Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Chill Out

A young colleague in Europe recently told me about some of the problems he has with students who don't treat him with respect. If he shows any sign of lenience, some students take advantage. Other students speak rudely to him.

This colleague is quite youthful looking and is not a large or imposing person. He is extremely nice and kind and thoughtful. It sounds as if some of his students are taking advantage of his niceness and others are testing him to see how he will respond.

In my younger days, I had some of these problems as well. Some of these negative interactions with students were very much gender related (example: A male student who was failing my course asked me if I ever walked alone on campus at night, and, if so, what my personal feelings were about rape. Did I think it was wrong? I found this conversation disturbing.) Other problems were more generic and are a particular affliction of those perceived to be vulnerable in some way: e.g., the youthful-looking and the non-tall.

The colleague in question is of course troubled by his negative interactions with some of his students, but I was troubled by the ways he has responded to these students or is planning to respond to some students. I think it is a mistake to overreact to such incidents or to show that you are very upset.

I did not give my young colleague direct advice because I think it would be obnoxious of me to say "You should do this and that" when I don't really know all the facts and I know little about the culture of his department or university. Also, I think that everyone needs to figure these things out in ways that best suit their own circumstances, personality, and philosophy. It can, however, be helpful to know how others have responded to similar situations, so I told him how I had or would respond in his position. He can use this information or not.

And that is: In these situations, my approach is to remain calm and consistent. It is possible to respond in a very firm and unambiguous way without appearing angry or upset. If the problems are extreme, the response can also be very strong, but showing well reasoned, patient, and persistent authority can be more effective than angry words. At least, this is what has worked for me in most situations of this sort.

Another colleague of mine used to react to student problems with great anger. She found that this was highly ineffective because some students responded by actively trying to make her angry, as if it were a game to see what buttons would get an angry response. This escalated into progressively more offensive behavior (example: Male students would show her obscene photos on their cell phones, just to see her get upset). Requesting help from administrators was not successful (their response: boys will be boys). It's difficult not to get angry in circumstances such as these, but when faced with such problems, I think a calm statement to the students of the (dire) consequences of their actions might work better than yelling. And then follow through with the consequences if required.

As college professors, we don't typically have to deal with the discipline problems of our K-12 teaching colleagues, but we do encounter student misbehavior of various sorts. We can't send these students to the principal or give them a time-out, so we have to use the tools at our disposal. Low-level rudeness can mostly be ignored or dealt with by discussion with the students. For more serious problems, it is worth looking into university policies regarding removing a threatening or disruptive student from a class or following other official courses of action.


Anonymous said...

So 18-21 year old students are still acting like little kids and trying to make the teacher mad on purpose?? For example, by asking stupid question on purpose or making up stories or sending too many emails.

The student who was failing your class and asking you about walking alone and feeling on rape...that student is crazy and should have been reported. Totally unbelievable!

There is a lot of baby sitting in k-12 teaching. You spend a lot of your time on discipline issues, classroom management, parents, and documenting crazy stuff.

But why is classroom management and behavioral issues even a problem at the college level?

I am not talking about community college, which is a totally different story.

I guess big football or basketball stars can potentially be a problem.

It would seem to be a non-issue because students care too much about their grades to be rude or act inappropriate on purpose.

Some students are immature and they don't even know it (ex. think they are still in high school, deserve an A just for coming to class)

Just make class participation 10% of the grade. Or make it 15%.

However, some students are crazy and they don't even know it....it is your professional obligation to report students with mental problems. For safety reasons, just in case....

For male teachers, always leave the office door open. For young male assistant professors, always dress up and wear a tie before tenure.

No discussion of irrelevant personal questions. Better safe than sorry. You never know how students might attack you by going to administrators. Save crazy emails from crazy students just in case.

I guess this is why having a TA or TAs are helpful. So the students can "abuse" the TA. Verbal abuse: acting rude during office hours or email spam.

However, in general, college professors needs to be just a little bit more patient with students. A professor by definition is both a teacher and a researcher. If you don't want to teach then don't be a professor, go be a scientist in some private or government lab....

Finally, professors should NOT allow students to kiss up or suck up to the teacher for better grades (skills they learned in K-12 and it worked in K-12).

Anonymous said...

Many students expect TAs to spoon feed them like little babies.

Another story.....Being a TA can be very very very stressful, especially in lower division classes. Twice the amount of stress (from students) for 10% of the pay.

Professors: 100k salary, only 1 hr office hour a week or none (by appointment only), okay if they don't reply to student emails.

Graduate Students: 2-3 hours of office hour hell, might get in trouble if they don't reply to student emails, students might complain to administrator regarding having a "bad TA"

20k slave labor salary, have to do all the grading for over 100 students. And expected to make progress on research at the same time. A TAship is another full time job.

Professors have it easy....TAs are not professional teachers.

The worst is when the professor is obligated to teach but do not like to teach. ex. the professor go to conferences during the semester when they are supposed to be teaching, and the TA has to teach the class by himself. For a TA salary.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

As to the effectiveness (or not) of anger in these situations:

I don't think it's a problem to get angry, so long as I don't lose my cool. If your approach is "Chill out", then I suppose mine, if pushed by truly offensive behavior, would be to go to "dry ice." As in, voice dropped an octave or two (and a bit softer): "Don't. Ever. Do. That. Again."

Fortunately, now that I have officially entered middle age, very few people mess with me. It's nice.

Klaas said...

Getting upset is always the wrong course of action. I favour isolating and taking the piss. Say, a bunch of boys (they are almost always spotty boys) are talking and giggling in class; walk up to them and while talking over their heads make a joke at their expense that makes the rest of the class laugh. Nearly always works.

CrankyMathGuy said...

You are wise to avoid giving detailed advice without knowing the local culture.

A colleague of mine spent some time teaching at an university in the Middle-East. There she also encountered very different student behaviour than she was accustomed to dealing with. It was hard to say at first how much was her youthfulness, how much was her gender, and how much was cultural.

After she adjusted, it became clear that it was mostly cultural; once she adapted to the local style, most of her problems went away.

(Another experience from that same place: She was at first bothered by taxi drivers constantly honking at her. She wondered if this was due to her gender. Turns out that this is their way of signaling they are available for hire. In a place where no professional or foreigner walked, one could interpret this as a sign of social standing. When I (a large, northern-European male) visited, I also got the honking treatment.)

NJA said...

I agree that it's tricky to give advice without knowing the culture, but there are a couple of constants of behaviour that apply pretty much regardless.

1) Stay calm. In a power relationship (and teachers/professors are always in an initial position of authority over students), it gives the junior member the advantage if he or she can make the senior member lose control, whether this is emotionally or . So, if your colleague's students can invoke an upset or angry response from him, then they're winning their little classroom power battle and they'll have the incentive to keep up their misbehaviour.

2) Keep it impersonal. I know some people like to use family and other personal anecdotes in class, and some don't even mind giving out their mobile numbers to students, but this atmosphere of casual intimacy can lead to an erosion of respect. If your colleague's students feel that he is on the same level (of authority, importance in the university, whatever) as them, then they won't worry about any repercussions when they're rude or taking advantage. After all, who takes them to task for being nasty to their fellow students?

This is only my tuppence worth, but I've taught classes of European, middle Eastern and Asian students - where cultural norms about female teachers/professors differ enormously - and keeping to these rules has cut out misbehaviour within a couple of classes.

Anonymous said...

Amen on the honking.

I learned some techniques teaching summer school long ago that help me deal with bad behavior (I am a small young woman). My philosophy is that none of it is personal (even if it is). Student behaviors have natural consequences -- as in "laws of nature." At least in small class settings, this works: if you are talking too much about non-relevant things, suddenly the exercise you were supposed to be working on is due for credit. "I just want to make sure you understand the material, students." Poor attendance? That participation grade comes down. Personal rudeness? Often a talking-to about the policy on creating a safe and effective learning environment for all students is enough. The annual "I know more math than you, teacher-lady!" gets the offender's "solution" on the board as a class discussion -- and suddenly it's not about me or him, but the problem and its solution.

There are lots of problems I've never had to handle, but hopefully this philosophy will help me. In the culture I live in, it works well. Now I'm curious about whether it would work everywhere...

Anonymous said...

I think that if he can swing it, the best approach is "glare of death" upon first offense, with a possible follow up of "get out of my classroom, right now" in an icy tone (not angry). I've seen profs do this two or three times to great effect. It also minimizes the amount of class disruption.

Anonymous said...

I think this sort of behaviour goes on not only at college and K-12 schools, but also to some extent for managers in the work force. The difference is the school teachers and industry managers typically have training in dealing with disipline, authority, and people management. Part of the issue is profs end up in these position without any of this sort of training.

Wanna Be Mother said...

"example: A male student who was failing my course asked me if I ever walked alone on campus at night, and, if so, what my personal feelings were about rape. Did I think it was wrong? I found this conversation disturbing."

I find this very disturbing also. I would have reported this. Doesn't everyone think rape is wrong???? Other than people who would probably be rapists if they could get away with it? Sicko!!!! You don't say stuff like that unless you are a deeply disturbed person and probably are bound to act out on those insane impulses at some point.

Rainbow Scientist said...

I think different approaches work for different people, but I have seen teachers who get angry often fails in keeping students from bad behavior till getting their respect. I have complied my experiences and thoughts about teaching in this post (at least it worked for me pretty well)


Liv said...

"example: A male student who was failing my course asked me if I ever walked alone on campus at night, and, if so, what my personal feelings were about rape. Did I think it was wrong? I found this conversation disturbing."

The calm and powerful response is probably the best in this situation. Still, as I am of unfortunately volatile temperament, I might have answered:

"I believe that a woman has an unalienable right to kill her rapist. If that is not possible at the moment, then she should, on a later occasion, kidnap the rapist and torture him to death. Why?"

Nah, I guess I wouldn't have said that. But I would have reported the guy. Rape is a hate crime.

Female Science Professor said...

I did report him at the time.

Kevin said...

For young male assistant professors, always dress up and wear a tie before tenure.

That may work in some parts of the country, but is likely to backfire in northern California. Professors don't dress up in ties here---only administrators and religious zealots do. You're more likely to see a professor in a Hawaiian shirt than a tie.

I've never had problems with disruptive or threatening students, not even when I was a very skinny young assistant professor, so I can't offer much in the way of been-there-done-that advice. IT may help that I've usually taught difficult classes in large research universities, so that the losers who would try intimidation never signed up for any of my classes.

So the students can "abuse" the TA.

Absolutely no way. That is extremely unprofessional behavior, using a low-paid TA as a shield. If anything the professor should be shielding the TA.

Kate said...

FSP, I am so glad you reported him. That would have gone straight to the hate crime hotline if it had happened to me (in fact, something less bad happened to my TA last year and I immediately reported it). And the prof who had obscene photos showed to her, I hope she also reported that jackass.

Some students do think college is a game (a particularly sexist, elitist game), and they ruin it for the rest of us. I have found that, at least at my uni, being firm, cold and angry with immature, sexist behavior scared the crap out of my students. And just being firm and cold scares them out of other kinds of poor behavior (talking loudly in class, being disruptive, testing me, etc).

Rachel said...

"! guess this is why having a TA or TAs are helpful. So the students can "abuse" the TA. Verbal abuse: acting rude during office hours or email spam."

I can't tell if you're kidding or not. I fucking hope so! TAs are people, too! ...and sometimes really frazzled, hard-working but mildly terrified people who are just trying to start grad school off on the right foot :)

lost academic said...

@Anon from 1:09... those numbers may seem high to you, but I don't think from available data that professors are generally making 6 figures or above in most parts of the country, and I might also suggest in places that they do that even state employees with a handful of years of experience make 6 figures (Silicon Valley, for instance). I would disagree with your assertion that professors are professional teachers. I have almost never seen one that not only was but would claim as such. Professors are not given nor required the extensive practice, coursework and mentoring that we expect out of even the youngest high school teachers. I have long thought this a disservice to both professors and younger students, but it's up to the university and graduate programs to set an emphasis on teacher training at the baccalaureate level.

Similarly, TA requirements are widely variable even within a department, let alone the variability seen between departments, disciplines and schools.

The real heart of the issue, though, is that when you show up to college as a student, you are an adult and you should be expected by your community, your peers and YOURSELF to behave as such. Show respect and the barest modicum of decency for the people who have chosen to help you acquire the knowledge you want or need.

Siz said...

Hey anonymous 1:09,

Did it ever occur to you that professors were once TAs? Uuuuuuhhh, duh. How do you think they became professor? You obviously know very little about the academic process even though you appear to be in grad school of sorts. But obviously, you know nothing of what a professor does either. You have any idea how hard it is to manage a course of 300 students and whiny TAs who think their life is so hard?

But, btw, not a lot of professors get paid 100K, I sure as sh*t know I don't yet and won't for years.

Anonymous said...

just to clarify average US professor salary at least at an assistant level is about $65K

Anonymous said...

This is a tough issue. If you are a young, petite female that comes off as strong and confident you will quickly earn a nick name of 'the **tch professor' from students, staff and even colleagues. It's the style that I have learned to live with, and it has served me well in the classroom.

Even so, I have been physically attacked by a female student at my previous institution and almost assaulted in a public gathering place by a male student at my current institution.

As for the salary, I started off at $42K I have not broken the $65 celling yet.

cricketbird said...

Yikes - I also sincerely hope the "use the TA as a shield" bit was sarcasm that unfortunately didn't come across as such.

It may seem unnecessary or unprofessional for a university to have a behavior policy in place like high schools, but perhaps with our increasingly diverse student population, it might be becoming more and more necessary. Incidents of verbal or physical agression can and must be dealt with in the classroom initially, but also need backup from the institution at large. Far too many places, in my experience, fail to support faculty, opting instead to side with their "customers", the students. This fails to acknowledge that the 99% of the students who are behaving are being shortchanged, or that the education that they are paying for is being hurt by faculty who burn out or are stressed by the poor behavior of the few.

I think it is high time for administrators to step up and enforce behavioral standards, accept referalls of students, and deal with them appropriately.

Kevin said...

Our University does have a "disruptive student" policy and procedure, as well as one for dealing with mentally-disturbed students. It is part of the TA training, and may also be provided to new faculty. (I got here before they had such a policy.) I agree that all colleges and universities should have such policies and procedures, eve if (as here) they are rarely needed.

Anonymous said...

This is why I don't envy professors and am glad I didn't go into academia.

Anonymous said...

"The real heart of the issue, though, is that when you show up to college as a student, you are an adult and you should be expected by your community, your peers and YOURSELF to behave as such. Show respect and the barest modicum of decency for the people who have chosen to help you acquire the knowledge you want or need."

Hear hear!! That's going on my wall.

Anonymous said...

"example: A male student who was failing my course asked me if I ever walked alone on campus at night, and, if so, what my personal feelings were about rape. Did I think it was wrong? I found this conversation disturbing."

I find this extremely, extremely disturbing. I'm so glad you reported it (I hope that they did something with this info!?) and am so glad that you are okay.

Ms.PhD said...

Some of these examples you give sound like sexual harassment to me. Doesn't matter that you're the authority figure- if you feel physically threatened or uncomfortable in the workplace, I think that's the definition.

I don't know what to do with students who don't respect authority. I think I would say take it or leave it, I'm willing to kick you out right now. But I see that most PIs are not willing to say that or follow through with it.

Kim said...

If we're doing salary comparisons: started at $38,000, now tenured, make about $50,000. No faculty at my institution make 6 figures.

As for commanding respect: I usually make jokes at the expense of rude students. But maybe if I commanded respect immediately, with no effort necessary, I would make more money...

Anonymous said...

ok, salary was exaggerated....

maybe 50k to 75k, but compare Professors to TAs.....the TAs get more abuse and more stressed out....and more sexual and non-sexual "harrassment" from the students.

There are TAs who want to be teachers and those who are forced to teach. Basically slave labor for very little pay (for the amount of time and effort and stress level)

And what's up with Professors' with Office hours by appointment only??? Why do TAs have to hold office hours and discussions, labs, and guest lectures...

Female Science Professor said...

100k salary is not unreasonable for mid-career and older professors in many science departments at research universities.

I wonder how many of these I-work-harder-than-the-slacker-professor TAs have a bit of a revelation when they become professors themselves.

Doctor Pion said...

Community colleges are not an entirely different story. It is a college. And our smaller classes might increase the chance we will detect and evict that texter or kid playing Halo in the back row.

Our college students don't have to be here, and we don't have to tolerate disruptive students any more than you do. We have a police force that will remove students who disrupt class, if needed, and an administration that will back us up. We may have more students who actually are crazy, but we also have more who know what it is to hold a job.

Doctor Pion said...

Now advice to the young colleague:

You made your bed. Learn from the experience and tuck in the corners a bit better next time. Once you gave an advantage to one person, why are you surprised that others seek a similar advantage? You should blame yourself, not them.

You don't have to be big or imposing to earn respect, but you do have to have rules and stick with them. Like FSP said: calm and consistent. What some call "adult behavior".

As for the current problem, it is extremely, EXTREMELY difficult to un-ring a bell. The best you can probably do is reestablish your original rules and stick by them, and when a student raises the earlier exception, either truthfully say you made a mistake in that case, or lie and hide behind FERPA and say you cannot discuss the personal circumstances of another student. You certainly should not be angry with them for testing you further. After all, you already failed the first test.

Kevin said...

Anonymous at 4:47.

TA salaries are indeed low. Translating the 1/2 time TA position to a full-time 9-month position (which is how faculty salaries are usually given) a typical TA salary is equivalent to about a $33k faculty salary.

According to Academe, the average salary of an assistant professor at a PhD-granting public university is about $68k and at a 4-year public college about $57k.

Instructors get much less (generally around $43-45k), not much more than TAs.

TAs in our institution do not get more stress and more abuse than the faculty---nor should they anywhere. Faculty positions (particularly pre-tenure) are very stressful, more so than grad school for most people.

I'm not saying that TA abuse never happens---indeed it was common in a few humanities departments here until the TAs unionized. It is fairly rare in science and engineering departments, though, as many students in those fields have access to other funding sources, and departments that abuse TAs find themselves unable to hire any.

Anonymous said...

"If we're doing salary comparisons: started at $38,000, now tenured, make about $50,000. No faculty at my institution make 6 figures."

For Kim (or other people who know), what Department do you teach at? Is it Sociology or Education?

No way you make that low of a salary if you are full time 9 month Engineering Professorship appointment....

Would you jump to a different place if they offered you more money and tenure?

Anonymous said...

"I believe that a woman has an unalienable right to kill her rapist. If that is not possible at the moment, then she should, on a later occasion, kidnap the rapist and torture him to death."

My goodness. You are pretty messed up.

"she should, on a later occasion, kidnap the rapist and torture him to death."

I believe the Taliban practice a form of this, except that the torturing and killing is left to male family member of the female victim.

"An inalienable right to kill her rapist"

We have finally reached a place in civilization when there is near total agreement that the death penalty can only be given to those who have murdered a human being. Many progressive nations have altogether abolished the death penalty. Such is the moratorium on cruelty to human beings that people protest when terrorists who killed 2700 people on 9/11 are tortured.

And here we have someone who wants "an inalienable right to kill" and worse: "kidnap and later torture him to death".

I wonder what if a man raped a 5 year old child. Would you tie up the man and have the child torture him to death?

Sorry, but rape is a horrible, horrible crime, but still short of murder. Feminazis are wrong on so many levels.

Anonymous said...

I started with a salary of $47,000 and now make $69,760, not even our most senior faculty make 6 figure salaries, only the administrators. I work at a tier 1 public institution but not in engineering.