• October 20, 2014

It's Me Against My Students

Careers lllustration - Fear and Loathing in the Classroom

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

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close Careers lllustration - Fear and Loathing in the Classroom

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

Question: I can't stop this feeling anymore: I hate my students. Now what?

Answer: Maybe you just have a bad class this semester. Or do these feelings infiltrate every corner of your life? Do you wake up with a sore jaw from grinding your teeth? Do you dream about chain saws?

Ms. Mentor thinks about "Clive," whose humanities Ph.D. was from an elite university known as "the place where fun goes to die." His only job offer was from Rollicking University, an open-admissions institution in "the city that care forgot." It was a grotesque mismatch. Clive believed that everyone, everywhere, loved poetry. His students rudely set him straight ("WTF is this?") They refused to read; they, skipped class, texted, snoozed. They ignored the intense fellow at the front of the room. He seemed to be begging and ranting. Clive lasted two semesters before he fled to law school.

His circle of fellow complainers, the lunchtime grumps, also departed within a few years. One of them hunkered down, published a book, and landed a job at a research university. Another became a starving musician. A third got rich—as a house painter.

But other new faculty members, hired at the same time at that college, decided to bloom where they were planted. They retooled their abstract courses in linguistics and astronomy to make them socially useful. Their students learned racy Elizabethan slang and found out why you shouldn't trust a horoscope.

These teachers found models—professors like the historian Stephen Ambrose, who created a course at the University of New Orleans on "The History of the Last Five Years." He brought in politicians to explain themselves, and he got students to ask impertinent questions. ("How come the police show up only in white neighborhoods?") His students became active citizens.

Still, Ambrose couldn't reach everyone. There were students who tuned in but dropped out. And so Ms. Mentor warns newbies against those "teacher as savior" movies—the ones with the idealistic, all-nurturing teachers who save tough teens through dancing, reading, and loving everybody. Those stories could inspire you, but mostly they'll fill you with guilt and make you into a resentful martyr. ("I crucified myself for them, and they didn't even notice the blood!")

Sad but true: Students often don't notice you or what you're doing for them. They want things you're not offering (beer, drugs). They have dead-end jobs, frisky sex lives, dysfunctional families, temptations, mean streets. For some, college can be a haven, orderly and safe—but only if you make it that way, by being tough.

Sometimes you yearn to be the gentle seminar leader you remember, reading Keats's mellow verses in a lovely old room with stained-glass windows. But you must teach the classes you have, not the classes you wish you had. You must learn to do things differently when you're teaching general-education courses. Instead of a leisurely "Let's see how far we get with Plato today," you have to impose a structure. You have to draw up that draconian syllabus, with ironclad due dates for reading and writing assignments and tests, standards for grading, policies for lateness and absence, and warnings about plagiarism and gadgetry.

Then, in the first class, you have to stake out your authority. In real life you may be a wit or a tender friend. But in the first class, you're the maximum leader who rules and sets the tone, so that the music can flow. Ms. Mentor reminds you to dress professionally. Especially if you're a small young woman, wear a jacket. Speak in a low register. Seem tall and loud. Be firm.

Your first class meeting should be active, fast-moving, with lots of student involvement. Start learning their names; get them to talk about their experiences in your subject; make them into individuals. Avoid PowerPoint in that first session: It lulls the senses. Be pleasant but firm.

If anyone asks, "Do we have to ... ?" or "Are you going to make us ... ?", the answer is no. "You're adults, you're here by choice, and we're going to learn great things." Be enthusiastic and firm.

But fate can intervene. "I walked into the room and knew they hated my guts," a struggling faculty member once told Ms. Mentor. He'd gotten the dreaded "bad class," in which everyone scowls and radiates hatred. Students make bigoted remarks (which you have to squelch). Students attack their classmates. ("The mouth in the second row is such a suck-up") They cherish wounds and grudges: "Jason" misbehaved at "Melissa"'s party last year; "Ed" posted a trashy photo of "Amanda" on Facebook.

"Esther" once told Ms. Mentor about her Sour Time class (3 p.m.) Students slouched, sulked, yawned. Periodically one would walk out, then come back looking even more dazed. Esther tried wheedling and confronting. She brought snacks and showed videos. She was conscientious. She agonized and blamed herself.

And then the local newspaper reported a drug bust, in which a dozen students were rounded up—and almost all of them were in Esther's class. Once they were gone, the last week or two of the class was a joy—a small group of eager learners, no longer cowed.

Teaching a good class—responsive, creative, lively—is one of life's joys. There can be genuine grief and a sense of loss when you separate at the end of the semester. But when a class doesn't work, the academic calendar is your savior. Your nemesis won't be in the next cubicle, snarling for the rest of eternity. Even your worst class isn't like your worst relatives, badgering you every Thanksgiving for the rest of your natural life.

In academe, it's 15 weeks and out.

But it could be that you're not cut out for the public role of teaching. Many great scholars aren't. Public speaking is one of Americans' greatest fears, and teaching is exposing oneself all the time. Some come to love it ("Call me super ham!"), but others go through their careers dogged by stage fright.

You have to live with yourself. You can play alpha dog for the good classes; you can be the soul of saintly endurance for the bad ones. But it may be that your college and its students aren't for you—and the only life you control is your own.

If you feel as if you're being continually roasted, you need to get out of the pit. Ms. Mentor gives you permission to flee.


Question: "Ox," the most obnoxious colleague on the planet, is finally retiring, and there's the usual farewell party. I think it would be hypocritical to go and cheer him on. My sweet partner thinks I should go and be supergracious—so I can make sure Ox is really leaving. What do you say?

Answer: Go.


Sage Readers: In her previous column, Ms. Mentor invited holiday gift suggestions. There were classy ones: mugs, briefcases, silver picture frames for your cat portraits. Some even suggested Ms. Mentor's books (how clever: you get an A). Mostly, though, respondents wanted to get or give piles of Post-its, binders, and fountain pens. No one even mentioned a partridge in a pear tree, nor was there much frivolity. Proof, again, that we live in barbarous times and are hopeless nerds.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes rants, gossip, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. All communications are confidential, and identifying details are always masked. Your colleagues won't know that you are, behind your gentle exterior, a maximum alpha dog.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

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