I first came to the US as a grad. student, people considered me to be rude/ abrupt/gruff... It took a while for me to understand the culturally appropriate way to approach people.

EngineeringProf said...

Thanks for the reminder. With the new semester underway, I have a full class of new people and personalities to try to reach.

Female Science Professor said...

The (ex)jerk is not an international student. He's a bit older than most students, so that's why I said he wasn't a 'traditional' student in some ways.

Anonymous said...

I agree that sometimes the most annoying students end up our favorites. My 'pain-in-the-butt' student when I was a TA ended up helping me figure out to communicate difficult concepts better, a skill I continue to improve on even as faculty. She also ended up being my field assistant because she got so interested in my type of research she wanted to get some experience. In the end without her my field season would have taken twice as long.

On the other hand I have also had the annoying students get more and more annoying through the course, once the situation even concluded in a verbal assault (with 30+ witnesses).

The job is always full of surpriser and adventure, just need to take one day at a time; and have a positive attitude.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this! I am a Grad student TA who is having to deal with a student who is extremely confrontational and a complete monkey in the lab.

Your post makes me feel that there might be a chance for me to get through the semester with my sanity in tact.

(This student did finally start to show some ability to follow my instructions though once I told him that making the TA angry is a hazard, and I don't allow hazards in my lab.)

NYFA Photography said...

Keep preaching, your choir is upstairs in Tamany Hall, Union Square!

Anonymous said...

when I first met my boyfriend of 5 years (we were both new postdocs), I didn't like him. obviously that changed, but slowly. it took me a year to just to get over the offensive first impression.

Anonymous said...

I think it is great that you were able to maturely look past your "abrupt or gruff" student's initial poor impression and came to appreciate his strengths. I have dealt with many students like that but often wonder if we aren't doing them a disservice but not at some point talking to them about their behavior. I have an undergraduate research student like this and she is now having a hard time with job interviews and graduate program interviews because her first impression is unlikable. I wonder if we don't owe it to some students to let them know that while we have come to appreciate their strengths and enjoy them in class that their first impression was problematic and their interpersonal style can be perceived as rude. Or even more simply, giving them back the same attitude they give us. Are we really being good teachers to ignore their behavior as future employers will likely not be so generous?

Anonymous said...

This struck a note with me. A few years ago I had a student who I thought was going to be a major problem , for similar reasons. My introduction to her was a very direct complaint on her part about an aspect of the course I thought was quite reasonable. However, as time passed, I found out that while she had strong opinions, she also had a genuine interest in the material, and by the end of the course she was one of my favorites, and I had learned enough about her back story to understand a bit about why she initially came across the way she did. I hope I learned something from that.

Mark P

Tim said...

Thanks for sharing! I think I was one of these rude/gruff students when I was an undergrad. I was a veteran and often looked at TA's with contempt, partly because they were younger than me and had less "life experience." Fortunately I had a few who were really great and, like you and your TA, worked on involving me. It opened my eyes to realize they had something valuable to teach me. Because of them I'm passing it on to my students. Keep it up!