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I teach a very small (10 students) composition class once a week. I have a student who has, from the beginning, been very argumentative, mostly trying to bait me into debates but also debating the other students. In the beginning of the semester, he completely dominated class discussion to the point that hardly anyone else had the space to speak (to their credit, several students did bother to disagree with him on a number of points, though they often had to back down). This has all been frustrating, but bearable. I gently mentioned to him that I wanted everyone to feel comfortable speaking in class, and he seemed to acknowledge that he tended to dominate and would try to let others speak more, and for a week or two this seemed to be working to some extent (though he had a condescending attitude about holding back his opinion, and would say things to me when arguing like, “I’m not trying to make you mad,” even though I wasn’t getting mad, in order to make it seem like I was overreacting or like because I’m a woman I couldn’t handle arguments without getting "emotional").

Last week, though, apparently out of the blue, he decided not to speak in class at all. Not a word. Which might have been okay, but I could feel the energy from him. It was like he was seething. It was freaking me out enough that I considered jokingly telling him that he could speak sometimes without dominating, that such a thing is possible.

Then, this past week, things came to a head. We were attempting to discuss a text which I discovered only two students (one of them being the one in question) had read (which is another problem altogether, but I can deal with that one). Early on he said, “Frankly, I’m tired of only talking about the obvious things in the text,” one of the most insulting things a student has ever said to me in class. Then later, I was giving an overview of various critical readings of the text, and after one of them he snorted, saying “that’s so typical of academics, always over-analyzing things.” (He’s made a comment like this before, but not as direct.) I told him I thought that saying something like that was simply dismissive, a comment people make when they don’t want to talk about or acknowledge something in the text. He snorted and flailed about this, we went back and forth on it a bit, then I tried to move the discussion on. He called me on doing this, so I said, “Well, it’s just that we’re probably not going to come to an agreement on this and I don’t want to make everyone sit here and listen to us go back and forth.” He said, in such a sarcastic, hateful tone, “Well, it’s clear you don’t want to talk about this; you have an agenda, so tell us what we need to know.”

I have been angry with students before, I have had disdainful, rude, and sarcastic students before, but I can’t remember having a student who was so openly rude in class and so disruptive to the atmosphere. If I’m reading the feelings of the other students correctly, they seem to find him disruptive as well. I feel like I need to talk with this student outside of class and tell him directly how disruptive he is. But I really don’t know if this is the best way of going about it. Clearly he’s bored by the class; I don’t know there’s much I can do about that. And I don’t really have a strategy for suggesting ways to make him happier. I feel like I should address his anger and frustration, but right now I just feel anger and frustration toward him. I feel like he’s just a slightly unstable asshole and frankly, I don’t care that much about reaching him. However, we have two more months of class, and I don’t know that I can just ignore his behavior. I felt traumatized by this week’s class and really don’t want to go back. And even though I really do think he’s only bored because he sees things one way and doesn’t want to talk about anyone else’s reading of the text, my worst fear of course is that my class really is boring, and that it’s my fault.

Do you think I should talk with him outside of class? And what should I say?

89 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am seething on your behalf. What a disrespectful, awful, hateful little person you're stuck with. Ach!

When I had a much milder case of what you're talking about, I went to the dean of students. They handled it pretty well. But I also did talk to the student again, because I didn't want him to think I was allowing him to steamroll me. What I said was essentially, "Listen, you're free to dislike anything about this class that you want, and to disagree fundamentally with what we're doing here. But you do owe me, and your fellow students, respect." It sort of worked - he hated me quietly after that, and though he took potshots in his essays, it was milder than it had previously been.

Why do people stay in courses they hate so much? It boggles my mind.

Anonymous said...

Its funny... because I like those type of confrontations in class. I was that type of student, so I can understand or identify somewhat. But now when I'm on the receiving end of it, I attempt to paraphrase their position, and try to get them to elaborate on what they are saying. "So, you think this class is stupid... or that I'm stupid... or this reading, discuss, or class is a waste of time... you seem to have strong feelings about this issue... why is that?" Almost always, I can find a point where I agree with the student... and I'm tell them so. But, I also, however, present my own point of view. I've found that after I let them rant... and agree with part of their rant... they are much more cooperative. And sometimes, I've found that I simply have to blast someone... but I do it in public in front of the entire class. It's much more effective and the rest of the class appreciates it. But, I'll be honest... I'm male... and it may be a different dynamic. My female colleagues don't think this would ever work for them.

Salmon Ella said...

I would confront him in front of the class, since that's where he's confronting you. Also, if the other students are annoyed, it will a) let them see you're trying to do something about the student and b) open the door for them to say something to the student. It would probably help your cause to have some of the other students on your side.

Good luck--that student sounds ridiculously obnoxious.

Poppy Red said...

New Blogger just lost my comment. Oh well. Anyway, I feel like you're probably right that I should confront him in class, so that the other students will see that I'm doing something. The thought of it just turns my stomach. Until this past week, I thought I was handling the situation remarkably well for me, considering I hate confrontation: I have been arguing points with him rather than just backing down, and I have been letting him express his opinion and dissent within reason (except for when I feel we really need to move on, which is when he gets really mad). But maybe I should try to memorize some kind of combination of the two anonymous comments and prepare myself to have the guts and composure to say it to him when he acts up. Eeekk!

Anonymous said...

I wonder what is in his craw. People don't behave this way for no reason. Is it a requirement? A gen ed course? Given that I hate conflict, I tend to shy away from addressing, confronting, etc. But I generally find that bringing things right to the forefront works better than my avoidance strategies. The rest of the class may appreciate some honest discussion of the dynamic in the class. It also might be useful to ascertain what he thinks the problem is. Finally, I tend to be a Googler...so I would (and have) tried to look for tips from other sources, in books about teaching, etc.

fraud, in denim said...

I think it sounds easier to deal with than it is. I also think that you can get yourself in such a frenzy about these things, that you lose your confidence and it just makes it all the more difficult.

The other students are likely much more aware of the dynamics and issues than they let on, so I don't know that you have to deal with it in class for them to realize or appreciate anything you do. I'd recommend having a conversation with the student in your office, or after class, instead, and start it with a concerned bent, "I was just wondering if something's going on with you, you were so engaged in the beginning and now you've really shut down..." and see where it goes from there. It might turn into him being disappointed in the class or in your comments to him or something, but it also might be something completely unrelated that has him so short and out-of-line.

Regardless, if you open the door in a non-confrontational way, it might feel more like "you" and will make it more difficult for him to answer with confrontation back.

Good luck!

Poppy Red said...

Thanks for the additional advice. I had decided to say something only if he said something to another student in class (which he has done before) or to ask to speak with him right after class instead of making a specific meeting. Then, wouldn't you know it, he (and the rest of the class, too) was on his best behavior tonight in class. (The rest of the class, if I didn't already mention, failed to do the work last week.) I don't know what happened; it was like a totally different class. Was it because I expressed frustration with them last week for not doing the work, and/or because he or the class in general were uncomfortable with the argument last week? Or is it just that I think about all this stuff way more than they do?

The student in question did seem like he was holding back again, but when he expressed some annoyance about not having talked about what he thought was a key issue after only 15 minutes (!!! Literally. I am not kidding.) of discussion, I shot him a look, told him we had simply not gotten to it yet since we had just started, and called a break. After the break, I asked him very politely to address the specific idea he had brought up, and he did, and it went fairly well after that. If the break hadn't conveniently arrived, I don't know if that would have gone so well.

I didn't make clear in my original post that yes, this is a general ed requirement, and none of the students are majors; in fact, they go to a specialized school and this is one of the few classes they have to take outside of their specialty. I think his behavior is a combination of this, a frustration with the fact that the other students possibly need more introduction to some of the ideas than he does (he's a bit older than the others), and an authority issue. Plus we disagree fundamentally in a lot of ways. A perfect storm.

I plan to ask to speak with him after class if necessary, but I'm hoping my positive comments on his papers (for he actually is a good writer) and the decent conversation we had tonight might quell things, at least until spring break.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad your last class went well. Hopefully the situation won't get any worse. After all, as you say, spring break is right around the corner, and then summer is fast approaching.

If, however, you do need to confront him, I think Fraud's suggestions are excellent. Confronting a bad seed in front of other students can go terribly awry and leave a bad taste in other students' figurative mouths. And although in some situations it can be a good shaming tactic, it sounds like the wrong approach for this student: it doesn't sound like he could possibly be shamed. The "I'm concerned" approach, with the subtext of "get your act together," sounds like it would work much better.

Good luck with everything, and my sympathies. What a jerk!

Anastasia said...

i don't have anything useful to add. I just wanted to say I think I had this guy's twin brother one semester and I feel for you.

Alex said...

Ye gods.
The brat.
Get a copy of How to WIN Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. It's priceless ;-)
Very best,
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Poppy Red said...

I don't know if anyone is still reading these comments, but I just wanted to report an amazing update. The other day, I had a meeting with The Angry Student. Quite randomly in the middle of the meeting, he APOLOGIZED for his behavior in the class I initially wrote about, and said he had done research on the point I was trying to make, and discovered that indeed, my point had merit. He also agreed with that my point was not a matter of "reading too much into the text" in the style of a "typical academic" (which is what he had claimed) but rather that it was a matter of his own resistance to that specific reading. !!! It was like a dream, where the person who made you angry suddenly recanted and agreed that you were totally right and even had insight into their character. Yes, it's still somewhat problematic that he could only come to this conclusion by getting verification from other critics instead of looking to how I was trying to guide the students in the text (another male-female dynamic in my opinion), BUT I do feel that he has a lot more respect for me now and will stop pulling this shit, at least in a really disrespectful way. He is argumentative by nature, but I think it won't be as bad. And it just goes to show how students are still processing beyond the classroom, and that things just don't always sink in immediately.

This has been one of the weirdest teaching experiences, but it's certainly taught me a lot!

fraud, in denim said...

That's amazing, Poppy, but great too! I'm glad things have turned around. I hope that you can see know that it clearly wasn't something about you or your teaching or your control over the classroom, but something about him.

Freducha said...

You might as well be me. I might as well be you. I am dealing with this very situation this quarter with one of my male students. I feel totally powerless. Ironic, isn't it, since I am the teacher and he is the student!

I stumbled upon this blog looking for answers. My student is so shrewd and I feel like any conversation with him is a lose-lose. Fraud's suggestion seems like the best course of action for me. In the end, I don't want to alienate him; I want him to learn something (a modicum of common courtesy, perhaps?). I hope my cretin turns himself around the way yours did!

Does anyone have a recommendation for a book/article on strategies for female instructors to effectively deal with conflict in the classroom?

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