The Chastising Professor

The Chastising Professor

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?

11 thoughts on “The Chastising Professor

  1. Great post. Do you actually have those speeches in a file somewhere? Possible even on a Youtube playlist so that you don’t even need to actually say it – just press play and drink your coffee while glaring intently at the students? I am sure most people will share the frustration – but it is frustration which comes from knowing that no matter how bright they are, if they do not actually put in the work then they will inevitably underachieve, and possibly regret it more and more after they graduate. At some point students do need a ‘wake-up call’ to realise just what they are risking. Often a few disappointing grades can make an impact. The financial cost of study may help too. The problem with a good ‘ole rant though, is that although it might work for those perhaps less mature and simply unfocused, it could simply knock the confidence and security of many others struggling with home commitments and problems they can do nothing about. Further, if the cause of disruptive behaviour is potentially a question of cultural capital – then a rant might, as in your case, merely harden those negative attitudes.

    Personally, I just went and picked up some useful tips from A-level teachers. Now they REALLY know about disruptive behaviour!

    1. I sometimes wish I had those speeches on file, for replay each semester. Though the simple truth is that every class has its own dynamic, and so the speech gets tweaked every time I give it.

      I could not agree more about the cultural capital issue — which is why I have so many mini-lessons (aka speeches) about strategies for going school well. I have a lot of students who are first generation to go to college in their family, and they need a lot of guidance about what it takes (strategy wise) to do this kind of learning well.

  2. I feel your pain — this is one of the things that has driven me away from a career involving undergraduate teaching. Sure, I wasn’t always as prepared as I could be as an undergrad, but I was interested, and I could work reasonably effectively with what I had so as to make a contribution to group discussion. I actually don’t have a problem with students who are honest about their level of preparation but willing to actively engage in class, even if that requires a change in my session plan to accommodate for some quick catch-up time. It can even be a good way of bringing more peer-to-peer learning in, providing it’s not always the same students who are prepared/not prepared. What I really can’t fathom is students who claim to have read the text but have NO opinion on it, and no comments on how it might connect to, say, the text we studied the week before. Dealing with this is a huge dilemma – having been much firmer about it last semester than ever before, I received feedback indicating how my comments on investing in your education had been completely misread. One gem was “My tutor seems to care more about her own time than about ours”, which certainly wasn’t intended to be my take home message! I’m writing a blog post on related issues at the moment that might be of interest, and will post it here when I’m done. I strongly feel that this kind of thing is far more emotionally draining than most academics acknowledge, but then perhaps that is a gendered response as well – my male colleagues just don’t seem to care as much about student engagement, or if they do they care in different ways – try as I might, though, it always gets to me.

    1. Yes, more than anything else, it is the lackadaisical attitude that is so wearing. I know that I have students who are often juggling full-time jobs and other responsibilities that make getting all the work done difficult sometimes. It’s challenging but at least understandable. That is quite different, however, from sitting through class with a completely blank expression day-in and day-out, no notebook, text or pen in sight, refusing to engage in conversation or even to acknowledge that there is a class going on. THAT I have found no good way to handle, but it produces a tremendous amount of anxiety.

  3. I think it may be a lost cause. My sense, from a British perspective, is that students have been so effectively lied to about the actual content of the education process – so effectively drilled with the belief that it is the teacher’s responsibility to deliver a package they can regurgitate – that almost nothing COULD shake many of them from that position, being as it is a most comfortable one to occupy. Even explaining this to them at the very moment of their induction – that they need to put aside everything they have internalised about what they think education is – and walking them through the basic processes needed in ‘skills’ classes tends to have very little effect.

    1. What you say is so disheartening. (Which is not to say it is untrue, at least for many students.) Does this bother you? I found it so draining to be in a class in which there is no reciprocal effort at building a learning community.

  4. No one ever made a movie about a nice professor except as an object-lesson about weakness. In real life, professors play a continual game of motivation that involves trying to outrun the slackers and outwit the cheaters. Some give up saying that if the students aren’t engaged there’s not much to be done about it. I once visited a friend’s class as a guest speaker. Sitting in the back of the class waiting to be introduced, I watched the students as they texted, read Facebook and played games with scarce attention to his lecture. I was horrified at the universality of their inattention. I demand that my students attend class and I subtract points for absences; I make them deposit their cell phones on plain view on their desks, and prohibit the use of computers in my classes. I will leave it to others to teach them to use the latest technologies. Getting them to read the assignments is very hard. They think that they are multi-tasking. In fact, they are scatterbrained. I wouldn’t want one of them defending me in court or operating on me. Nor would I want them teaching my grandchildren, and many more prospective teachers go through my classes than future doctors or lawyers. Teaching is a battle; we are trying to teach them to focus. The world and all its toys are trying to distract them. If they were playing basketball, or football, or any other sport, their full attention would be demanded. We should demand nothing less.

    1. I completely agree on the demand for focus in the classroom. What I cannot figure out, though, is any effective combination of carrot and stick that will motivate the really apathetic students to do the homework that will enable them to be focused: how to have a classroom discussion when they have done none of the reading is a serious conundrum.

      To be clear: I am not saying all of my classes are like this, or even that any given class is like this all of the time. It’s just that there are points at which a group of students will seem to atrophy, for no discernible reason, and nothing seems to bring them back–not even all the tried-and-true tricks that are working for other groups of my own students. On days like that, I wonder if I good, shocking rant might not be useful?

  5. Had the problem of nobody having done the reading last week and decided to ask them what they would do in my position, if they had prepared a seminar dependent on the class doing at least some of the required reading. Most of them stared at the floor but a couple replied and said they wouldn’t know what to do and would be annoyed. I managed to pull something together by just making them discuss the lecture connected to the seminar (although it was painfully obvious that some of them hadn’t even attended that), and then let them go after stressing to them that I can’t get them to discuss something that they haven’t read and asking them to do the reading for next week. Partially expected to face a host of sullen faces this week, but they were all extremely prepared and enthusiastic, and one even emailed me before class to say that he really appreciated the seminars. So, although it may backfire with some groups, putting them in my shoes worked really well in this case.

    1. This is great to know! I like the idea of putting them in your shoes. I don’t think a rational conversation is as likely to make them sullen as getting yelled at probably would. But it’s always such a perilous balance, isn’t it? I’m glad this went well for you. It gives me hope.

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