Monday, September 18, 2006

Testing the limits

I am teaching a class that has a high number of freshmen boys young men in it. So far, the energy and attitude of the class has been overwhelmingly positive, and the students are great, individually and as a group. But given the demographics, and given that I am a young-looking female authority figure, I figured it was a matter of time before someone in the class tested me.

That moment came today.

It wasn't anything blatantly bad (and I've certainly had to deal with Mr. Toxic in my classes before---today's issue was not even in the same universe as that). It was basically two overly-chatty young men in the front row who were just a little too disruptive to the class. Now normally, I'm ok with a little bit of chatter, when it's students clarifying points for each other or asking "did you get that?". That's fine, as long as it's kept discreet and short. This was neither. This was prolonged and obvious.

My first strategy in this situation is to stare directly at the chatters and say loudly "is there a question?" This is usually enough to mortify one or both participants into silence, or if not then they're usually bright enough to know that what I'm really saying is SHUT UP ALREADY and they comply. So of course I tried that, and it had no effect.

Because I was still trying to assess the situation (clueless freshmen or testing-authority freshmen?), I stuck to more subtle forms of shut-up-please strategies for the rest of the class period: standing directly in front of them while talking to the class, glaring focusing my glance on them more frequently, using the line "So-and-so just had a great question; let's all pay attention while she repeats it for us." After reflecting on their behavior and on how the class went, I'm convinced that this was definitely a mild testing-of-authority. I don't think they meant to do it maliciously; rather, I suspect this is part of the I'm-away-from-home-for-the-first-time-let's-see-what-I-can-get-away-with adjustment to college. But I do know that I have to nip this in the bud, because I can see this getting out of hand rather quickly if I don't do something.

Figuring out what to do in this situation is always tricky. I suspect I will see what happens on Wednesday, and step in more quickly if I have to. I suspect I will have to talk to one or both chatters after class and let them know what's acceptable behavior and what is not. I just have to figure out what's the best way to convey to them that I may look like Dr. Nice Gal, but that doesn't mean that they don't owe me the same respect that they give to their other professors. And I have been known to turn into Dr. Raging Mean Prof when pushed too far. And that they really don't want to go there.

We'll see how it goes.


Anonymous said...

You're a lot nicer than I... I'm not a prof, a teacher, or anything that closely resembles one who instructs.

But I HAVE been in those classrooms where there are chatters, and frankly, as a student who had to pay for my college out of pocket (i.e., no scholarship $$), I got really annoyed with them.

I guess it's not polite to call them out in front of everyone by telling them to get out of the classroom, that the rest of your students are paying to be educated by you and not the chatters. Better to let them save face, I guess. But just once, I'd like to see those types tossed out on their ears... 8)

What Now? said...

How about saying something to them right before class on Wednesday? Sort of a mild-mannered, "Hey guys, you were really chatty with each other in class on Monday, which was distracting to me and the other students. So let's stay focused today, shall we?" And since they won't yet have acted up on that day, it can all be said casually and gives them a chance to save face by behaving well in class that day. Just a thought.

A Fellow Junior Academic said...

I attended a teaching workshop over the summer, and a suggestion was to just ask them politely to be quiet, their behavior is disturbing you and other students. That comment certainly gave me pause, as it had never really occurred to me to say something so simple. While Anonymous's point about it not being polite to call them out in front of the class is well-taken, one could also argue that they're being impolite by talking so much, you're just dealing with it in a polite, up-front manner (while also sending a message to others that this behavior is not acceptable).

Alfred Thompson said...

If it helps at all this sort of testing happens to male teachers as well. High school students are often seriously interested in testing teachers. If they keep it up you may want to suggest that if they are really interested in failing they sit in the back and let the others hear what is going on in class. :-)

noricum said...

I think I would ask them to take their conversation outside.

chris said...

In one of my thesis advisor's classes, a cell phone rang. He promptly stopped mid flow and asked the unlucky owner whether they wanted to step outside and talk to mummy. Funnily enough, there were never any unwanted interruptions again...
But then again, we didn't have roll call at lectures: you were expected to make up your own mind about whether you felt like getting educated that day, so the bored and distracted could stay away.

Anonymous said...

This matter can be dealt with so you do not have to have a face-to-face discussion regarding how things will function in your classroom.

You have their e-mail addresses do you not? Don't confront them in class. Don't spend time before or after class discussing the matter. Send them each an e-mail and tell them unless there is a specific point they must address to the entire class or to you, they must refrain from distracting conversation in your class. If they cannot comply with your wishes, ask them to sit close to the exit door so they can leave your class and carry their conversation outside. Tell them via e-mail you will make a mark on the board that will be their signal to leave or be quiet. But don't waste time being disciplinarian in a university class and don't humiliate young men in front of their peers if other choices are available to you.

Also, be sure to retain the e-mail(s) for your files in case they play "victim" afterwards when they are not victims. A society which thrives on legal intervention requires extra efforts so far as documentation goes.


M. Flessas

Mel said...

I'd say deal with it promptly in class next time, humorously if possible -- if you let it go, it risks growing, and if you discuss it outside of the classroom, outside of hte immediate context, you're making a bigger deal than is probably worth. I usually say something like "care to share" or "do I have to separate you kids?" -- something intentionally schoolmarmish in a jokey voice ... but a lot will depend on size of class and what your teaching persona is like. Good luck.

Jane said...

Great suggestions, everyone! Thanks! The problem did not reoccur in Wednesday's class, but I suspect it will in the next class---and now I have lots of good ways to address the behavior.

Jonathan said...


I think it's useful to have one or two funny lines ready for this circumstance.

Walk up close to the audience and stare at the culprits. Spoken loudly and slowly: "Are you two arguing about Star Trek versus Star Wars again?" Pause. "Listen, guys...they BOTH SUCK."

The formula is to make a false presumption about their topic of conversation that's utterly dorky or stupid. The combination of humor and (mild) making fun is a powerful way to reassert dominance. Another advantage of humor is that it shows you're not fazed at all by the challenge. The false presumption and the follow-up that reinforces it communicate that you control the interpretation of reality.

I agree with the poster who said you shouldn't let these interruptions wait; if you start to lose the respect of the class, it can accelerate fast. On the other hand, you can't show that they've gotten to you; that can cost you control as well. The suggestion to simply politely tell them to stop works well, but I think mine is more fun.

Delaney Kirk said...

Lots of great suggestions--the main thing is to nip the behavior in the
bud early as the other students will be watching to see how and if you handle
the talking. If you don't, you've essentially said it's ok and may see other
students start talking also (the Ripple Effect). Check out
my site at for specific ways to handle this and other inappropriate