Earlier today, I read a mini-rant by a professor I don’t know, who was fuming over students who don’t do their homework. She wrote that, having been educated to PhD level herself at the University of Hard-Assery, she didn’t tolerate slackerdom in her classrooms. As a student, she had once had a professor pitch a fit that involved throwing and kicking things in his fury over student unpreparedness, and she had taken away from that incident a healthy respect for the well-placed hissy-fit (my paraphrase).
She explained that she was fully prepared to kick students out of class, yell at them, and/or make them have a sort of humiliating in-class reading session when they were woefully under-prepared. Reading between the lines, I sense that she felt that having them watch her metaphorically prop her feet up on her desk while they did the preparation they should have done before class would teach them a lesson about the mutual responsibilities of the college learning environment.
But before I could get to that nicely formed extrapolation of her pedagogical reasoning, I found myself catching my breath in amazed horror (admiring awe? impressed terror?) at the notion of standing at the front of a classroom, shouting and berating my students for (implied) laziness.
This is not something I have ever done. It feels tantalizingly bold. Audacious. Liberating.
Also: almost certainly likely to backfire.
Once, as a newly-minted assistant professor, I roundly chastised a lecture hall full of 300 freshmen for their rudeness–reading newspapers, walking into class 20 minutes late and then climbing over 10 people to get to a seat, walking out of class 20 minutes early, packing up books while I was mid-sentence because class was due to be over in 5 minutes, and so on. Nearly half the students had walked out in the previous class period as soon as the quiz was over, and I was frustrated and angry. I felt it was deeply disrespectful to their fellow students, whom they were stepping over, and it was deeply disrespectful to me, whom they were treating as if I were a figure on a TV, incapable of seeing that they were texting, reading, giggling, and walking in and out as if they were in their own living rooms. The upshot of my brief tirade on classroom etiquette was a semester-long backlash of escalating rudeness, students asking whether I was “old enough” to be teaching the class, and other indignities I prefer to forget.
Sure, a few of the students who sat in the first few rows told me they were grateful.
But most of the enormous class seemed to see me as some kind of shrieking harpy. They took that incident and used it to brand me with the worst stereotypes of Angry Womanhood and refused to take me seriously about anything as a result.
Indeed, as a female professor, I find that I am routinely expected to offer sympathy, extensions on papers, counseling, and flexible rules (and occasionally to get called a “Bitch” when I don’t). My male colleagues either do not seem to face these expectations or do not worry about them. And they don’t get nasty slurs when they stick to rules they have made.
This is why the other professor’s tirade struck such a chord. I am not sure how to stand on such a soapbox of fury without losing the class for the rest of the term.
Of course, I (like every teacher) have class periods every semester in which almost no one has read the assigned work, or only one person shows up with the text, or everyone refuses to raise a hand or even look me in the eye when I ask a question–a sure sign no one has done/thought about the reading. My response has always been to give the Sincere And Concerned Speech About Investment In Your Own Education. This is a speech designed to make them see how they are selling themselves short by not being active learners. I have speeches about How To Take Notes, and How The Skills In This Class Are Transferable, and Why You Should Care About Doing Well Even Though You Don’t Like This Subject Matter.
But I do not have a speech about How You Are A Lazy Ass Who Needs To Just Do The Assignment Already.
And I wonder whether such speeches work. How do students respond to being called on the carpet about their own lack of effort? Do their responses differ based on whether the students are at select institutions (where they are more likely to have already succeeded at school because they have internalized pressures that include a sense of guilt over failure) or at ones with more open admissions policies (where many students are still learning how to “do” school well)? Does it matter whether the ranting professor is male or female? mature or young? black or white?
More to the immediate point: Am I just too invested in being “nice”? Any professor who says she hasn’t had class periods where she wanted to throw out the students and cancel class for the day since they were so abysmally unprepared and didn’t even seem to care about that fact? Is lying. And yet I never do those things because I have always felt that ranting at my students to try to guilt them into doing work would be counter-productive.
Do we, as a culture, not push students hard enough or force them to be accountable for their own progress? Can we? Are there ways to do this that do not involve shouting and throwing books or cancelling class in a gesture designed to produce pointed humiliation? And if so, what are they? And if not, how does one cultivate the audacity for such an outburst?