Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dealing with Disrespect

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)?



kamikaze said...

I have participated in dealing with this sort of behavior not as a teacher, but in a way as a student. I attended a PhD school where a small number of males were giving this exact treatment to one of the female lecturers -- pointing out every small writing mistake as if it was a mathematical scandale, and trying to come off as very smart by finding all these tiny errors.

I started sticking my hand in the air and asking real science questions just to take the attention somewhere else. And a whole series of other students followed up by doing the same. This had two consequences: The dumbasses started looking dumb for only asking stupid questions, and the course got a lot better because people were really participating in an engaged way.

But of course, I don't know how to generate this behavior as a teacher :/

Anonymous said...

I've had similar experiences (young, female PhD student lecturing). My way was to address things outright, with humour. What really surprised me about this was that although it was my way of taking (what I perceived to be) arrogant/disrespectful students down a peg or two, these students often ended up being the ones that I had the best rapport with.

For boys sniggering at the back of class, you could try calling them on it. e.g. 'Would you care to share the joke with the class? No? Then shut up.' Said with a sarcastic smile, this is quite effective. I'd also say that classes can induce paranoia. They are probably laughing at something on facebook. Not ideal I know, but better than assuming they're laughing at you. If you're really sure that they're laughing at your mistake, then something like 'And now we're going to move on to blah, so those of you who are still finding my typo hilarious might want to actually concentrate.'

My discipline doesn't do much 'working out on the board', but I offer this advice from my husband who is a secondary school teacher and sometimes codes live on the board: Kids will laugh when you make a mistake, get used to it. He also said that if he's working something out live he'll tell the kids that he's 'without a safety net' and to expect some 'deliberate' mistakes that they will have to try and catch.

I'm not keen on cold-calling students to answer questions, especially in a class of 40. It's the kind of thing that could rouse the protective instincts of the class if you pick on someone very shy. If you really like doing this, you could sweeten it (literally) by giving a sweet to the person you ask. Or give them a 'get out' by making it a game - for example the class could be 'Who wants to be a Millionaire' and so weak students can 'ask the audience' or 'phone a friend' if they don't know the answer.

Instead of cold-calling, I prefer bribing volunteers (with sugar), or anonymous answering through post-its, or online tools. There are loads of q&a methods from schools which are effective for this, have a google around.

Good luck with it. I'm sure you're doing great and you'll find your own ways of dealing with these little problems.

Anonymous said...

When teaching, I am happy when students notice occasional misprints or mistakes. In my last course, teaching mechanics to engineers, many students were in the wrong faculty (this happens at their first year) and behaved as children, doing silly jokes.

As I am not a paranoid feminist, the issue was solved.

Anonymous said...

A couple years ago I was teaching a class to beginning graduate students, in pure mathematics. I was also a graduate student, and looked like I was about 16, and was (and still am!) a woman. On the first day a couple students were trying to interrupt me to show off their knowledge, and I was quick to shut down their digressions. Looking back, I think I shut down these digressions a bit too firmly, but I was very anxious about precisely this phenomenon (students trying to show off and take control of the lecture, because I looked so young and was female). As a result, a couple of the students had negative reactions to me. I realized during the first couple lectures that I was going to need to deal with the students with authority issues. I immediately made sure I learned their names. In the second lecture, when I asked the students to introduce themselves, one of these students actually gave a false name (to make me look silly), but I just laughed and called him by his correct name. He was visibly stunned, and never spoke up during class again. (Of course I'd rather he participated, but still I was relieved he stopped disrupting.) I might suggest that you have the students introduce themselves, and that you learn the names of "problem" students. Forcing people to stop being anonymous might make them better citizens. All in all, I think it pays off to demonstrate good citizenship. But it might not hurt to call on "problem students" for questions as well (in a totally good-natured way); it might remind them that everybody is fallible. It might also remind them that you are responsible for the grade they get (also for class participation) and that you know who they are. In an extreme situation, it might be worth asking various students to do mini-presentations of concepts in the class. Then they would realize how much work it is to make a perfect presentation, and would feel themselves the fear of having an audience. But you simply can't win over some people. In my case, 95% of the reviews for my course were extremely glowing, and even got departmental notice. But one review simply said "Be nicer." I doubt I would have gotten that review if I had been a senior male professor!

Anonymous said...

From a student's point of view:

I saw some people snicker at teacher's mistakes. You will probably find out these are not the best performers. Also, the teacher raising an eyebrow and coldly but calmly asking "X, do you have a question ?" or "Do you have something to add ?" silences them. I think showing you are not ashamed is important.

Power point ? Nope, they should take notes !
Test outputs for programming ? Nope, their job !
Practise exams ? Yes, but more exercises than exams.

Anonymous said...

If it gets too bad, ask one of the people of he/she has a question. This is basic mob psychology. When the student has to take responsibility in front of the whole class (and you) for his/her actions, then things are much calmer.

Anonymous said...

I've had this happen twice. The first time I followed "shrug it off" approach, and as you can probably predict the situation never really resolved itself.
The second time I was at my wits end and, having kind of given up, approached a tenured (male) faculty member in my department, mostly to blow off steam and not expecting anything to be done about it.
What I was not expecting was how *angry* the male faculty member was at the students for what he considered to be inappropriate behavior - especially at a high level course. He never questioned my interpretation of events. I admit, it made me feel a lot more supported during a time when I was also feeling pretty thinly spread out. As these students were majors, and this was a small department, the problematic students were also taking classes with him. My feeling was that he (and perhaps a few others?) may have taken the opportunity in classes to discuss either my research or the high caliber of female faculty in the department - because for some reason around the middle of the semester the students attitudes did change. I would like to say I did something differently, but I don't think I did.

The point: You are not alone. While it is possible to resolve this by yourself, it is not necessary. I found it very comforting that my colleagues did not feel that I should just "shrug it off". And having the department approach the issue, instead of being the sole voice helped me feel very supported.
It also taught me that (as silly as this sounds), at the end of the day, if you're facing a real issue (which you are), and you're not sure how to deal with it (which you don't), the professional thing to do is to ask advice from someone who is a senior in your department. And if your department dismisses your concerns, then perhaps that provides you with some valuable information as well.

MJ said...

I am a woman, too, and am often mistaken for an undergrad (even though it has been 15 years for me). I make sure to downplay my young appearance when I teach, by the way I dress. No jeans, nothing low cut, and a very professional style that clearly makes me visual appear not to be their peer. I think it helps.

If the ignoring the snickering doesn't work, I have reminded students that I treat them with respect, and as adults I expect them to treat me with respect as well.

Fortunately, I haven't had too many problems. The incident that stands out most in my mind was in a lab class I taught as a grad student. There was a student who could be a bit of a bully with the other students. Ignoring him and reminding him to be respectful worked well--he was basically looking for attention but being called out by me wasn't the attention he wanted, so that stopped the problem.

For him I did a on-on-one "please treat your fellow students with respect" kind of thing, but I have done general reminder announcements of classroom etiquette.

It's good that you had a positive experience the first time you taught! Don't let some bad eggs get to you--you'll have a good group again!

Anonymous said...

In the past, I've talked to the students that show disrespectful behavior one on one. I phrase it as a check in. I'll say something along the lines of "Tell me how you think the class is going for you." I leave everything really open and listen to the student. In my experience, that shows the student that I care about what they think (which I do). Then, in most cases, they begin to become invested in what I think as an instructor. I would say that this fixes 90% of my disrespectful issues in a class. (By the way, I'm a young professor, so take it all with a grain of salt.)

a physicist said...

Anonymous 5:56 am reminds me of what I've done. I work hard to learn everybody's name, including classes of up to 100 students. One year I had a student who was whispering loudly to make jokes. I confronted him after class and said that it was being disruptive, that if I could hear him whispering from where I was in the classroom, that meant he was disturbing a lot of people. I didn't tell him to stop it entirely, but I did say firmly that he needed to be a lot quieter. I didn't go out of my way to call him out in front of other people, but I wasn't extremely discrete either.

In general I find knowing their names keeps them better behaved.

YMMV, I'm a male professor and this was a male student.

statsgirl said...

I'm in my third year of a tenure track position and my first year was full of situations exactly like this. In both semesters, I had male students who actively challenged my authority -- in some cases staying after class to argue why they were right and I was wrong (about a mathematical fact) and in other cases arguing with me regarding how I was teaching. Students of both genders demanded that I provide more resources (HW solutions, midterm prep, extra time, more in class demonstrations, etc). At the time, the only thing I found helpful was to vent to other colleagues -- who every single time were on my side and made me feel supported.

My second year, things were suddenly much better. Most importantly, I think that my attitude changed. FSP's advice (or comments) somewhere about 5% of students taking up most of your time made me feel a lot better -- when a student is a complainer/arguer/etc now, I often just think "Oh, this is one of the 5%" -- I just take it less personally. I think my first year, I was much more sensitive to their concerns actually being legitimate (I was afraid I was actually doing something wrong), whereas now I tend to think it's just their personalities.

Second, I started being more demanding and, strangely, I found that students responded more positively. For example, my first year I gave more leeway wrt due dates for assignments or, when students complained, I was more responsive. Now I have hard deadlines for HW and I very rarely cave to student demands. Instead, when students demand something -- more power points, etc -- I simply give them an explanation that I've thought this through and that for pedagogic reasons I want them to do this themselves. I remind them that they are there to learn. I have found that by articulating why I'm doing something and then holding firm that students respond better.

So sorry you're going through this though. Hang in there -- it really does get better.

Anonymous said...

Like others, I had similar challenges my first year. I also found that it was very important me for me to stick professional - in the way I dress and act with the students. I tend to avoid cold calling, but am not above doing it when a student is being disruptive. Another thing that helped was being firm in my style/expectations - I tell them what I'm willing to provide on day 1, I live up to it, and I don't deviate.

As for Anon. at 4:38. Really? a paranoid feminist? I detected instead a woman asking questions about how to constructively deal w/ a bad situation, not whining or making stuff. GROW UP OR GET OUT OF SOCIETY. Your bs attitude is no longer wanted.

Anonymous said...

I definitely got this when I was teaching undergrads but I think a part of it is that, as a part of my teaching style, I intentionally let myself be human and make mistakes so that the students see that even experts have to think about things and sometimes make mistakes. But, I think this kinda backfires somewhat as a young female new to teaching, as I did get some evaluations which complained about me making mistakes in class. Even though I told them on numerous occasions that it was actually intentional. Being a STEM teacher is hard enough but when you don't get respect it's even harder.

But, honestly, I think a part of it is related to the male ego at that age. I remember when I was attempting to interact with boys at that age and they were so intimidated by my physics major. Now that I interact with older men, they think my smartness is attractive. Maybe it's less intimidating to have an older women teaching them? This just makes me want to wait to become a teacher even longer, till I can get that respect without having to work so much harder for it than I would if I were a man.

Anonymous said...

I start each semester with a general statement of " I can't write on the board, speak, pay attention to your needs etc with out making errors, typos spelling mistakes, transposing numbers, forgetting how to do math in my head" what ever issue it is likely to be in that class. I ask students to respectfully point out my missteps so that I don't "confuse those who have having trouble following along" because "I know most of you will just automatically correct the error, will know what I meant" or some such words. It puts the ball in their court. I do cold call all students and every student gets a turn to run a mini lesson where they must get class participation/ discussion going. They always express how difficult it is to be in front of the class! If a student can't answer a question I move on to another student, never disrespectfully, telling student number one that I want their reaction to the answer given by the next student - such as " I liked the way he used formula B, because I was stuck trying formula A" Once students see that I am comfortable making mistakes because - life - they get more comfortable to and the whole class is more willing to stretch. And always stay clam, never act offended or put upon, keep good humor. The students will come around - or move on and you will get a reputation of unflappable and the nonsense will stop (though the nonsense continued for a full year for me. There are waiting lists for my class now!)

Mommyprof said...

I know I make mistakes when I type in front of people, and I tell my students that early on (it's hard!). I get a large volume of small cost incentives at the start of the semester and give one out to anyone who catches me in an error I don't catch myself. If I can, I usually use Silly Bands - those shaped rubber band that were popular with the under 12 set a few years ago, which you can find at dollar stores in a 15-pack. A rubber band eiffel tower or spaceship is a surprisingly good attention motivator. My husband gives out change from his pocket.

Anonymous said...

As for Anon at 01:34.

"Paranoid feminist" means the self-damaging attitude that feminists promoted in women of accusing men for everything and playing the victim of imaginary discriminations.

You write a wrong equation, a student notices it, and you feel discriminated?? "This is abnormal. GROW UP OR GET OUT OF SOCIETY. Your bs attitude is no longer wanted."

Anonymous said...

I am a senior phd female student and used to teach labs and recitation classes. During those years, I was pretty aware that I look like an undergraduate or sometimes even a high school student, so almost the first class of every course I dressed professionally, even though most of my phd pals wear jeans, shorts or sweatpants (we are physics students so you can imagine).

I also had a couple of disrespectful students, who did not follow one of the course rules I explained carefully in the first class. Those rules were made by TAs' supervisor and I had to make them run in my class because that's one of my jobs. Dealing with this type of students was difficult, but I found it is very useful to remember students' names and address them when I wanted to show some kind of authority or look more demanding. It was hard the first time (did I mention I am not a native speaker? some students had complained my accents), but interestingly, after I clearly marked a line about the course rules by calling out those students' names and providing a solution (spending more time instructing them to do labs with my professionally smiley face) , the tension between us was just gone.

As a graduate student, I am sure that all my students see me as a person around their age and might not be as knowledgable/experienced as a professor. Sometimes I also think they are just like my younger brothers or sisters, who does silly things just for fun.

inBetween said...

I wish I had good advice on this, as it sucks. I've been there. As FSP said, age really helps. This has dissipated as I've gotten older and look older. It still happens on occasion, but not very often.

Three things that helped at different times for me:

1) when it was first-year grad students doing this to me, and when they went to complain to the grad advisor, he, amazingly, told them it really just sounded like they had a problem with me being a young woman. I love that guy. I wish there were more men out there who will see it so clearly, and then call a spade a spade. The two students who were giving me such a hard time -- one of them dropped the class, and neither of them successfully completed grad school.

2) I assigned presentations in another class. Students had to get up by themselves and talk in front of the class, write on the board. That can really hit it home for them how disrespectful it is to not treat the person standing in front of them like a human being.

3) Bring in a guest speaker one class meeting, as a surprise. Likely, the students will be rude to them too as an extension of how they feel about you. At the beginning of the next class meeting, I sat at the front of the room and talked about manners, about our class being like a family and that I'd invited someone into our "home" and was really sad to see how they'd treated that person. I did it in a really caring way and not scolding, but it really shocked the students that I called them out (as a group) on their manners. It improved how they treated me too.

Good luck to the person facing this. It is really stressful. Hang in there and try not to let them get you down. Remember -- there is always at least one young woman or man sitting quietly in the back of the room who thinks you are a rock star. Teach for her or him, and try really hard to not let the jerks get to you.

Lisa said...

I'm a female CS professor who often gets taken for an undergrad. I've found that good classroom dynamics are key to my enjoyment of the job. Once a relationship with a class sours it's hard to get it back on track. But here's what has worked well for me so far.

1) If some of your policies are unpopular, acknowledge this and explain why you still think they're important. You want them to learn to test their own code. You want them to take part actively in class by taking notes in their own words. You have these policies because you have their best interests in mind.

2) Treat mistakes as no big deal. You have to really accept this yourself, because if you feel ashamed or defensive, it will probably show. Mistakes on the board just happen sometimes. Acknowledge them casually and good-naturedly and thank the student who corrected it.

3) Assume the best of your students, even if they don't really deserve it. Attribute the best possible motives you can. This can really influence their opinions and behaviors. Thanking someone for correcting a mistake makes them come off as a good citizen, and that can be a nice feeling, which can actually make them start acting more like a good citizen. Assuming they want powerpoints because they're diligent (rather than lazy) lets you say no without showing contempt, which in my opinion is the quickest way to lose good will.

All that said... sometimes you just have some bad apples that contaminate the class. In those cases, you might just have to console yourself with the knowledge that the semester will end before too long. And you probably have more of the students on your side than you know. Nobody enjoys a jerk.

Anonymous said...

You can't cave to the demands re: spoon-feeding, and you need to say (with that professional smiley face) that this is a majors class and you expect a higher level from them. If you start to prepare more materials, etc, it will never stop. In a class for which I was very hand-holdy, because the students were very weak, I had one student tell me she was having trouble remembering to turn in the homework (due MWF) and asked if I could email her. I asked a colleague for advice on how to deal with this crazy request. She told me to suggest a few things to the student: "Try writing it down in a planner. Or put a reminder in your phone. Or ask your mom to call you every day!" It got the point across :)

Anyhow, amusing anecdote aside, I deal with the male students who challenge by 1) pointing out their mathematical mistakes very clearly, but at first nicely; 2) sending them home to think about it and refusing to continue the conversation if it's just egregious, less nicely eventually -- "This is something you need to work out in the privacy of your own home. Come back when you understand how this works," 3) sometimes, very rarely, just losing my s(*&. It's an advantage I guess that when I feel like I'm totally busting-out-crazy-mad-shutting-things-down I mostly come across as calm and authoritative but to a higher degree of intensity. Many women are so moderated in their self-expression that what we think of as going nuts, being totally angry, simply comes across as strength (especially to guys).

Talk to colleagues. Raise expectations. Give the class a real challenge and be relentless about enforcing standards. Remind them that they're majors, and they could be doing something else with their time. Remember that sometimes a semester sucks and it's not about you.

nanoalchemist said...

Wow. LOTS of good advice in there. There is a marked difference between how students treat MSP and FSPs. I am an MSP who works closely with a number of FSPs and I notice the crap they tend to get.

I think a lot of this breaks down into students trying to get the most grade for the least work.

For the respect issue, I heartily concur with those that say professionalism in action and dress is key. We had a young MSP here face some "respect" issues, and next semester, he started suiting up for lecture, and it helped immensely.

Personally, I wear my lab coat when I lecture. Why? Because of the Milgram experiment =)

(In that vein, I guess for those that are really disruptive you could say the chairs are wired to deliver electric shocks for negative re-enforcements.)

Anonymous said...

A reply to an earlier reply:

Please please please do not give out sweets, or turn lectures into a gameshow. Undergraduates are adults and should be expected to act and be treated as adults. They are not kindergarten children who need to have everything turned into super happy fun times. Infantilising them in that way will most certainly not earn any respect.

Anonymous said...

I have nearly no teaching experience. I do sympathise, though, as I vividly remember an experience as a substitute teacher in a language school (english) not in the US where one day I had to take care of two classes for a much older, established teacher: One of 13-14 year olds and one of "business" learners. The 13-14 y.o.'s classroom was a little boisterous, all the more for having a sub, but they settled down as I picked up the pace and the language drill. They mostly did their work well when I broke them out into conversation groups. OTOH...!!!...the so-called adults were horrible. Contemptuous, talkative, making inappropriate jokes in two other languages (this was a school where no non-english was to be used in the classrooms), and, to top it off, it was a really, really crowded class for the interactive teaching style used there. Finally, I broke the english-language wall and walked over to the worst perp (a young, slick financial guy), pulled his desk out beyond the regular curve of the semi-circle (with him in it) and asked in his language "Who's paying for this class? You? Or your parents?" Everyone laughed and then -- as long as I periodically glared at the rude ones -- mostly concentrated.

It was from that class that I got the nickname "Lady Sargeant" in their language. They were very, very happy when their regular teacher returned.

As a student, It pissed me off when other students were rude 'cause that really interferes with getting through the material. I was paying for myself, there to learn, and some of the teachers were less-than-stellar, but I had to learn, not get hand-holding and not be in a class with disruptions.

I'm not sure that the female professors got it worse than males, it did seem to be experienced prof versus inexperienced prof. Of course, there's so very few female professors in engineering, I don't think I had a statistically significant data set.

Anonymous said...

Recently, in a lab class, a student who had made a mistake that I tried to correct started "explaining" me how the setup works. He was not listening to any of my scientific arguments - I guess that he did not expect me to be able to provide any. So I simply told him that he was free to decide whether or not he would trust me. I let him deal with the mistake alone. It took him so long that he could not finish his experiment. In the end he was upset that I did not fix the problem faster. I think next time he will accept more easily when I offer my help.

Also, I believe these incidents are mostly due to my age, rather than to my gender. Young male colleagues also experience aggressive behavior from some students. They are just less likely than us to talk openly about it.

PhyPhoFu said...

I am a female postdoc with experience with teaching labs and tutorials and didn't have problems there. I also have teaching experience in a non-academic setting that included children and adults, where problems did come up. What I learned was this: crack down on bad behaviour immediately. As soon as you let something slide, it opens the floodgates. How you deal with it is up to you (lots of good advice in the comments), but the key is to not tolerate it in the slightest from the start. Make it clear that you will not put up with any crap! And if supposed adults are acting like children, then the appropriate thing to do is to treat them like children.

Anonymous said...

When people snicker, single them out in front of the whole class. Call them out to answer your next question.

I have had audience members snicker when I was giving my presentation at conferences. These audience members are fellow professors and senior scientists. It made me angry because it is rude. I made it a point to go to their talks and then hammer them with hard questions that made them loom foolish. But not all of them were also presenting at the conference.

Anonymous said...

I rarely think of good comebacks on the fly, but not long ago, I made a really embarrassing math error that I routinely catch the students making. I said "I am officially replacing my righteous indignation with hypocritical indignation. You still lose points for this mistake."

Anonymous said...

I have 23 years experience of teaching undergraduate and graduate students at a research university and am female. Keeping calm and not escalating anyone's bad behaviour is your best route (if however, it is disruptive to the class call them out and then speak to them after class). Be clear on what you are doing, why and why it matters (course/teaching philosophy and manifesto). Keep in mind that this happens to a lot of us and when you become more senior be there for your early career colleagues with practical advice. And if al else fails remember this anecdote: in my first year of teaching an angry student didnt like anything I did and eventually threw his exam paper at me. Years later he showed up as the guy who read my gas meter.