Tuesday, February 9, 2016

In Which Bella Ponders the Evils of Getting Snippy

One part of my job now entails listening to student complaints about other professors. I listen and nod sympathetically, sort of like a therapist (don't ask me how I know this) and then I am supposed to make the situation go away. You know, fix it. It works best if I can deal with it, actually, because no one is ever happy if these things bump up to the Dean.

This early in the semester, I usually don't see a lot of action on this score. Everyone is enjoying the Honeymoon Phase. Except, this semester, it has not been like that. Just this past week, I had two terribly upset students in a row----both complaining about different professors, but with a common theme, one that I am seeing more and more….

Trembling Terrence

Terrence was so upset, he was trembling. He could not go on, he told me. After what had happened the day before, he had to skip all the rest of his classes, because he was so upset and humiliated and embarrassed, he had to go right home. Skipping classes was something he never did, he told me. He was an A student, he assured, me, and I checked his transcript, and this was true. I am, actually, a nice person who does not want to see students upset. "Tell me what happened!" I told Terrence. And so he did.

Terrence was in class, and his professor had students sign in on a sign-in sheet. She wanted them to simply put the sign in sheet on the table in front. Terrence must not have noticed this in the first classes, because last week he was the last one to sign, and he brought it up to give it to her. "Please, just put it on the table[!]" she said to him. "I told you not to interrupt me when I am speaking to the whole class[!]" The exclamation points are in brackets because the professor disputes that she yelled at him. She admits she was annoyed---she was having a bad morning. The student tried to talk to her about this incident after class, but the class had run over and her second class was coming in. "You need to come to see me during my office hours [!]" she told him. When are they, and where is your office, Terrence asked. "You are holding the class syllabus in your hand, and the information you need is on the front page [!]" she told him. Again with the disputed exclamation points, but every other aspect of this Incident is undisputed by either party.

And this is what happened. This is what made Terrence tremble. He needed his money back, or to change classes to another professor, or both, he said. And I could see that he was really and truly upset.

Agitated Angie

Angie came to me, extremely agitated. Her professor was mean to her, she said. It was not right! Professors are not allowed to be mean, she exclaimed! "What happened," I asked. Well, Angie has had some court dates that interfered with her attendance. "How many classes have you missed?" I queried. Two out of five. "That's 40% !" I told her, (not too shabby, right, for an English Professor!) "---that's a lot." Angie, visibly upset (the Incident in question had just happened) told me that she KNEW that---but her professor was mean! It was not right! "Well, so….what happened," I asked? Well---when she was late, her professor was rude to her about it, BLAMED her for it, Angie said. "Tell me how it all happened," I encouraged. The professor, Angie explained, kept telling her when she would come in late that she was disrupting class, and that it had to stop. She did this in a mean tone. And just now----when Angie did not have her homework, the professor told her that if she was going to miss so much class, come in late, and not do her homework, she might as well leave because she was going to fail….all in a very rude tone! And so she DID leave, and she had been humiliated, and treated with disrespect!

(The professor backs up this story 100% by the way. She was mad and she had a very mean tone when she said all this. She was and is fed up with Angie's…….stuff.)

"Angie," I said. "If you are going to miss class…" ----but but but it wasn't my FAULT I had court! "I know that, but still, for whatever reason , if you are going to miss class, and be late…" but but but, there was TRAFFiC "I know, but so you have to leave early, and just get here early sometimes. And then, if you are not going to have your homework done" I paused here---expecting some interruption, but miraculously, there was none. "Well, you are going to be on your professor's bad books. You are going to have to deal with that, and to earn back whatever respect you can. You are going to have to take your licks, because you have earned them." Angie was only more agitated. She could not believe I was taking the professor's side! The professor was RUDE---and professors were not supposed to be allowed to act like that! This was COLLEGE she said. And Angie left my office in a huff.

What's my point, you ask?

In both of these cases, the professor was a little….snippy. In one case, she was having a bad day, and perhaps, and even she admits it, she could have been nicer, kinder, gentler. But nothing earth shattering happened! In the other, Angie was pushing her last nerve, and the professor was definitely heated and felt completely justified in being so. But, am I wrong in wondering what happened to people's…what is it…their GRIT? Someone said "boo" to you. Okay---people say boo to me all the time! Not just on the job---in my life. Sure, people are often quite nice, but not always. You have to just…move on. Students are really letting incidents like this one derail them, more and more all the time. I can even buy into the idea that "Professors should be held to a higher standard" ---something my Dean would say. We should—we do. I know we all try to be patient. We know who we are, and we take our jobs seriously. But hell—we are human and our students ought, they really ought to be able to deal with it if one of us gives them a hard time, even if it seems a little over the top! Their resilience is for shit! And I just---dammit, that's all. Because the Terrence's and the Angies of the world (and even Angie, in her less intelligent and less justified way, was truly feeling humiliated that a PROFESSOR would treat her thusly) need to be able to just deal, and give even high and mighty Proffies some slack, and not let things ruin their days.

So anyway if you want to know how these stories end-----Angie did not come back, to me, to the Dean (yet) or to class. And I don't consider that a victory---I wanted her to prove she was "better than that" by showing everyone how much better she could be. And Terrence---Terrence I moved. Don't hit me!!!! It was only three classes in, and only "just" outside the add drop period, and a very sweet professor had just had a student drop at the same time period, and so I just moved him. He was so traumatized! Oh—I lectured him and told him what I am telling you, but in the end, I told him I'd see about moving him, and I did. I shook my head as I did it, but I moved him. And I am left, shaking my proverbial cane at the universe, and thinking of the good old days!


  1. I was pondering this phenomenon just today. The fragility I see in many students is disturbing. What will the future look like? These crumbling skulls can't manage their way out of even the mildest situations. Their indulgent parents and teachers have rendered them too soft for real demands. What's more, the depth of their laziness (on all levels) is starting to scare even a veteran like me.

    1. Yes, Old School has said it for me, too. Scared and lazy makes for a lousy combination.

      I am constantly recalling to myself my own "proffies" from the past and how tough they would seem to our modern students. I imagine real tears would flow if my sophomores had to be schooled by one of the old masters.

      And, may I say, how great to see BELLA again!!!!

    2. Never mind proffies. My eighth grade teacher (who was, by the way, an excellent teacher, especially for eighth graders) would be out on his ear (and/or hung in effigy by a mob of outraged parents) before the end of the first day. Of course, he was considered unusually tough/outspoken even for his day, but I think my school (a small, private, cooperative preschool-8th grade institution) considered it a good idea for students to have a slightly tougher experience as they left for high school.

      And, as I said, he was a really, really good teacher.

    3. My school's counseling center had a workshop last fall about why today's students are so much less resilient than their predecessors. I cringe at the thought of them trying to function in the real world.

  2. Bella, I see a nervous breakdown in your future if this continues.

    I first started seeing this when I was teaching at the turn of the century (Go Y2K!). That's when the coddling started. How DARE I expect students to act like adults. Oh, and if I treated them like adults... but not in the adult-like way other profs thought I should... I got told I was mistreating them.

    A colleague and I had a list of "rules" on our syllabi just to clue in the uninitiated. The department head wet himself over it. His mollycoddling subordinate in charge of grade appeals used it as fodder to criticize me. Throughout a meeting, he kept repeating that I needed to "lighten up." Should I have broken out into tears and exclaimed how mean he was being? He actually was a bully, but still.... Yeah, in retrospect I should have said "Fuck that shit" and told him off. Which is what someone needs to do to Terrence and Angie. How on God's green Earth will they get through life if THIS petty stuff sends them into a dither????

  3. I'm not a parent, so I can't say for sure, but something has happened to the last 10 years' worth of college students. They simply cannot handle stressors of any kind. Bella's stories are mine as well.

    I don't know how to talk to them. They look like they have to be held if I tell them a deadline has passed. I see tears, actual fucking tears over things that ... oh, why am I going on.

    I know most of you see it, too.

    1. It must be that our generation works more hours than any generation before it. Or maybe because the college degree we're getting is worth less than ever before and more expensive than ever before. Or maybe it's because we have a long twenty-thirty years cleaning up the messes of previous generations. Enjoy your social security, Millenial Provided(tm).

    2. Conan, you accurately describe the economic situation of many college students, and it truly sucks. However, I'm paying social security for people who grew up in the depression and went around the world just to get shot at. There's more to this problem than economics.

      Society is now child-centered, rather than adult-centered, because advertisers have realized that getting kids hooked on their products (even stuff they can't buy until they are adults) is a good investment that reaps future returns. Everything in our consumer-driven culture revolves around you so when life shits on your parade, your generation is less able to deal with it. To a large degree, none of this is your fault but in the end it doesn't matter.

    3. I'd generally agree with that statement. Whenever I asked for something as a child my dad would say "When I was a boy, all we got was rocks. And we were lucky to get them."

      And if we were outside and there were small rocks handy he'd start throwing them at my general vicinity, though never at me.

  4. I really try not to be snippy, because it can cause more drama than it's worth (see above), and because I tend to feel awful afterwards. But it happens from time to time (and/or even factual statements can come off as snippy to especially sensitive students, especially over email).

    I also try to give context/reasons for requirements, especially context that reminds students that many things that seem like no big deal to them, and are, in fact, no big deal in isolation, can create absolute chaos when multiplied by 80 or more students (which is more often than not the reason any of us get snippy -- that, or the drip, drip, drip of students not reading syllabi, following directions, etc., until we finally snip/snap at the 10th or 50th or 100th student who does the same thing all the others did).

    The thing about students is that there are so many of them (so very, very many, especially as the years of teaching mount up). But of course telling them that is, in itself, potentially upsetting, because they want to be recognized as unique individuals (which they are, but not always quite as much as they think; and of course teachers are unique individuals, too, and deserving of respect and decent treatment *as* human beings -- something that sometimes gets left out of students' mental equations).

    And of course this extreme sensitivity to how they appear in public has something to do with students' increasing reluctance to talk in class, which in turn puts teachers more on edge (because standing up in front of a room while a bunch of people stare back at you, slack-mouthed, every time you ask a question that would have sparked conversation a decade or so ago is simply no fun, as is walking out of class every time feeling you've somehow failed because discussion as you remember it -- and as you believe it should be -- never happened, despite your best efforts).

    And I'm not surprised that both of the proffies perceived as snippy/mean/yelling were/are female. As we've discussed before, students have different expectations of female professors (and also, for whatever combination of reasons, women are still more likely to hold the positions which involve teaching too many intro classes for too little pay, while juggling more out-of-class responsibilities, both professional and personal, which involve thankless tasks involving keeping track of endless details, all of which tends to make one a bit -- snippy).

    P.S. I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover that Bella is not actually a robot. Of course, it would be interesting to see what would happen if students did have to take such complaints to a robot, or a phone-answering system, or an online form, or any number of other "labor-saving" devices that some people think would be quite successful as pedagogues. It would also be interesting to see what kinds of complaints such systems would get.

    1. A professor was once kind of abrupt with me. I sat down, quietly analyzed their behavior and facts surrounding to reassure myself that it was not personal, and I got over it. It's fine for professors to be abrupt/snippy so long as it's not their defining feature. Because that shit spreads like Nutella.

      "Oh, don't take so-and-so."

      "Bad professor?"

      "Nope, just a horrible person."

      Conversation that I've heard before. Can't testify as to the veracity of it. I mean, yaknow, some people are just assholes, right? It stands to reason that SOME professors would just be awful people. Probably around the same rate as the general population.

    2. Awesome! That's the best idea I've ever heard.

      "Thank you for calling the Tuk U complaints hotline. Your specialness is important to us. Please listen carefully to the following options
      For emotional distress, press 1
      To explain why you are consistently late, but it's really not your fault, press 2
      To explain why deadlines are unfair, press 3
      For speak with an overworked, underpaid adjunct, please stay on the line..."

      Of course, if they did "listen carefully to the following options" chances are they wouldn't be calling the Tuk U complaints hotline in the first place.

    3. Conan, I am sorry you feel this was directed at you. I would have hoped that it went without saying that not all students are so fragile, just many more than I've ever seen. I am sad to see you feel you have to defend yourself.

    4. Oh, I didn't think what you wrote was directed at me at all. People are shitty. College students especially so. I honestly think it stems from disappointment.

      You have to understand that when we get to you, we've been told by everyone (EVERYONE) that this is the next thing. THIS is where things start getting good!

      In first grade we're told that second grade is where it all starts up until seventh and eighth grade. THERE we're told that this is all bullshit, but high school is where it starts getting real. And then they sell us college as this next door through which everything is awesome.

      So when you inherit us, you're getting people who have been oversold their entire lives on life itself. Our teachers, up until college, are people dedicated to convincing us that life doesn't suck and being an adult is awesome. College is the point where we simultaneously realize that our childhood was a giant lie and adulthood is terrible and life is just a series of doors with nothing on the other side, and then you die.

      I love most of my professors. And I definitely love the professors on this site. I'll always be kind of disappointed that I never got to be in one of your classes.

    5. The only comment that got my goat a little bit was the anonymous one more or less saying "Hurr! Kids these durrs!"

    6. There was an excellent piece on the blog Curmudgucation back in December entitled "One Wrong Move", that you might enjoy, Conan (and that provides at least a partial explanation for some of the timidity that so frustrates many of us in our students). There are, indeed, very real pressures on your generation (including a pressure to do better, standard-of-living-wise, than your parents, which just may not be realistic. It strikes me that some of the smartest members of your generation are those who are looking for ways to live that reflect their values, rather than those of the consumer culture that is, indeed, all too powerful, and also in danger of imploding, because nobody wants to follow the old Henry Ford dictum of paying the auto-assembly workers enough to buy the car anymore).

      However, especially in an economic system like that, you really, really don't want to live in a world without social security, or medicare, or other social safety nets. That can get very ugly very fast (and in fact things are pretty ugly even with those minimal nets in place). Civilized societies take care of the very young, the very old, the sick or disabled, and the somewhat-old who have worn out their bodies doing manual labor that contributes to the good of all. That said, as with many things, high earners need to pay a greater share of the cost of social security and medicare (well, or do something about income inequality and the CEO-to-worker compensation ratios that help produce it).

      Speaking of which, R and/or G, it always comes back to an underpaid adjunct, doesn't it? I'm really hoping that as we edge toward "full employment" (whatever that means), that a lot of underpaid adjuncts seek out greener ($$) pastures, and members of Conan's generation refuse to take their place. That, too, could get ugly for a while (though I still think the answer is for more administrators to teach more gen ed classes), but it's the only thing that's actually going to change the present system (moral suasion certainly isn't). Interestingly, there already seems to be something of an exodus from K-12 education, thanks to low pay, low prestige, ridiculous teacher assessment systems, and (perhaps most important at both the K-12 and higher ed level) lack of teacher autonomy.

  5. What annoys the hell out of me about this is that "mean" professors often get lower scores on their student course evaluations at the end of the semester, even if they were outstanding teachers overall. Generally my evals are pretty good, but the negative comments that I do get often have to do with my personality (e.g., he was too standoffish, or he has a bad attitude) and not my actual teaching.

    With regard to Cassandra's comment above about students' reluctance to speak in class--I'm worried that I may lose it with the students in one of my classes this semester. It's a small class, the students are weaker than those in my other classes, and when I ask even the simplest questions, I'm often greeted with blank stares and silence. Even for a simple question, like "Are you ready to go over this?", I get no response. I also had a class like this last semester, but all of my other classes were fine and often enthusiastic. And I did the same lecture/activities in all of these classes!

    Another thing--we professors generally have to be careful about how we tell a student that his/her answer to a question is wrong. If we simply tell the student "no", then s/he might have a breakdown like the students described in this post and accuse us of being mean. Sometimes we might be "mean" to a student and never even realize it until someone else (like a dept chair) contacts us the next day. And our reaction might be something like, "What? S/he was upset because I said that? Why?!" However, if they are ever rude in class and we call them out on it, to them it's like, "What's the big deal?"

    1. "Standoffish"? Is that actually what they said?

      It's a classroom. Not a... high school mixer. I just realized that I wish Professors could respond to evals while maintaining the students' anonymity.

      "Sorry if I seemed 'standoffish'. Maybe because this is a classroom and not a high school mixer?"

    2. Proffies get the added pleasure of their boss rushing down the hallway, the printout of eval comments flapping in the breeze, to plant hirself in your office.

      "Have you seen your comments?" zhe gasps.

      "I believe I may have glanced at them. Nothing unusual, move along."

      "But there's one here says you're 'standoffish'."

      "OK, maybe they caught me in a rare moment when I wasn't farting rainbows. But that's just one comment."

      "Every opinion is valid! You need to create safe space for learning for EVERY student in your class!"

      "To make it any safer in my class, we'd literally have to wrap ourselves in latex."

      "Your attitude is not conducive to self-improvement. I've therefore signed the whole department up for a three-day workshop on being more student-centered."

      "Wonderful! I'm sure we'll learn a lot! And to make sure I do, I'm going to sit with you so that you can be my partner in the group work."

      "Oh, I won't be going. It's just for the teaching staff."

      "Of course it is. Well, we mice will just have to play nice without you. Was there anything else?"

      "Uh, no. I've got to do that other thing."

    3. Deans come from the professorship typically, right? Based on your guys' stories it's like they turn into a completely different animal when they become Dean.