Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mostly Misery... but only mostly

And I consider that a win. This week, at least.

(No "Professor Facepalm" logo this time, folks - this is not a humorous entry.)

On Tuesday, I lost my patience with my class when I discovered that no one - no one - had done the reading. I lost my patience, and I cursed at them.

I curse in class a lot. But this time I cursed at them. I regretted it the moment I did it. I think there's a world of difference between saying something that might offend my students and saying something offensive directed at my students. I think the latter is unacceptable.

And - hoo boy - so did some of them.

Leaving aside the fact that it prompted three other students to complain to my Dean (not even my Chair, my Dean!) that I curse in class a lot (I checked with a lawyer and the AAUP, and even though my Dean said "no more cussing," I feel confident on that point), it got a particular reaction from one student.

An ex-Army Ranger student.

You guessed it - he jumped out of his chair, wigged out, threatened me, refused to leave when asked, and then dared me to call security.

The usual.

Oh, wait! No! NOT USUAL AT ALL.

I kept it together pretty well, I think. I was calm in the face of it, and he did leave when I actually picked up the phone to call campus police. I went straightaway to the Dean to file a complaint, and things were handled with relative alacrity by the higher-ups, so that by the time I went to teach today, there had already been a meeting between me and the student where we both apologized for speaking in the heat of the moment. That was nice. He's a good kid and I like him and I was happy to get some rapprochement with him.

But the weirdest part of all this for me?

Realizing that I wasn't all that concerned with what the administration would do to me, or whether there'd be more complaints about my teaching style, or even whether this kid was going to beat my ass.

I was mostly worried that I'd lost 'em. That they'd be tuned out. That this regrettable incident is what they'd take away from the class.

Fucked up, huh? Or maybe a reason for hope. I always have trouble telling those two apart.

But, in any case, when I came back today, I delivered a mea culpa to the class, consisting of basically what I said before the cut, and the kid who flipped his lid also apologized, and then my cowardly-assed Dean mentioned how cursing at the class was unacceptable and, oh yeah, so is threatening your teacher. But then the Dean left and I had to get back to teaching and I ventured, dry as I could, "I won't ask who's done the reading."

And you know what happened?

One kid in the back shot back, "I'm pretty sure everyone did it!"

Laughter. From the whole room.

It felt good.

I've still got 'em. For another few weeks, at least. I've still got 'em.

It's not all misery.


  1. It is refreshing to know that despite all the new edu-babble, greater insights into human psychology and better technology, some of the old ways to motivate students still work.

  2. When I was a student intern at a city newspaper, we (interns, writers, other editors) were sworn at constantly by editors and upper management. It was the norm. If we didn't do what we were supposed to do, editors threw a fit. Our and their jobs were on the line if we didn't do our jobs correctly. I understood that level of stress.

    I switched to higher ed BECAUSE I hated the daily stress of producing copy on an endless cycle. I was getting worn down by the stress of the newsroom... not so much that I was being sworn at (that happened occasionally), but because I was in a career where it was expected that we needed to vent stress or suffer a heart attack from holding it in.

    Higher education should not be a place where we feel we have to resort to this. But in the past few years I have been *THIS* close to doing what Wylodmayer did. I have shut down a class and told everyone to leave in the past when it was clear no one had done the assignment they were supposed to do, but more and more, I find myself wanting to swear AT them, too, if only to make them wake up enough to see that what they're choosing not to do matters!

  3. Good for you, Wylodmayer. So often, the students just want to know that you're real and that you fucking care about them and what's going on in the goddamned class.
    And bless your dean for being human enough not to blow that shit out of proportion.

    1. isn't it funny that sometimes getting yelled at is a sign of caring? I had an upper level majors class who all half-assed a major assignment and I tore them up one side and down the other (I didn't swear at them, but I might as well have). Afterwards, one girl came up and told me "It's OK you yelled at us, it means you care." I was relieved she saw it that way!

  4. Some of the "most engaged," "deepest student learning" I ever did was when I was in the U.S. Navy, being screamed at simultaneously by multiple people who constantly threatened physical violence, and sometimes delivered (when no one was watching: in the U.S., they haven't been allowed to beat recruits up since 1968, legally). Specialists in edu-babble, or "pedagogues" as Mencken would have called them, are full of their own press. I'm surprised at your Army ranger: he should have been used to that.

    1. I wondered about that. Perhaps there's some PTSD involved, or at least a deep need to have college be a clearly different world, with different rules, than the Army? I could understand that.

  5. Exactly to avoid this kind of thing, I cultivate an attitude of almost complete emotional detachment when interacting with students (in class or in my office). I expect close to nothing from them (in terms of reading the text or working the problems, for instance), and I'm rarely surprised.

    Even mildly emotional reactions have consequences. Last year one of my UG classes bombed the first test (there were maybe three high As, then Ds and Fs) and, as I solved the test, I carefully pointed out to them which homework problem each question was copied from. Then I went into a tirade about how engineers in India, China, Russia, Germany, who knew far more math than they could ever hope to learn, would eat their lunch. "They don't even have to come here anymore, the jobs go where they are."

    They looked stunned, but said nothing. I had their reaction in the course evaluations. So no, it's not worth it. Also, at my U, the Chair, Dean and Provost would all love to have a reason to fire me, or at least put me in a precarious position where I would depend on their good will to keep the job. Hence, detachment. Ben's rule "don't care more about..." applies.

  6. I'd certainly call that a win. It does seem to help to let them know we actually care about our subjects, and about their educations (I know, I know -- but somebody has to, and sometimes not caring is even more enervating than caring). Sometimes it takes rather extreme measures to get that message across. The Dean's involvement does seem a bit much, but at least it went to what sounds like a competent Dean who has his priorities in order.


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