Saturday, February 6, 2016

I Yelled.

It's about four weeks in. I gave them a bit of reading to do, not much, just about ten pages of Wollstonecraft.

"Okay," I said. "Take a minute and jot down the questions that occurred to you as you read this passage."

They stared at me.

"You can consult your reading notes if you want."

Blink. A hand. "What's a reading note?"

"The notes you took in the margins or in your notebook as you read the passage for today."

Blink. Blink. "What kind of questions?"

"The questions that naturally occurred to you, as a thinking being, as you read a provocative and interesting passage."

Blink. Shrug. Scribble scribble.

"Okay, let's put some on the board."

Hand up. "What does he say about women?"

"Um. Well. That's kind of -- the whole thing. And it's she, not he."


"Anything else?"


"For example, perhaps I might ask, 'what does she mean by a "rational" education. Is there an irrational education?'"


"Let's start with that one. What do you think, in light of the other things we read. What did 'rational' probably mean to her?"


"Do you think we mean the same thing when we say 'rational'?"


And then, to my shame, I broke: "SOMEONE FUCKING ANSWER ME!"

Immediately I felt like a goddamned failure. And then --

A hand.

"I think they kind of, like, idolize rationality."

"Yeah, but they use rationality to justify things like sexism."

"Not her. She's saying there's a higher kind of rationality."

"She's claiming rationality for women, not just for men."

"Yeah, but isn't rationality, I mean, like, for her, sort of a masculine thing?"

"No, it's universal."

"But only men get a real education."

"She's trying to change that."

. . .

What the hell? If I suck as a teacher, they start thinking?


  1. I believed every bit of this up until the moment the students started to discuss things. That's my class every day, including the swearing.

    But after that it's just silence interspersed with the tapping on phones and my shuffling of shit into the briefcase to go home.


    1. I changed a couple details for anonymity and out of paranoia, but it happened pretty much as included, including the word "fuck." I actually think Fretful Porpentine has a point below: fear of me overcame their fear of talking. But I'm not going to make this a part of my usual pedagogy. I felt awful afterwards.

  2. Ouch. I've gone there too. It was in my substitute teaching days so it's been a while, but I still get that knot in the pit of my stomach thinking about it.

    That said, the response of your class was ... interesting. Perhaps they didn't actually believe that you expected something of them and the shock kicked them into gear.

  3. You do not suck as a teacher. Some of the most thorough "deep learning" I ever did in my life was when I was serving in the U.S. Navy and being screamed at simultaneously from multiple directions from people who meant it, in deadly earnest. It goes 180 degrees counter to what the education school will tell you, but we see what their ideas do to our students every day.

    1. Don't overdo it, though. Yelling when it's absolutely essential and justified, such as here, will work. Making a regular habit of it will just dull their senses, which have been dulled astonishingly already by chronic overstimulation, mainly electronic. I've taken students from my astronomy classes out to a dark sky and often they simply cannot even see the shimmering Milky Way, even when they're clearly looking straight at it.

  4. It worked because most other faculty would have given up when students didn't respond. The students know, perhaps unconsciously, that if they just sit on their hands for a while, the opportunity to perform this difficult act of thinking will pass. Good for you not to let that happen.

  5. Something like this happened to me the other day. Except first I facepalmed, briefly contemplated any number of horrid things I might do to a sofabed with a chainsaw, and then tried something I'd never done before. In a very measured tone, I said:

    "OK, it's the last period of the day. You're tired, I'm tired -- probably not as much as you because you didn't fall asleep during all the drug ads watching '60 Minutes' last night. But we need to get to the same place as the previous two sections, and we're going to keep going until we do. Staying awkwardly silent to avoid saying something wrong is not participation, nor is me yakking for fifteen more minutes while you write nothing down. So you're going to propose something, we're going to examine the strengths of the argument, and if it starts to fall apart you'll propose something (hopefully) better. Lather, rinse, repeat."

    Whereupon the room went from comatose to merely vegetative, slowly increasing to hypnopompic. Five minutes after the period was scheduled to end, the first zipper was noisily activated, that a laptop could enter a bookbag. The ice broken, others followed suit. I waited for a student to finish hir sentence, then cut in:

    "Put. The Bags. DOWN."

    We were there ten more minutes. I could hear mumbles as they left the room, not their actual words, but enough tone to predict that my evaluations are going to take a hit. I'm lucky not to have to worry about that -- my real concern is their exam on Tuesday. (All hail to Mighty Xyrqwn's Cordless Reversing Impact Torquewrench that we didn't schedule it the day after the superbowl.)

  6. My theory is that most students actually CAN think, and a surprising number of them DO, it's just that they are afraid to share the results of their thinking. Because they don't want to stand out from the crowd, or because they think intellectual engagement is uncool, or because they don't want to risk being wrong, or because they've never raised their hand in class before and the first time is always the scariest.

    What you just did was make the consequences of not participating potentially scarier than the consequences of participating. I think sometimes students need that kind of a push.

  7. Wow. Last week the homework was to read A Modest Hamster Proposal, which suggests that hamsters should sell their litters for other hamsters to eat. "OK, so what is modest about this proposal?" Silence. (Do they not understand the word modest? Maybe! I'd better rephrase.) "OK, so what is being proposed here?'' Silence. "What is he suggesting? It's pretty shocking. There's no way you can't remember it?" Silence stretches out. Then, from one of them, "Honestly, Dr. Arcadia, I didn't get to it." All heads nod.
    And I failed. It was 10 minutes before the end of the class and I told them to leave. Which they did instantly, joyous young people bounding as on springs, all of them grinning from ear to ear. Win-win. They didn't have the opportunity costs of doing 5 pages of reading, plus they got to spend 10 fewer minutes in class.
    I am the worst teacher who ever lived, but I just couldn't stand the thought of handing it to them and, by handing it to them, rewarding them for not having read it. They've got me coming and going. Group work that makes them do the reading in class means they don't have to read at home. Going over it from sentence one to end in class means they don't have to read at home. Not reading and sitting silently in class means they don't have to read at home. Under no circumstances do they ever have to take responsibility for satisfying the course requirements. And under all circumstances I want to tear my skin off with my own teeth.
    It sounds like your students actually had done the reading . . . . it's so cool how this turned out for you!

    1. When we read A Modest Proposal for our school's "Class that everyone had to take because it makes you a better person" class there was a very well-read, intelligent young lady who sat next to me in class. Our professor asked us "Do you guys think he was serious?"

      Everyone chuckled and shook their heads.

      "What made you think this was satire?"

      And the young lady next to me put her hand up and said "Well, Jonathan Swift was never a member of parliament. So I was pretty sure it couldn't be serious."

      She didn't think that a proposal to eat infants was serious... because its author was not a member of Parliament at the time... Every once in a while, the rest of that semester, the clouds would sometimes part and her vague, sociopathic surprise at the qualms of humanity would show itself like an obelisk appearing out the fog.

    2. It is possible that one might have been known, oneself, to bust out laughing, like, you know, super loud, when folks say stuff like that in class. . . . On the other hand, your fellow student did know that Swift wasn't an MP. Gotta be worth something.

    3. My favorite Swift-related discussion began talking about Gulliver's Travels and ended with me arguing with a British foreign exchange student about the origin of common law. It was created to appease Anglo-Saxon peasants. Just saying.

  8. I, too, think Porpentine's theory is pretty plausible. And, for that reason, sometimes yelling works. But it doesn't work very long, nor will it work often (or equally well for professors of varying genders, races, etc. -- I suspect that many women and many black men, to name two groups, would have to think carefully about how such a choice might be perceived not only by students, but also by professional peers). Also, as Chiltepin points out, there are certain psychic costs for the teacher.

    So we're stuck with trying to find other solutions. I like OPH's, though I'm not sure I could pull it off (I'm pretty sure my students would simply leave, and/or the next class would charge the room, giving them cover/reason to leave). I also suspect many of us try to scaffold, group work, etc. our way out of the dilemma (and suspect Chiltepin does all those things, too, on occasion). The frustrating thing, at least for me, is that all the scaffolding, guiding (on the side, of course), etc. doesn't seem to have its desired effect, i.e. students who begin using the techniques we've modeled to engage with readings on their own.

    And I really don't know how to help them value, and volunteer, the interesting wrong answer that eventually moves the conversation closer to a right(er) answer.

    It's a conundrum.

    P.S.And it's she, not he. This drives me nuts (and it even happens occasionally -- though only very occasionally -- when I teach a women's literature class.

    P.P.S. And I learned a new word -- hypnopompic . Thanks, OPH!

    1. P.S.And it's she, not he. This drives me nuts (and it even happens occasionally -- though only very occasionally -- when I teach a women's literature class.

      On the bright side, Percy Shelley and James Joyce regularly get sex changes in the opposite direction! (Because apparently, some part of "we refer to writers by their last name, and last names have nothing to do with the person's gender unless you are in Iceland" doesn't compute.)

  9. Cassandra reminded me of part II of the pep talk I apparently gave in that taciturn 3rd section.

    "This isn't about skipping straight to the endpoint -- it's about the journey and getting better at figuring out where we are along the way. Being right is no use if you just keep it to yourself. Be bold! Be wrong! Be boldly wrong! The worst that happens is we have some fun talking about it. [And then, before the pause grew more obviously awkwad...] OK, I'll put this out there: the damaged O2 sensor caused the fuel map to shift towards lean. Sounds good, yes?"

    Some nodded in vigorous agreement, others subtly shook their heads in disagreement.

    "Ah," I said to one of the nay-shakers, "you don't like my idea. Tell us why." And we gathered more momentum.

    In retrospect, this may have done several things. It modelled being happily wrong as an important part of the process of eliminating the impossible (thereby revealing the possible). It established that unsupportable claims would fall to those with better evidence. And it showed that what is claimed can be more important than who claims it, and that in the right place and time, people can be challenged about their ideas without it being personal.