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.