Thursday, September 5, 2013

This Week's Big Thirsty: Shit I Didn't Want to Say. From Kimmie.

Oh dear God. What do you do when you say that thing, the shit you didn't want to say?

As we're going around the room yesterday I asked students for a fact from their past, present, or future, something fun, just a detail so we can connect us (me mostly) to who you are.

An impossibly gorgeous young woman in the front row answers to her name and says, "I'm a model."

And I say, "Of course, you are so beautiful."

Okay, so I'm a lesbian, fairly out in the community, etc. But I'm the age of this girl's mother, and I can tell you without the least compunction that I have never had the slightest interest in any student, like, ever.

But I said it, and there was silence, and I went on. It ate at me all night.

Q1: Should I say something about it? Should I apologize? Should I just let it go?

Q2: What's the one thing you've said in class that you wish you could take back, rewind, erase, whatever? Does one recover?

27 comments:

  1. A1: I say forget it. I don't know about your students, but mine have minds similar to those of alligators, which are not much more advanced than the minds of chickens, with seemingly no memory at all. What you said is therefore likely already forgotten, but then so is nearly everything else that you say, ever. If you call additional attention to what you said, it may not be forgotten.

    A2: I've been noted to blurt out an occasional hearty and sincere "FUCK!" whenever a physics demo goes wrong and threatens to decapitate a student in the front row, or me. My students love it.

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    1. Threaten to put it on a quiz. They will instantly forget it!

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  2. I had mine yesterday. Talking about the concept of what underwrites personal identity, we started talking about souls, and one kid says something to the effect of "so, like, there's an infinite number of souls?" Seeing a chance to offer a good idea of how many different positions there are one can take on this issue, I quickly sketched the Mormon concept of a limited number of souls waiting their turn to be born, but when I concluded my little thumbnail version, I said, without thinking about it, something to the effect of "I swear, that's really what they believe."

    I didn't mean it to sound incredulous, or mean, or anything like that. But it kinda did. And seconds after that, a kid in the back - a kid I like, a kid who is with me, so far - said, in a slightly hurt tone, "There's more to it than that, but I guess that's basically right."

    I felt like SHIT.

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    1. I wouldn't sweat it. If you gave even a reasonably objective, high-level summary of the doctrinal stance, then that wouldn't be obviated by the closing, throwaway comment. Frankly, there are doctrines from *all* religions that, when simply & objectively stated, will sound a bit odd. But summarizing them objectively & simply is not mocking or disrespecting them.

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  3. I would like to say this: a brand new hire (hired a month ago, rather last minute) introduced herself last week at the faculty meeting. She then proceeded to tell us, while relating a joke during social time, about the time her father raped her. It's the reason she moved to Seattle, you see. Totally necessary to convey a very personal and dark thing about your past in order to kill the joke about rainy days.

    I do not anticipate her working out.

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    1. I like the fact that the new hire is normalizing the sharing of her awful reality. Being raped by her father (which was not her fault) probably has defined her life in numerous, terrible ways. If she's unashamedly sharing that with her new colleagues by casually injecting it into some joke-telling, then good for her. TMI? Hardly. It's her life. It's the only life she's known.

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  4. Time passes, and you'll forget about it. The students already have. The fact that you feel awful about it means that you're decent, thoughtful, and self-aware; that's what your students and colleagues will know about you.

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  5. A1: It depends somewhat on how you reacted to the other students' answers. If you reacted to them too, it's less of a deal. But there was silence after this one answer, so people took notice. I'd pull this student aside (door open, or in a public place) and apologize to her, asking her if she would like you to say something to the whole class.

    A2: Years ago when I was a brand new assistant professor teaching a large calculus class, I posed a question to the class to check if they were following. And I added: "let's see if one of you guys can answer that." But for some reason what I actually said was "let's see if one of the guys can answer that". OMFG, the silence. Broken by a female voice from the back of the room: one of the guys? So I corrected myself, answered the question and moved on. I think they understood I misspoke for no reason, so it had no lasting consequence.

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  6. Apologizing couldn't hurt, and you have probably been thinking about it more than she has. (She's probably more used to being complimented on her looks by random adults than you are to commenting on students' looks.) I remember a prof apologizing to me when I was an undergrad for a sort of similar situation, a comment that was intended as a compliment (not physical) but came out a little weird. I had not been stewing over it, but the fact that she cared enough to think about it and apologize made me respect her more.

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  7. I'd be inclined to let it lie, partially on the grounds that Kate explains very well above, and partially on the grounds that bringing it up might actually increase the significance of the exchange in her eyes. But I tend to avoid tricky interpersonal conversations, probably more than I should. I *would* be careful about future exchanges with her (but not too careful; yeah; I know; finding that line is going to be fun).

    On the first day of one of my classes this semester, we did an exercise that involved looking at a variety of publications and talking about their intended audiences. The articles I gathered were all related in some way to the controversy about whether vaccines cause autism (spoiler alert: they don't). Although I haven't received any disability paperwork yet, and now suspect there might be another explanation (e.g. severe social anxiety) for his slightly-unusual behavior during the initial introducing-ourselves go-'round (he simply didn't speak), it appears that one student in the class may have mild autism. I'm not sure whether to change the exercise on in order to avoid making future autistic students feel uncomfortable on the first day; unfortunately, many scientific subjects that are interesting are also controversial/uncomfortable for someone (if not for medical/psychological reasons, then for political, religious, etc. ones).

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  8. I tend to agree with those who advise to let it lie. Unless it's obvious that the rest of the class, and especially the girl in question, had all the context that is fueling your seemingly mortified discomfort. And even then, I think it's quite obvious that the simple/reasonable explanation was/is that you made an innocent, complementary remark (Occam's Razor and all that...).

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  9. I'd bet, along with others here, that she did not think about it much, if at all. Beautiful people are always being told they are beautiful. Still, as with any other classroom mistake, real or imagined, the students are expecting/hoping you will carry on, and if you do it convincingly, they will not even give it a second thought.

    As for shit I wish I did not say! I had a whopper of one when I was first teaching. Two students had very similar names (one or two letters off). One was quite thin and extremely good looking, the other not so much. They wrote their first essays in Composition, and one of them wrote about how she had such trouble accepting her body as it was, and had lived her life on a diet, and was tired of being imprisoned by society's demands for a perfect female body, etc.

    Well, I wish it did not happen like this. BUT, the quite thin, good looking student was the one I remembered (this essay had been handed in during the second week of class). I had not given much attention, yet, to the fact that I had another student with a very similar name. And I just assumed the person writing this essay was my thin, beautiful student. I am wincing now as I even remember it! I hate what that says about me, at least me at the time, but there you are. So, after the class where I handed essays back, I made time to talk to this student (the one who did NOT write the essay) about how I was concerned about her, and that she may have a distorted body image, and other things that I meant to be caring and helpful. Yuck Yuck Yuck to this memory. I don't know what all I said. I blocked the specifics of the whole thing out.

    She left after not saying much, and called her father, who reported me to the Dean. Wow was that embarrassing. Even that, as horrible as it was, blew over without much falderal. The Dean called me, asked what the hell happened, told me I was a dumbass, said it was okay, but I needed to talk to the student and make it right. Which I did. That part I remember. I had to do it without letting on that it was ANOTHER student who wrote the essay in mind. I kept it simple, said I was confused and thought she had written somethihg she had not written, that I was very sorry to have been unprofessional, and basically threw myself under the bus. Which may have also been studid, but it worked out okay. She was happy for the apology and let it go.

    So, don't feel bad. This was a very minor thing.

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  10. The whole "no takebacks" thing is made much, much worse by the fact that our student newspaper has one of those "yer perfesser said WHAT?" sections where students record out-of-context / embarrassing statements from their professors for all to see.

    I've shown up in this section every week for as long as I've been at the college. Every. Week. But, on the bright side, the ridiculousness of some of the other faculty comments there make me feel a little better about my own loose lips.

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  11. I would also recommend not bringing it up again. The class may have been silent because it's unusual for a professor to give a student a compliment like that but, if she's a model, the compliment wouldn't be shocking.

    I, on the other hand, will be thinking about this for several hours today as I try to craft the best possible joke that involves your description of the young model who "ate at me all night." For those of you keeping score at home, yes, this is how immature I am.

    As for my own gaffes, I've burned my hand during a chemistry demonstration but continued teaching class, witnessed a student volunteer almost ignite a desk by improperly performing a demonstration and then there was the time that I gave the middle finger to the entire class.

    I should elaborate on this. I drew a diagram on the board and was pointing as two adjacent parts of the diagram with my index finger and middle finger. After discussing the first part, I lowered my index finger and continued to lecture to the class for about 5 minutes before realizing that I was flipping them off. I apologized but they thought it was pretty funny. Honestly, so did I.

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    1. "I, on the other hand, will be thinking about this for several hours today as I try to craft the best possible joke that involves your description of the young model who "ate at me all night." For those of you keeping score at home, yes, this is how immature I am."

      FTW!

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  12. Interesting thirsty, particularly in light of the fact that my lecture tonight covers the Axioms of Communication, one of which is "Communication is irreversible."

    I introduce it with, "Have you ever said something you wish you hadn't said? Or seen something you wish you could 'un-see'?" Sometimes the best you can hope for is, as Froderick put it, "alligator mind" and the person forgets what was said or seen.

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  13. @Kimmie:
    If you're a proffie with expertise in the area of beautiful humans (e.g., kinesiology, art, fashion design?), then your comment was appropriate (unless you were not truthful). Otherwise, I like Kate's statement that, "the fact that she cared enough to think about it and apologize made me respect her more."

    We hamsterfurologists have a right and a duty to say to our students, "That's a beautiful fur coat." Unless it's not true.

    The bigger concern is that the students in the class will think that you are biased in favor of the more attractive students. Many of us are, but you actually gave your students concrete evidence that you're aware of how they look. It sounds like you're using this episode as an opportunity to reevaluate how objective you are in the classroom--which is great.

    Frankly, this sounds more like something that one of the Bennington Kimmies would have done. The Kensington Kimmies always seemed more suave to me.

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  14. I find the concept that one would have to apologize for stating someone is beautiful after they've announced they're a model ridiculous.

    Of course context is everything. If you're saying it salaciously, or suggestively, or you address them as "Hey, beautiful..." that's different.

    You've got nothing to feel sorry for. You probably stated it as a matter of fact. If you had said "I can't believe that because you're not pretty enough to be a model" that would be different.

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    1. Well...maybe. Lots of young people work as "models". Is the answer different depending on whether the prof is male (of orientation unknown to the students), female, lesbian and out (orientation known to students) or female, of orientation unknown to the students? When I imagine myself (het male) blurting out such a comment, it seems to me that in the first case (maybe also the second) a female student might feel uncomfortable. In fact, I'm pretty sure if I had done it (and the student reported the event) an apology would be required by the Dean.

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  15. I referred to the NAACP as the NCAA in front of a class half full of athletes at a R1 university. If I could have melted into a puddle, I would have.

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    1. Well, the NCAA does protect the civil rights of some people, mostly those in the athletic department.

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    2. The NCAA does almost the opposite of protecting athletes' "rights."

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  16. I'd also be inclined to let it be. There have been about 3-4 times where I said something that I really regretted, such that right after class I went straight to the department chair and said something to the extent of "here's what I said in class, here's the reason I said it and I realize now that while my intent was one thing the wording I used will give a very different impression, with people taking offense for these reasons, so just a head's up in case you start getting complaints." In every case there wasn't a single complaint. I've only ever gotten complaints from stating things that were totally not controversial, like talking about the universe being billions of years old, not 6,000 years old, backed up by scientific evidence like Hubble's research etc.
    So, as others have stated, don't sweat it.

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  17. Oh,I wish I could buy a filter. I've said so many things I shouldn't have and I do what Prof Poopiehead advised above. Strangely, no one complains about the things I think they could complain about. They pick other odd things (like missing a point on a midterm) to raise a fuss over. I bet no one will remember it next class period.

    Once, a student complained that I used the "F" word when I had simply been repeating what he had said to me in question form (i.e. he said, "Are you fucking kidding?" and I asked, "Did you just ask me, 'Are you fucking kidding?'").

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  18. In this instance, I would recommend photographing the student with the Ten Commandments taped to their shirt. About the only way to receive protection from the ACLU anymore.

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