A reader wrote with a quandry about teaching students who are openly disrespectful. I have modified the e-mail message to remove some possibly-identifying details.
Some background: I'm a recent PhD graduate in my late 20s, working as a postdoc in a science field. The postdoc includes teaching one class a year, and I get to initiate and design the class based on my research area, which is really great.I've already taught this class once and it went over well. The class at that time didn't count for the major, so it was small and everyone who was taking the class was genuinely interested in the subject. I built a rapport with the students, and ended up with great evaluations that way exceeded my expectations.This time, the class counts for the major, and my enrollment has increased to over 40. This is good, but now I have a variety of students, at least some of whom are only taking the class to complete their major.While the students are actually better prepared on average than last year's class, they're extremely demanding -- not just about getting help understanding, which I appreciate and am happy to oblige -- but on details of how I run the class: they want me to make detailed powerpoint slides for every lecture, write practice tests, provide test outputs for their programming homework, and so on. I'm already stretched extremely thin, and besides, I don't want to spoon-feed them! My lectures are actually clearer than when I gave them last year -- and there were no complaints then -- so I don't think my teaching style should be causing problems. They also object to how I demand some degree of class participation and cold-call people for answers.The biggest problem I have, though, which is the real reason I'm writing to you, is that I unlike last year, I don't feel I have the respect of the majority of the students -- specifically, many of the male students. I lucked out with a niche set of students last year, but I get the sense now that many of the students have a preconception about my intelligence and ability. For example, today, I made a minor error running through the details of an algorithm. I clarified it quickly and the rest of the class went fine, but several people snickered or rolled their eyes when this happened and continued well after we were back on track. Obviously, errors and confusion in lectures are frustrating for the students, but I'm concerned they're expressing it by snickering so openly. There have been other instances -- for example, students being quick to assume I've made a mistake in writing out a formula, when it's really them misreading it.Do you have any suggestions on gaining their respect while not being authoritarian (which I anticipate will also cause problems due to my gender)? I am very confident in my knowledge of the material, and fairly confident with leading a classroom, and these reactions are disturbing.
This reminded me of some experiences I had in my early years of teaching. I admit that I never dealt with this sort of situation in any active way. I did try to convey the impression that I was aware of the disrespect (not clueless about it) and was unimpressed by it, and I always hoped that by being calm and teaching the class the best way I knew how, the jerks would get a little bored. Sometimes this mostly worked.
I think being relentlessly calm (without losing your sense of humor or passion for the subject you are teaching) is very different from being authoritarian. You can be authoritative without being authoritarian.
The only thing that really worked for me was to get significantly older than the students. That is not very satisfying as advice though.
Does anyone have any better advice? Have any of you dealt with this type of situation and found a way to silence the snickerers? Does being authoritarian work (assuming you can pull it off effectively)?