Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Ask the Administrator: Difficult Classmates

An older, returning cc student writes:

I'm in a class coded as both a history class and a Womens' Studies class called "Women in American History." I've looked forward to this class for weeks. Consider my chagrin when our classroom today contained what might possibly be THE most difficult personality I've encountered in the entirety of my life. I am not exaggerating. A friend of mine saw him gathering with the rest of us before the classroom was open, and muttered to me, "Oh, no. If he's in this class, we're so screwed." I told her I had tried to learn to deal with people I wouldn't necessarily encounter in other areas of my life, and she said, "Okay, I warned you. It's going to be bad."

Before the class started, he belittled his male "friend" for taking the class, loudly suggesting everything from the possibility of his friend obtaining a sex change before the quarter was up to laughingly proclaiming to all and sundry that his friend was "his bitch" anyway. During the class he used profanity at least three times. When the (cool, calm and collected) prof explained her use of the common symbols for male and female when putting notes on the board, he yelled, "That offends me," completely derailing the discussion and then laughing and saying, "Naw, naw, I'm just playin'." These are only a few examples of what this person has done to make me loathe him within the first 80 minutes of knowing him.

When I went to the prof to have a form signed after class and he let loose with another outburst (loud complaining about the amount of reading we'd be doing in the class, because 50 pages a week was far too much in a history class, apparently), I think I reacted with an "Oh my GOD" and she looked at me and said, "Do not worry, I'll be taking care of this right now." I'm hoping she did; she seems like a great prof and one who doesn't take a lot of guff from students. I'm looking forward to the outcome when class meets next.

I guess my question is this: In the past I've run into other students who are disruptive and had teachers not do anything about it. (Admittedly, they were nowhere near this guy's league for obnoxious and unruly, but still.) My question is, how does community college administration handle these problems? Is there an open-door policy for students to approach administration about problems that an instructor is unable or unwilling to handle? What happens when the disruptiveness of a student goes past merely a negative effect on his or her own participation grade and goes on to being so severe that every other student wants to run for the hills? I understand the ideal of the community college giving everybody a chance at an education, but where's the line for a-holes?

First, condolences.

From my desk, I see several issues here. The first is instructional: how should a professor handle a disruptive student? The next is line-of-communication: how should a student let her grievance be known, when she’s stuck in a class with Wonder Boy? Finally, there’s the larger issue of just how open an open-door college should be.

On the instructional front, I’ll have to ask my readers what they do. I’ve had limited luck in this area in my own teaching. Part of it has to do with my field – it’s one of those areas where controversial issues come up as a matter of course, and some people (usually older white men) feel the need to Set The Record Straight instantly, often by interrupting. When I correct their mistakes, which are legion, they accuse me of ideological bias.

Sometimes I’ve taken them aside after class and tried to clarify the difference between difference of opinion and simple rudeness. (I also make a big show of engaging constructive disagreements, even heated ones, to try to drive home the distinction.) It usually works for about a week, and then they backslide. Sometimes they just go away on their own accord, for reasons I choose not to investigate. The single worst case I ever had, early in my teaching days, was an older student whom I’m convinced went on and off his meds randomly. After several weeks of his making everybody’s life hell with random and extremely loud outbursts, some students snapped in class and really let him have it. I admit, I didn’t jump in to stop them quite as promptly, or as aggressively, as I otherwise would have. (Sometimes, a little frontier justice goes a long way.) He eventually went away, and the class improved palpably. It wasn’t my proudest teaching moment, and I like to think I’d handle it differently now, but the guy was just impossible.

Faculty readers – how have you handled raging jackasses in class?

In terms of lines of communication, I’d recommend first talking directly to the professor, either after class or during her office hours. Going over her head preemptively is rude, and could wind up solving the wrong problem. I know that I was emboldened to be much stricter on the very few occasions when students complained to me directly.

If that doesn’t help after a week or so, then try the department chair. But give it a week first.

(Oh, and a word on petitions. I hate petitions. For reasons I’ll never understand, some students seem to think that adding names to a complaint makes it more valid. It actually has the opposite effect. If I get a valid student complaint, I have no problem following through on it. If I get a petition, then I’m in an impossible position. If I follow through on it, I’m caving to pressure, and if I don’t, I’m ignoring the students. Students get better results from me when they don’t try to lead a movement or speak for the masses.)

From an institutional perspective, the issues are tricky. Since we’re open admissions, we naturally encounter a wide range of personal styles. One person’s disruption is another’s cultural difference. I saw this quite a bit at my previous school, where some faculty labeled students disruptive simply for being arrogant.

The line we try to draw is between simply being unpleasant and actually getting in the way of the class functioning. I’ve had students removed from classes for egregious misconduct, and I’ve backed up faculty on their right to kick students out of class to maintain basic order. Faculty have a basic obligation to manage the classroom within reasonable limits, and students have a basic obligation to be more-or-less civil in the classroom. Most people grasp this intuitively.

In a few recent cases, we’ve transferred very disruptive students to online classes. When the issue is severe ADD, that can actually work, since nobody minds if they get up and walk around every ten minutes when they’re at home typing. Even there, though, it’s a judgment call. I’ve had faculty tell me they’re spooked by students who dress Goth. I tell them to get over it, which may reflect a generational difference (half my high school dressed Goth at one time or another). And the issues get stickier when they cross racial lines. Still, institutions are on pretty firm ground if they can show that the conduct in question prevents teachers and students from doing their jobs.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Handling jack-asses:

Well, one thing that I've learned is that you can't just ignore them and hope they'll go away. The policy I've adopted since making that mistake is nipping the behavior in the bud IMMEDIATELY - often just by stopping what I'm saying and staring them down, then moving on as if nothing has happened. If that's not enough, I ask to see them in my office, give them a talking to, and suggest that if they can't behave and participate appropriately that they should drop the class.

Usually these strategies work BUT with some jackasses, well, there's not much you can do but try to make the best of a bad situation. Ultimately, the instructor can only do so much without back-up (and in this case I mean that it is really helpful if the other students in the class gang up on the obnoxious person(s) - not just that we need administrative back-up - because by the time things get to the point where we're bringing in department chairs and deans, well, the semester is pretty much ruined for everybody in the class.)
I agree with Dr. Crazy.

And students can help hugely, just by saying something direct, such as "hey, X, give it a break."

If X interrupts another student, interrupt him and say "Hold on a sec, X, Y was speaking, and I want to hear what s/he had to say."

As an instructor, I try to stop disruptive behaviors right off, but I've had other students make comments about how mean or scary I am when I do that, because I'm not really good at it, so tend to be pretty blunt.
This question made me think back to my undergrad days when, in a Chemistry class of 300 students, one visiting student from the local community college disrupted every class dozens of times to yell, "Hey, Teach! We're with you, Teach!" and "Aw, Teach! Why are you so hard on us, Teach?" He wasn't a bad guy, just incredibly annoying, which made it difficult for the professor to address. He seemed to be hypnotized by the power of speaking and having 300 people listen to him. Eventually, after the professor met with him several times after class, he calmed down, having gotten what he wanted, which was a relationship with the prof.

In my teaching experience, I've had uniformly wonderful returning students, but they can occasionally be so eager for attention in the academic setting that they answer every question without raising their hands and respond vocally to everything I say. The other students experience it as unbearably annoying and often complain about them. I have found, like my Chemistry prof before me, that forming a relationship with the student outside of class, making him feel secure about being there, and asking him to cut back a little on the comments usually helps.

Unfortunately, that must be nearly impossible to do when the irritating student is a complete jerk. I guess I'd ask him what exactly he wants out of going to college beyond an audience for his offensive "comedy" routines. If it's not his goal to learn, then I'd have to ask him whether he thinks he should be in a class with so many people who do care about the material. Dr. Crazy and bardiac are right; the prof has to be blunt and immediately responsive if a sane friendly talking-to doesn't do the trick.
Surprisingly, I can't remember all the details now, but a few years ago I had a student who was being a jackass in class the first week, not quite as bad as the one described here, but pretty disruptive. He asked all kinds of weird questions and stayed after to ask more weird questions (wish I could remember examples). I tried to talk to him about not being such a distraction in the classroom. Then the next class he was sort of muttering a lot in the back of the room near the end of the class period after I had refused to answer some off-topic question during class and had said he could come see me in office hours if he wanted to talk about it. Once class was over, the student who was sitting next to him came to see me to say he had been sort of threatening to her in class (again, I wish I could remember what he'd said--it wasn't exactly a direct threat, but it made sense that she was freaked out by it). He came to see me right after that and was clearly messed up, got angry at me for something I said and started muttering again as he left the room. It did actually cross my mind that he could conceivably be waiting to jump me in the parking lot when I left the office that afternoon.

I talked to my chair, who told me to call the office that deals with students with disabilities and a dean. The disabilities people knew exactly who I was as soon as I called, told me he'd been having a bunch of trouble, that he'd probably gone off his meds again, and in short order had him removed from my class and switched to an on-line environment. The students and I were all very much relieved.
How old are these "older white men" you're talking about?
Computer science attracts its fair share of jerks (is anyone surprised?), so I've dealt with this situation more times than I care to remember. Here are some strategies that I've found that work:

* What Dr. Crazy and Bardiac said: deal with the situation immediately and bluntly.

* Have the student see you after class and lay down the law in terms of expected/respectful behavior in the classroom. For some students, this means limiting how many times they can speak up during a class period, or specific things they can and cannot do. Sometimes it takes multiple meetings for this to sink in.

* related to the point above, sometimes appealing to the student's "helpful" side works---i.e. "you're clearly a strong student; here's why what you're doing is derailing the learning of others; what can YOU do to help your classmates learn?" This works really well for the socially-inept-but-harmless crowd, not so much for the real jerks.

* Don't allow the student to take over the floor. Require raising of hands, don't allow interruptions, etc.

* Don't be afraid to kick the student out of class if necessary. Explicitly tell him that you will do this if he (or she) does not abide by the rules of conduct. ]

* Fill your chair in early and often about the situation. S/he is often willing to back you up if you're earnestly trying to control the situation.
I agree with all who have said to handle it immediately, either by using "the look" or issuing a warning. I move around a lot when I teach, so I'll walk up to a student and say very calmly but firmly, "(Name)I need for you to pay attention now." when this doesn't work, I say "if you don't stop, I'm going to have to ask you to leave," and round three is "(Name)pick up your things and leave." Round three is usually met with a certain amount of drama, which I ignore, and yes, bardiac, it affects the others, but what can you do?
If I get a feeling that the person is going to be trouble, I alert the chair.
At my school, if a student has been asked by a professor to leave class, that student may not return until she or he has had a conference with the instructor--I usually have these conferences in the hall before class starts. And, if the student continues to be difficult, we send them to the Dean of Student Services.
If I suspect that a student is on meds or is ADD, I'll sit down with her after class and describe her behavior and its effect on the class, and ask for her take on it. Sometimes students will realize that they need to deal with their meds differently; sometimes they are students who are choosing not to have ADD in college so as not to be stigmatized and are also foregoing meds. (As a teacher, I can advise them to visit our Disability services department but that I can't be a therapist.)
At any rate, the difficult classmate that your reader describes sounds like a hard nut to crack. If the instructor seemed low-keyed but aware, she may have been trying to avoid giving him attention, which is what he feeds off of. Other students have a right to complain to the instructor and have a right to speak to him about it in class, too. If his audience thinks he's a jackass, he might stop. Then again, he might not. . . .
I've never had anything that bad. I have had students who had a bit of an "issue" with the course material, and who liked to play the contrarian: I'm okay with that (being a bit of a contrarian myself) and usually deal with such behavior by engaging it when the questions are appropriate (often by saying, "that's a good question, and a lot of people think that. What kinds of responses can we make to it?" and engaging Mr. Contrarian to think of objections to his objection before turning to the rest of the class or answering it myself), by ignoring the problem student if needed to make sure everyone else gets a chance to deal more seriously with the class material, or (and I find this most effective) turning it into a bit of a running joke. E.g., "now, we all know that John's response to today's reading is going to be X, but before we deal with that, let's discuss Y." Oddly, contrarian guys (who often want attention) are usually quite happy with being set up as the class in-joke, and seem to interpret such behavior as mild flirtation, which usually settles them down and often means they come round to being one of the students who thinks I'm a great professor. Go figure.

I am reminded, though, of one asshole guy who really didn't like our French T.A. when I was in college. Being a T.A., the poor woman didn't really know how to handle it (though she did a pretty good job of ignoring him up to a point, and then asking him to stop distracting from everyone else's learning). As one or two commenters here have already said, though, what really put a stop to it was one day when he was being a dick, she was ignoring him, and I (a fellow student) finally just said pointedly and clearly across the room, "Bill, stop being a jerk, it's really pissing me off." From then on, no problems at all.
Oh, clarification: by "ignoring in order to let the other students talk," I don't mean ignoring loud outbursts or other actual disruptions; I mean ignoring raised hands and postponing irritating questions. Actual outbursts, like everyone's said, need to be dealt with directly: "either you're in this class to learn like everyone else, or you can leave."
What about using it as a teaching moment? It's not true in all classes, but it seems a white guy being obnoxious in a Women's Studies class is exactly why we (still!) need Women's Studies courses.
I've had my share of jerks in class, and I agree that dealing with it directly is the best way. But what about when the jerk-ness is a direct result of the subject matter of the course? It seems, then, that the behavior cannot be reduced to inherent challenges (disability, for example) but rather a concious decision to challenge (or is it reinforce?) the premise of the course itself. It may be awkward, but if the student is making himself the center of attention, I would be tempted (but perhaps not brave enough) to discuss the disruption in the context of the class. Perhaps by bringing in a reading or editorial (or referring to a blog I happened to read?) that cleverly addresses the subject.
It often depends on the class dynamic. I try not to come down too hard too quickly, because I've been accused of being an intimidating type and also because the student really has to be obnoxious to the other students for that approach not to backfire. Usually I'll humorously bring things back to where I want them, and see if the student takes a hint. I'll then take the student aside, if necessary. And sometimes, I'll just stand there, quietly, till the student's done, and then remind them all of why we're there.

I also do have the state administrative code dealing with disruptive behavior in my syllabus. It may be an open door, but I have the right to ask anyone disrupting the learning process to leave -- and will do so.
When I was a new teacher at my alma mater, I had a student who would yell at me constantly about everything. I tried staring. I tried ignoring. I tried interrupting.

I had to keep trying because my chair said, "It's not that big a deal. You can't kick a student out of class." It was horrific.

In fact, it was so bad that my other classes on campus were model classes, always being polite, always turning in their work on time, never being late, because they knew this Drill Sgt's daughter was in my class and I was unable to deal with her effectively. (I know. It should have made them act out too, but they felt sorry for me.)

I finally avoided handing back papers in class, since that was what set her off most often, and things got a little quieter.

But when she was upset, which she was about anything and everything, she would stand up, get in my face, and scream at me.

Several years later my chair apologized to me. Apparently Drill Sgt's daughter showed up in his class later on.

Nothing like that has ever happened again. And I kept teaching.
I'm the person who asked the question, so I thought I might give a bit of follow-up since our second day of class was today.

First, I'm glad to see your response, DD, and everyone else's. Thank you for considering my question and letting me see a bit about how things work behind the scenes, so to speak.

As to the jackass, well, he was a bit calmer today; I think he had been indeed firmly talked to by my awesome prof (who continued to hold the line and is a master at steering discussions, so I need not have worried, really -- my worry stemmed from prior experience with less firm instructors). Still, though, he's a hell of a challenge. I think the instructor must have some sort of thing she's using to telegraph to him that he needs to cut it out when he goes overboard, because his diatribes do seem to run out of steam.

It also helps that his friend that he belittled the first day of class has dropped, because the macho posturing seems to have fallen by the wayside as far as that is concerned.

The second meeting of class has also brought the addition of two men to our ranks who have taken womens' studies courses before and therefore aren't struggling to deal with the inner dissonance that this other guy might be dealing with. So their examples might help.

The class is proving to be as wonderful as I was hoping; the road is just a little bumpy and that first day was a bit harrowing, is all. It's all learning, though, isn't it?

I did notice the mention in comments of the white-guy-in-womens'-studies-classes; I do want to point out that this guy isn't white. But that in itself is a pretty interesting train of thought, too. Too bad I'd probably be best not to share how I came across the comment in class. :D

Thanks again, DD.
(Heh, and rereading Lynn's comment, I saw her suggestion about bringing up the subject to help deal with the challenges, so perhaps I could bring it up. That might become an issue because the student admitted while working in with a small group, loudly enough for the entire room to hear, that he knew himself to be a sexist and that he was interested in finding out "how females think." It does make me wonder if he's challenging it to be disruptive to the subject itself...)
While it's tempting to call out the bigoted left on charges of institutionalized sexist racism for decrying the "obnoxious white guy" when in fact he was not white and yet he was still a chauvinistic ass, it would be too easy.

I still want an answer to how old these "older white men" are.
Sheesh. In my experience, the most difficult students in terms of constant interruptions and false 'corrections' are usually white guys in their forties. That's certainly not universally true, but the trend is hard not to notice.

I had one accuse me of being in bed with the international Jewish banker conspiracy for suggesting that there is more to the economy than Alan Greenspan. I had another insist, loudly and repeatedly, that Thomas Jefferson was a Puritan, and he refused to hear otherwise.

That's not to say that other kinds of students can't also be difficult -- they certainly can -- it's just to recognize a pattern when I see one. If others have seen different patterns, okay.
I've been harrassed by militant vegans while I was trying to peacefully enjoy my double bacon cheeseburger with smokehouse barbeque sauce. I don't immediately jump to the conclusion that an instance of vegetarianism is suddenly brought about by a girl wearing a hemp skirt who doesn't shave her legs and calls herself "Sequoia" even though her birth name is April.

I was just wondering what you considered older.

Sure there's a pattern. It's also a stereotype. And stereotypes are bad right? Unless those stereotypes are derogatory towards conservative white males I guess. Yes, this guy was an asshole, but why the assumption that he was an older white male asshole? Seems to me there's a lot of rage against women coming from younger black males as well, or maybe you missed that 50 cent video.

As for what to do with disruptive people in a classroom setting, I learned that lesson when I was 7 years old. My teacher kicked my ass out into the hall. Lesson learned.
Because those are usually the type of people to judge someone's whole culture based on music videos, perhaps? :D
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