Post Academic

Don’t let ’em see you mad in the classroom (Part 1 of a series)

"Berlin Wall Hulk" by Gorgalore (Creative Commons license)

To follow up on what Caroline wrote last week about how there’s no crying in the classroom, I’m writing about a different kind of not-so-constructive display of emotion that gets stirred up in me when I’m teaching: anger.  Caroline has already picked up on what is the root cause of why I’m teaching-while-angry, and that’s the lack of respect I feel I get as a teacher.  Whether it’s feeling underappreciated as a peon adjunct and TA by admin or it’s more sociological, as the study that women and young faculty get more guff from students (geez, that’s a shocker!) suggests, there are moments where I can feel my inner Hulk about to burst through.

As an adjunct and grad student teacher without a whole lot of job security and a minority (which can come into play, too) who looks young, I definitely have some anger issues over a the sense I get that I lack authority in the classroom.  Really, all these circumstances build on one another: The teachers most at-risk–grad student instructors, adjuncts, untenured faculty–often lack age, experience, and rank, so they also appear the easiest to pick on.  And it is probably harder on women and minorities who might also appear young to project a sense of authority, just as it is for part-time teachers, just starting out in the profession and/or clinging on to it, with little institutional backing.  And don’t tell me that students can’t smell blood in the water when a teacher is uncertain about her/his standing in the classroom, even if they don’t understand the finer points of academic rank.  So how do I overcompensate for being young looking and an adjunct–I get mad!

OK, it’s time to talk my inner Hulk down a bit before I type this whole post out in BOLD CAPS, so read a more even-keeled assessment of what makes me mad about teaching below the fold…

Though the objects of my anger–the monolithic structure of the university and really obnoxious students–probably deserve it, I’m here to say never let ’em see you mad in the classroom.  Sure, a flash of righteous indignation can be useful in setting boundaries and establishing a little discipline in a class when done the right way, but going to teach surly and with a chip on your shoulder only hurts you more than it does anyone else.  Overall, getting mad in the classroom only urges the wrong sort of student to push your buttons, makes you forget that most of your students are actually good (or at least indifferent), and–most importantly–infuses your own life with negativity when being in academia right now is already bad enough on your psyche and pride.

Here are some situations that make me teach mad and some reasons why I shouldn’t have let things get to me so much, which I figured out much, much after the fact, of course:

I’m angry when I have to play babysitter: A lot of the time, I feel like being a prof is like being a hall monitor or babysitter, and I’m not talking about making sure students haven’t hidden cribnotes on the under their desk during an in-class exam.  Beyond all the logistical stuff that’s built into the job, there seems to be a lot of telling students what’s courteous and appropriate behavior in the classroom, if you let that sort of thing get to you.   I mean, shouldn’t common sense dictate that you really shouldn’t be using your cellphone in class?  And just because you can get away with texting under the desk and watching YouTube when you’re “taking notes” on your laptop doesn’t mean you do it, right?

The best/worst case of this was when I told a student to stop listening to her iPod during a 150+ student lecture.  Rather than just turning it off, her response was that she was only listening to music on one earbud and paying (divided) attention to the lecture with her other ear–in front of the whole class!  Or there was the time when a bunch of students started ditching a film screening and I decided I was going to catch ’em in the act.  Really–if you’re going to skip out on class, save it for a boring lecture when I ‘m stuck behind a podium, and just snooze your way through a video.  Anyway, I corraled a bunch of kids outside the lecture hall and herded them back in when they couldn’t give a reason for sneaking out.  A few hours later, I received a pseudonymous email from one student blasting me for making him go back to class and claiming that the reason why students text and listen to iPods is that my lectures weren’t interesting enough.  Which leads me to the next point…

I’m angry when students think I’m stupid: In this case, the student thought he could get away with his chickens**t anonymous message, but I wasn’t going to let him misunderestimate me.  I did the smart thing of not responding to the email message, and channeling my bad feeling into trying to figure out who this guy was.  Even in the 150+ lecture, I could pretty much guess who he was, starting with which folks were the most difficult ones when they were fleeing the lecture hall.  What did the trick was that I took roll (yes, that’s babysitting for you) and just waited to match up the name to a a face.

I’m sure a lot of you feel incredulous and a bit peeved, too, that students think they can pull one over on you, when you’ve been a student too for much longer and are smart enough to earn a Ph.D.  So probably a bunch of kids to get away with things, but I feel like I can catch enough of ’em to talk my self into thinking it was worth the effort.  Like when I caught a particularly sketchy student plagiarizing off a good student because I saw them incongruously chit-chatting after an assignment.  After matching up their papers, I got the sketch to give himself up while putting a scare into the “good” student about cheating.  But really, if you’re going to have a set up like that, at least cover your tracks better.

I’m angry that I incriminate the whole class because of a few bad apples: The problem with all this sleuthing isn’t the result of catching cheaters (which is good!), but it’s that I go into the classroom with the wrong kind of suspicious mindset.  A few problem students that I have to constantly admonish and keep my eyes on make me forget that most of my students are respectful, well-meaning, and actually try pretty hard.  And some of the students are actually much better students than I was at their age and probably better than I was in grad school.  Getting mad in the classroom shortchanges these students, many of whom care enough about school to saddle themselves with long-term loan debt, and it obscures the good experiences and great relationships I’ve had with many of my students.  And, from my experience, letting the toxicity get to you too much makes you forget not only why you like teaching, but also why you want to get into this line of work in the first place!

You know what getting mad about teaching is good for?  Writing blog posts, because I’ve got a lot more to say on this topic later!

3 Responses to 'Don’t let ’em see you mad in the classroom (Part 1 of a series)'

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  1. ROAR! Seriously. I just had to say that, especially after reading about some of the students you had to deal with.

    I am baffled that I hear about so many students fighting tooth and nail for a college education, and yet there are always a few schmucks who want to throw it away.

    … deep breaths … feeling Zen … most students are good …

  2. Jane said,

    Thanks for writing such an honest and perceptive post, Arnold. I can relate well.

  3. Bruce Barnhart said,

    I’m impressed that you caught a bunch of students trying to sneak out – I think Post Academic should film a dramatic reenactment. Your analysis hits the nail squarely on the head. You are certainly right about the need to hide anger, but don’t you think there are times when a strategic display of anger can be effective? + I wonder if anyone has done a study on how much the minority status of the prof affects student responses – my guess would be a lot.

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