Thursday, June 07, 2007


Ask the Administrator: "Excuse Me, I'm Right Here!"

A new correspondent writes:

As a newbie adjunct, I have a question about propriety. At my Community College, I regularly hear students talking trash about other instructors and colleagues. Recently, I had the pleasure to overhear them trashing me. Alas, it was annoying; however, I was equally stunned by their inability to notice me outside the classroom. Anyhow, I am not sure what proper etiquette is in these situations--especially since I am an adjunct. My inkling is to turn around and say, "What interesting things you hear on campus," or "What an intriguing discussion," and walk off. Ideally, it would leave said students breathless. Politically, is this wise? Additionally, I am a bit nervous that students might retaliate with charges of inappropriate behavior from me (am I paranoid?).

In short, how do you suggest we deal with the imps who skirt official policies but are still irritating little pixies?

I'm frequently amazed at where students draw the line between public and private space. And yes, it can create some delicate etiquette dilemmas, hurt feelings, and the like. (My pet peeve is those little borg-like ear implants that people use as phones. From any kind of distance, it's hard to distinguish “on a call” from “off his rocker.”) The worst is when you overhear them saying something that's inappropriate, accurate, and laugh-out-loud funny. There's just no graceful way out of that.

This will vary by institutional culture and individual personality, but my 'default' rule would be not to call attention to yourself unless the attacks rise to the level of slander or threats. If what you're hearing is along the lines of “he's a loser, and the class is boring as hell,” I'd let it slide. Students have the right to express their opinions, whatever we might think of those opinions. As a newbie adjunct, to use your words, you may not feel like you have much authority, but in the context of the classroom, you do. As someone in authority, you'll attract some potshots. Comes with the gig.

Alternately, you could do the passive-aggressive thing, and pick that moment to have a coughing fit. With luck, the speakers will be caught off-guard and suitably embarrassed. This only works, though, if you can fake it fairly convincingly; otherwise it's just sad.

When in doubt, take the high road. Show some class, and let the random negativity roll off your back. If that seems too passive, think about the alternative. What would you think of a professor you saw berating students in the hallway for comments about him that he overheard? What do you think those students then tell their friends? Even if the original comments were unfounded and nasty, the story that will outlast the moment will be about that insecure jerk professor. Now the issue isn't what they said; it's what you did. Fairly or not, the expectations for your behavior are higher than the expectations for the students' behavior. Politically, a reputation as an insecure jerk would be far more damaging than any random student carping could be.

As with road rage, taking the high road also makes unwelcome escalation less likely. Suppose you confront the students, they take offense and escalate, and then complain that their eventual bad grades were the result of retaliation? These things happen. You don't know how people will react when surprised, especially if guilt and/or shame is part of the mix, so I wouldn't surprise them lightly.

In the best case, if your skin is thick enough, you can take some time later to try to analyze the comments dispassionately. Is there a kernel of truth to them? If so, is there something you can do about that? Sometimes we fall into bad habits without realizing it – talking to the board, taking too long to grade papers, requiring students to buy expensive textbooks that we proceed to ignore. (In my early days of teaching, a sympathetic student pulled me aside after class once and told me that I spoke too softly to be heard in the back row. That was actually useful.) If you're able to salvage some usable nugget of information, you can actually improve as an instructor. If the information is useless, walk it off. Don't let them get the better of you.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

I agree that not confronting them is probably the best path. I do have an additional suggestion, if you think that the criticism has some merit there is no reason you can't do a mini-class evaluation in the middle of the class. I would only do this if the complaints are class content based and about things you may be willing to (or can) change.

Ask very neutral and open ended questions that could get the complaints in response. Chances are good that the complainers will write the complaints but that others will answer either that question or other questions in a positive way.

The key to stopping the complainers in their tracks is to aggregate the responses and show that their classmates don't agree with them. This technique also gives the complainers a chance to vent before they do your official class evaluation.
Confronting the punkish little plebe on the playground is pointless. He might go bawling to the folks upstairs and there you are in Prof said/Doofus said pissing contest in front of an Admin who may, or may not, support you. Use the tools you have. Go Socratic on him in the classroom. Questions and answers. Questions and answers. It need not be bloody or confrontational. Remember, you're the adult here. Calmly, gently, and remorselessly, remind this student of who is charge and why taking a step toward where the best students already are is in his best interest. He may want to behave as a child, but it's your job to show him how to behave as a student. If that doesn't work, don't worry. Someone has to sweep the streets. Better him than you.
I have to say I am amazed by what students say about my coleagues when they know I'm listening. (I haven't, perhaps fortunately, overheard them talking about me.) Not infrequently, they will make extremely negative comments about my colleagues directly to me (positive comments are easier to handle; I just say, "I'll let her/him know about that). I do point out in these (negative) cases they they are talking about one of my colleagues. Which usually makes them much more circumspect.

I have also had students provide me with feedback, either by email or in person, outside class. This is almost always extraordinarily valuable.
My grand-daddy taught me that if one person calls you a jackass, don't pay them any attention. If five people call you a jackass, you need to start hunting hay.

Where did that kind of wisdom go?
I agree with the poster who suggested you get some feedback, but I wouldn't do it verbally. One very useful tidbit I got when I first started teaching was to administer a "what is going well in this class?" and "what could be going better?" questionnaire. You do it anonymously and at the end of class. You can even leave the room and ask the students to stack them on the desk. This is a great way to learn if your discussions are going well or if you scare the hell out of them (maybe you want to; maybe not). In any case, I found it incredibly helpful when I first started teaching and continue to do so now. Good luck!
It ain't right, but . . .

Once I listened to a friend of mine with decades of K-12 teaching experience counseling a mutual friend about interviewing for an elementary school teaching job.

"They're gonna ask you a question or two about what to do with a classroom problem--a difficult student, a difficult parent, a difficult whatever," he said. "The worst possible answer is to refer it to the principal. The second worst answer is to ask the principal for help or guidance."

The same thing's true for cc adjunct faculty and deans. The ONLY conversation you want to have with your dean is about your class schedule for next semester.
I'm frequently amazed at where *faculty* draw the line between public and private space. When faculty are in an office space used primarily for research, with few undergrad students around, rather frank evaluations of students can be overheard. !!

On this question, I strongly endorse learning from what you overheard. There will certainly be some grains of truth behind any negative remarks about a person teaching a class for the first time, and the only way to improve is to find out that those are.

If all you heard was that "Mr X is a terrible teacher", a simple survey question might be "What makes Mr X a terrible teacher?", but you should also ask "What good things does Mr. X do in class?"
"The same thing's true for cc adjunct faculty and deans. The ONLY conversation you want to have with your dean is about your class schedule for next semester."

As a dean, I have to say I strongly disagree. Adjuncts (and full-timers, for that matter) come to me all the time for advice or direction about stuff--difficult students, job searches, their interests and goals, or sometimes just to chat. It's one of the pleasures of the job to be able to use my teaching experience, combined with what I've learned in my time as an administrator, to help someone successfully negotiate a tricky situation. And on a strictly practical note, I would MUCH rather have an adjunct seek advice from me rather than make an ill-advised move that could lead to student complaints--or worse. I don't think that there's anything in this particular instance that calls for a chat with the dean, but in general--I'm happy to be consulted by faculty.
Why care? By definition, they're kids who don't really know the details of what's going on.

My approach has been: if you overhear something and you're not supposed to be there, evaluate the opinion-making capacity of the person speaking, shrug, and move on. If you are supposed to be there (i.e. it's in the classroom before class starts, so there's every expectation of your presence), open the door loudly so they know to shut up and step inside. It's both fun and useful to make an arch comment about "inside voices," as one is mid- teachable-moment, and continue with the work of the class.
I am in agreement with CCPhysicist (in terms of the same occuring the other way around).

I live close to campus all year, so there have been times that my tutor has asked me to come in during the holidays.

Staff may be reasonably careful about what they're saying during term-time, but out of term-time I've heard some rather interesting comments. I usually try to bury my head in my project book/timetable/any handy piece of paper.

I've also heard difficult comments when staff know there are students around. I was once sat in a meeting with my tutor and a staff member (tutor had kindly agreed to come for support). The aforesaid staff member expressed her hope that segregated schooling would occur in the future (so that she wouldn't have to deal with 'issues' like me presumably). Very difficult, but at least it helped my tutor to understand where I was coming from in relation to that subject.
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