Tuesday, January 22, 2008

We Have Nikki's Back.

Nikki from NY is someone who's written to us a few times over the past few days, and we get a strong feeling that her fear and confusion are quite legitimate. We like her, and in our exchanges she's proven to have a lot more courage than perhaps she's shown in the first week of classes. Of course, we're on board with a number of you - including Wicked Walter - who have suggested that we simply form a posse (a really well-educated posse) and go kick the shit out of the Neanderthals she's been stuck with. Until our hats arrive, though, here are some other places to start.

  • Students are a bit like sharks – once they smell weakness they can all join in with the mob feeding frenzy. But you can use this mob instinct in a positive way. The next time some asshole makes an inappropriate comment, call him on it. Then, ask the rest of the class if anyone thinks his comment was appropriate (staying calm and in control). The silence will speak volumes, and you’ve begun to tacitly bring the majority over to your side. Also, I’ve never found it a bad thing to seek out advice from supervisors or department heads. After all, you represent them to some extent too. You can at least let them know what has been going on, and what your strategy is to fix it. They may have advice for you, but they’ll be less likely to want to step in and rescue you or try to switch out instructors if you show that you’re managing the situation. It may come to pass that the administration has to get involved – particularly if students are making suggestive comments. Where I teach, their asses would be in a world of trouble for anything they said of a sexual/dating/gendered nature toward a prof. This is not weakness on your part – it’s the institution’s responsibility to provide you with students behaving within the college’s ethical standards, not yours. You will survive this. Lots of us are going to be sending in support, because we are or we have been there. Hang in and do you job. It'll get better.

  • I've had classes like that before. I had my freshly minted B.S. in hand and three sections of students to teach. I decided to employ the philosophy so eloquently articulated by the character Vera Donovan in Dolores Claiborne , "Sometimes you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive. Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto." I talked to my course director, and then I put my foot down and enforced every rule in the syllabus to the letter. I never did "dress down" that semester; I wore a suit everyday. In the classroom, I was in charge and that was just the way it is going to be. Their perception of me as being young and easy to push around was directly related to how I managed the daily interactions and the rules and requirements of the course. This led me to manage those aspects with an iron fist. Sure, I got a couple of rude and inappropriate comments during class, which were met with a snappy comeback and an invitation to leave the classroom since incivility was unacceptable. Once I threw one kid out, the rest pretty much fell into line. I also gave them a very frank lecture about appropriate student behavior and what was not going to be tolerated. I still had students who were happy to share in class and who came to see me during office hours or approached me with problems, so my method of dealing apparently did not inhibit the entire class. I think the classroom is a little bit like being in a pack of wolves. You've got to establish, via one method or another, that YOU are the pack leader. When you're a woman and you're young that's a doubly difficult task to accomplish. Being young, female, and a TA (or fellow) makes it difficult to establish the credibility that is more easily given to older instructors or professors, so I found that I needed to take steps that were a bit more blatant than those needed by more established instructors. Sometimes I still have to let the bitch out, but it happens on a much much less frequent basis.

  • Try to imagine that you're teaching junior high, and respond to comments like the ones you described like you would to a child - Say "that's inappropriate" and then move on. Make provoking you as boring as possible. If they persist, throw the shitheads out of class. Get right to business - don't let there be time in class for heckling. Let them know that their behavior is so inappropriate, and the embarrassment of looking like an ass in front of their peers will eventually kick in. Talk to another young prof at your college - don't go crying to the boss; talk instead to a colleague conversationally. You're not the first prof to look young and pretty, and they're certainly not the last despicable students you'll ever have. Just decide that you're in charge and then act like it. The entertainment of seeing you stumble the first couple of days will fade in their memory if you make a solid change now and stick to it.

  • Your students are not being rambunctious, or disorderly, or "just kids." They're sexually harassing you. Period. And you don't have to take it. You should tell your director immediately. I've seen a situation very much like yours (in which a male student refused to take instruction from a female instructor, who he went on to physically threaten and intimidate). In the case I witnessed, the director didn't offer meaningful help, and tried to placate the student, and then offered the instructor a departmental plum as "compensation" and the university swept the whole thing under the rug, and basically something that should have been on the cover of the Chronicle was not. Your students have to learn how to treat people. Your superiors have to learn what their grad students are up against. Step one is always a Stern Fucking Lecture, and it goes like this--if the students who are harassing you are doing it semi-privately, you tell them, in front of everyone, that they are no longer welcome in your classroom. You expel them instantly from the place. You say, "Warren. Smitty. Connor. Please leave. Now." And if they don't--if they have the balls to "refuse"--you call the campus police. If things are worse than that--if your whole class won't quiet down long enough for you to make such an announcement, or if you feel so threatened that you're actually afraid to do it, dismiss the entire class. Tell them that every time they act like this, you'll dismiss class, and that these dismissals will count as absences. If a Stern Fucking Lecture doesn't work, you bring an Official Complaint to your Director. And if that doesn't lead to resolution, you go to the Chair, and then the Dean, and then the Provost, and the President.

  • You are the grownup. You know more about the subject than they do, and, more importantly, you control something they want: their grades. You have to leverage this to your advantage, and the way to do it is not to put up with any of their crap. My suggestions are that you: 1) stop answering personal questions so they don't think you're their friend; 2) dress as professionally as your budget allows so they get the message that you're not an undergrad; 3) make the first exam difficult so they realize that you are in fact smarter than them and that they need to pay attention; and 4) throw them out when they chatter or are disrespectful. Just explain that from here on out, disrespectful behavior will result in being asked to leave class that day and that missed work will receive a zero. Then follow through on it - after you kick one or two frat boys out, the rest will get the message. You may have to talk to your director about that, but you're justified in doing what it takes to ensure that the students that are there to learn get to learn. You worked too hard to throw away this opportunity, and letting the spoiled brats win is not worth the sacrifice. You can do this. Good luck!

  • You are entitled to a safe work environment and all institutions have explicit policies on things like student misconduct and harassment. Learn them and don't be afraid, not even for a minute, to put them to their intended use. Enforcement is probably someone else's job. And do speak honestly with your peers and professors, not just on RYS, but face to face. All of us went through something like this in the early days and there are many proven strategies available to you for getting this train back on track. Keep your head up.