Tuesday, October 05, 2010


One of my TAs encountered a disrespectful student in the very first lab of the academic year. He decided to just be 'cool' and not confront the student, but says that he will talk to the student if the problem persists.

This situation raises issues of whether/when I should intervene and talk to such a student. In this case, I have already decided to wait and see if the TA can handle it himself. If the problem persists and he wants me to talk to the disrespectful student, I will certainly do this.

Something that I did have to think more about, however, was whether I wanted to know the name of the disrespectful student. My first reaction was "Don't tell me the name of the student because I don't want to be biased, even subconsciously, against this student." Of course if the problem persists and my intervention is needed, I will know the student's name, but in the meantime, I don't want to know.

But then I thought: Maybe I should know the student's name now because, without even trying, I had formed an idea about which student it was. What if it isn't this student and I am unfairly judging him? And if it is this student, well.. then the situation is unchanged from when I merely guessed it was him. Either way, I would have to squelch any tendencies to treat him more harshly because he can be a jerk, so perhaps I should at least be squelching for the right student?

Should I ask my TA who the jerk is, or wait and see if the problem occurs again?


Anonymous said...

Things happen because every single possibility of intervention at right time was missed. As the instructor of the class, I think you should know the name of the student not to wait until something really happens. And you will just have to try really hard not to be biased- I am not sure if that is bias, though as the student has already shown disrespect to the TA and he/she already deserves some sort of negative response from TA/instructor.

Tony said...


Is there no wiggle room marks-wise for jerks? We were always told that attendance would be taken so that when marks of A or B (or F) were borderline, good attendance can bump you up.

What about a hard-working, collegiate student? What about a jerk? I hate working with jerks. Being a jerk makes you a less-good employee, colleague, advisee etc, which are all aspects of being a good scientist, and are arguably all part of one's broader education.

Give the jerk an F for being a jerk!

Anonymous said...

Maybe you could ask if it is or is not the student you are thinking of?

RSB said...

Find out who the person is and keep an eye on them from afar. Even if TA thinks he can handle it, he still might need back up.

Anonymous said...

I think it worth knowing the student's name. I would want to be sure you know that you are correctly assuming this is the correct student. I recently had a (somewhat) similar situation that frames my opinion on this matter:

After the first day of class this semester, I received I very forward email from a student asking whether I was pregnant (I am, but was only 10 weeks along at the time.) Continuing in the semester, I received some semi-anonymous feedbacks via Blackboard that were not hostile but somewhat negative and passive aggressive. Because of the way they were worded, I assumed these weekly comments were from the same student who emailed on the first day. I found myself treating her differently in my head (though was conscious not to do so when grading).

Finally, I looked at the comments by student rather than in the randomized list that BB usually provides, and realized the comments were NOT from this student. I have been humbled. I didn't pursue the author, but was pleased to confirm that my suspicions were incorrect. Now I am treating everyone equally again.

Anonymous said...

I just assume all students are disrespectful (on some level). Knowing this students name would be some good gossip.

DrAnthroChick said...

If the TA has sat the student down and explained that his behavior is inappropriate, I think you can be hands-off for now.

As a (female) PhD student, I taught an upper-level social science course in which I had a visiting (foreign exchange) MA student. He was quite disrespectful from the beginning, and it was a bit complicated by the fact that he was really good friends with one of my fellow PhD students.

I ended up asking him to come to my office, and I explained that his behavior was inappropriate and that being disrespectful had no place in my classroom. He seemed surprised at this confrontation and was fine for the next week or so - and then dropped my class (which wasn't at all my intention).

Then again, you may find out who the student is sooner than you think. As a TA, I had a student confront me about a grade on an essay question. I explained why I deducted points, but (after the fact) he got incredibly upset and felt that I was belittling him (because he'd taken another class on the subject and felt he knew the answer). I didn't think anything of our interaction (he was actually in another TA's section) because it seemed fine at the time, but he went to the professor via email (waxing rhapsodic about how I was the worst TA in the world - keeping in mind I wasn't his TA, I had just graded his test - and he is astounded that people like me exist at U of Southern State and he wants to talk to the dean, blah, blah). She calmed him down through a meeting in her office.

If the TA can handle a confrontation with the student about his behavior, that's great. Otherwise, you should definitely step in now before the student goes off all half-cocked to the head of your department.

Anonymous said...

You might as well ask who it is. I can't imagine you're going to do anything particularly harsh to the student as a result, and if you are a little shorter with them - well, he should learn that how he treats people will affect how he is perceived!

If any of my fellow students disrespected a TA, I don't think any of us would expect it NOT to get back to the prof.

Anonymous said...

Ask the TA and either confront the student, or be sure to inform the TA of your future intentions. Regarding bias, something that works for me is to cover the names of the students on their work when I grade them. Sometimes I get surprised that in the end, students that I like (or that I consider smart) get low grades, and vice versa. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

As a grad director and TA trainer, I would say that it is the instructor's job to support the TA here. If the TA wants you to talk with the student, or just keep an eye out for potentially violent behavior, you should definitely know the name of the student.

If the TA says that the problem has been fixed, then you don't *need* to know who the student was, but it may be useful, especially if the student is disrespectful to others.
An action that is dismissible once may not be if it is part of a history of disrespectful or disruptive actions.

Of course, "disrespect" means different things to different people. I have no idea what happened nor how sensitive your TA is. There can be cultural differences about the right way to have an academic discussion (MIT has a much more aggressive style than Stanford, for example), which can lead to perceptions of disrespect when none was intended. I would want a lot more information before making any sort of decision, including talking with the TA and the student separately, so if I were the instructor, I would want to know who the student is, since either the student or the TA needs some further education (most likely the student).

Anonymous said...

If I were the TA, I would want you to know the name of the student. (Even though I might say otherwise in an attempt to be 'cool' about it.)

Alex said...

You are right to wait and see if the problem goes away before having a conversation with the student. Lots of incidents turn out to be bad days, and your involvement may be unnecessary. But definitely stay in the loop and watch and give advice to the TA as needed, and get involved if it gets worse.

As to fairness and whether you should know the name, you presumably trust yourself to fairly grade students who do not always conduct themselves well in class or office hours. Part of our job is to work with students at a transitional stage in life, some of whom are still learning social skills. So, if you trust yourself to work with these students and grade them fairly despite conduct in your class, you can certainly be fair to a student whose rudeness happened at arm's length.

Finally, unlikely as it may be in this case, be open to the possibility that a TA may sometimes misrepresent or misunderstand a situation. Yet another reason to know what's going on, so that on the off chance that it's the TA who needs some training here, you can do that.

Alex said...

BTW, those of us teaching in undergraduate institutions often speak enviously of our research university peers who have 1-1 loads and TA's. On the other hand, stories like this remind me that your job isn't necessarily any easier. I'm only responsible for my own section (probably smaller than yours) and I'm not responsible for TA's. If a student in somebody else's lab section acts up, well, not my problem. But if I had 300 students in lecture, and 6 TA's running all the labs and discussions, and I'm responsible for all these people, yikes!

Anonymous said...

Well, I was once told that by showing your support to all your staff by stating that you do in front of class usually resolves the issue of disrespectful students without the need to know that student's name. Maybe that is worth a try.

Anonymous said...

Get the name of the student. I don't know the level of maturity or expectations of your students, but I teach a 500 seat intro-course (90% first year students) at a research university, and I have 4-7 first-time TA's from various countries. With a large lecture, and students try to take advantage of the class size to play a he-said, she-said game.
In the case that there is a conflict between a TA and a student, the TA's come to me and let me know who the student is, what the situation was, and whether they want me to get involved (Depending on the situation - sometimes whether or not I intervene is not their decision).
Depending on the severity of the disrespect, I may ask the TA to send me an email containing the identity of the student and a description of the incident (written document - just in case). It means a lot to first-time TA's to know that I have their backs and causes them to be less defensive and more constructive when dealing with a confrontational student. They are also more honest about the details of the incident (knowing that I know and can contact the student) which is important with first time TA's. (Sometimes, the incident is their fault due to a simple cultural misunderstanding). I find it benefits me to know the identity of the student should they drop by my office and play a he-said she-said game (as pointed out by earlier posts, grading conflicts is where this normally happens, and the ability to be specific in your rebuttal may be a huge asset in defusing a situation like this).

Personally, I find that I can be professional if I know the identity of a difficult student -it is, after all, one of those unwritten requirements of teaching. If I don't know the identity, I am always trying to guess if *this* student is *that guy* and it distracts me.

Getting the name is not the same as intervening: it's being responsible as an instructor.

Siz said...

To put it crassly "People need to be called out on their sh*t." Inappropriate behavior must not be tolerated as it perpetuates the notion that said inappropriate behavior is okay.

Materialist said...

Call me a hopeless optimist, but I believe that people can change for the better. Iffy teachers can learn to be more effective, unkempt coworkers can wake up to the use of hygiene, and snotty students can learn that respect is two-way and worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

"BTW, those of us teaching in undergraduate institutions often speak enviously of our research university peers who have 1-1 loads and TAs"

Not all of us in top-100 research universities have light teaching loads. I have 5.5 semester courses this year, in addition to my service role as grad director for the department and I have no TAs. My classes are mostly small (15-20 students), but even some of our larger classes don't get TAs. Generally, classes have to have over 40 students before we get a TA for them.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing that you care about doing the right thing.

Thats all that matters to me.

I am just a reader on your blog.

Anonymous said...

I agree with coaching the TA on how to handle this situation him/herself, rather than intervening. This is a nice opportunity for the TA to learn some of the conflict resolution skills that will be needed as she/he continues into a career. You're also equipping them to respond to a stock interview question when they go on the job market.

I also would suggest taking 60 seconds out of your next lecture to clarify that the TA's are an extension of you, and should be treated by the students with the same respect and professionalism that they would give you to your face.

Anonymous said...

STEP In. Once the student makes a nuisance of him/herself beyond the trials/tribulations of normal students, that person has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the roles and social norms. The fact that the TA wants to "be cool" about it means he/she is not sufficiently confident to tackle the problem early and will likely wait until it becomes egregious before acting. This happened in my class next term and I thought it would be best to let the TA handle it - I've since decided I was wrong.

Unknown said...

Im actually surprised at this post. I, being a student, automatically assume that the name would be first thing to come out. I guess I see and hear so much gossip that confidentiality is somewhat rare. Kudos to you.

Anonymous said...

I would love it if I could go a semester *without* a disrespectful student.

That said, it's probably a good idea to know who it is. I've had occasions where I've had to go to the course instructor, and it's best if they already have all the background they need.

Tiger Mom PhD said...

Since you already have an idea of who the student is, you should go ahead and find out. As you said, you should be "squelching for the right student."