Power Corrupts?

Yesterday was my first day to teach two classes. It was a little hectic in the morning because my printer stopped working at 10:00 a.m. and I had to print out three different handouts in time to photocopy them by 11:15. I called IT services and they got somebody over there toot-sweet with a new printer, that didn't have ink. Nice. He had to run around campus looking for ink cartridges. Really annoying. Thank goodness for New Colleague (who for the record is amazing) who let me grab his printer and use it. Of course, I found out later that afternoon that there is a networked printer I could have used. Too late, alas. Anyway, I was a bit harried.

The first class was fine, but it ended a bit badly. This is my section of first-year students. And they would not stop whispering to each other while I was talking and while their peers were talking. I casually shushed them throughout the class, and then at the end kind of lost it. I was trying to talk to them about the assignment due on Friday and some kids were loudly whispering. This is a room of 28 students, all sitting in a circle of desks. I stopped what I was saying and told them that this was college, not high school, and that this was a small classroom, not a lecture hall and that they absolutely had to stop talking while I was talking and while other students were talking. It was rude and juvenile and that it had to stop right then. If they had questions about the materials, they could ask them openly to everyone, not just to their neighbor, we'd be happy to hear them. But the whispering was not o.k. Then, I went on describing the assignment. (To absolute silence, I must say.) It was fine, and necessary, but I hate to leave a classroom on a negative note. I far prefer to praise the students for the good work they did in class that day. Anyway, so I was a bit grumpy heading into my next class.

The second class was my first meeting for the course. It is the same course as in the morning, but for sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and it only meets two days a week. So, I had to re-do the first day of class thing all over again.

I got in to the room, started handing out the enormous number of handouts I had (6). Once the confusion from that all calmed down, I started in on my spiel: "Hi, welcome, yadda yadda yadda. Here are the name tags -- made from a regular piece of paper that you fold into thirds to make it stand on its own. Please find your name and place the little tent in front of you so that I can see it." (I do this routinely so that I can learn student's names quickly. I'm really, really bad with names, so this is essential.) As I was describing this name-tent thing, a kid in the first row snorted and asked loudly, "You're kidding, right?" I stared him down and said, "No, I'm not kidding. Unless you want me to call you 'hey you' for the rest of the semester, you'll put up your nametag. And, just because you asked me that, I'm going to start handing them out at the other end of the room." I then proceeded to explain that this was a discussion course and that the name tents were important because they all needed to know each others' names as well. Anyway, at that point, I'm looking around the room and I see looking back at me great skepticism, some distrust, and a smattering of hostility thrown in for good measure. But, I plowed ahead.

I went over the syllabus and the course policies (including my favorite part where I tell them I will totally fail their cheating asses if they plagiarize), and then I got to the part where I tell them they cannot have cell phones in the classroom. I totally stole this from a good friend, but it works -- I tell them that if their phone rings in class, I will answer it and tell their grandmother or best friend or boyfriend or brother that they cannot talk on the phone because they are in class. I tell them that this will cause them great embarrassment, which they may wish to avoid. They kind of chuckled at this, and I moved on to talking about the next part of the syllabus. 3 minutes later, some kid's phone rings. They all look at me, like "whaddya gonna do, huh? -- and not in a curious way, in a challenging way. I walked over, put out my hand, and said, "Alright, hand it over." The kid looked horrified, looked down at the phone, and then cried, "but it's Tom -- over there in the corner! He's the one calling me!" Ha, ha. Very funny, stupid dumb ass 12-year old boys trying to test my authority. Maybe it was Tom on the phone, maybe it wasn't. I don't know. The kid in the corner did look kind of sheepish. So, I chuckled, and said something about how I'd let him go this time, but that the next time it happened, I would answer the phone. I don't know if it was all that effective, but it got me out of the situation and got them off of the hook, but kept the authority in my court.

Clearly, at this point, I'm being pushed and tested by these asshole boys. (The class is 90% male). They're like fucking toddlers with tattoos and cell phones. I wasn't liking the testing part so much. But, I was kind of enjoying winning the game of the banter.

I kept on going. I'm not entirely sure what happened, but somehow after that, the mood shifted. I think they saw that I was serious about my policies -- that I would do what I said. They saw that there were boundaries and that I would enforce them. Somehow, this gave them some security. It freed them from their need to act like immature assholes and permitted them to start thinking about learning. I launched into the first-day exercise I did with the other class, and asked them to come up with 4 things they had in common in small groups. The kid who had asked if I was kidding about the name tents said that one of the things they had in common was that they all liked "Ms. Stewgad." I chuckled, and made a "you've got something on your nose gesture." They laughed, and we all moved on. When I wound up the exercise by telling them that this is what historians do with limited evidence -- they were riveted.

Then, I had them spend 10 minutes reading this great letter from good ole' Chris Columbus about how successful his trip was and how the rivers were running with gold, the Indians were passive heathens ripe for enslavement and conversion, and how if he had only had better ships, oh great kingish one, he could have done more for God and for Spain. They were totally silent the whole time, absorbed in the reading. After they were done, I had them get into different small groups and analyze the document with a system I half-stole from a Prof. at Bowdoin, and half made-up myself. They were totally into it, and by the end of the class period they were eagerly participating and sharing their ideas -- which were smart and savvy, complicated and nuanced.

I left that classroom totally high. I had taken this group of surly, contentious, testy teenagers who wanted to horse around and piss me off and turned them into a group of kids engaged with historical material and interested in sharing their ideas about that material. I had done this -- with my personality, with my planning, with my knowledge, and with my skills. I wanted to throw back my head and let out an evil "Mwa ha ha ha! You're mine, all mine!" It was glorious. And it completely made up for the snarking I had to do at the morning class.

I'm sure it won't work like this every day. And, I'm sure that there will be more testing ahead. But, I gotta say, I'm liking the power of Professor Stewgad.

Update: I just now saw the post on the Power of the Professor over at La Lecturess. Like L.L., I'm now wondering if I am I headed for maniacal egomainia. Who knows. But, suddenly I understand a lot more about teaching and about myself.


At 10:43 AM HistGrad said...

Again, great news! I must confess a bias here... I'm always happy to see a classroom with a higher female-to-male ratio just for that reason. But it sounds like you handled yourself with true grace.

I'm still wrinkling my forehead in confusion over 50 year old male professors who urge the rest of us to "share authority" in the classroom (not that I'm not down with radical pedagogy, Freire, all that) but c'mon... if some of us tried to share power in the classroom it would turn into Lord of the Flies right quick! So good job being authoritative AND a good teacher. I'm thrilled for you.

At 11:13 AM La Lecturess said...

That sounds terrific, Stewgad! (I hope I can both lay down the law and engage my reluctant comp students in the same way next week...)

At 12:55 PM HistGrad said...

I had another thought about the cell phone issue: Al Franken always says that the only reason to have a cell phone turned on during an important meeting (or, in this case, a class) is if you're expecting a liver. So unless it is the transplant surgeon on the phone, you're in trouble! :)

At 2:14 PM Suz said...

Power is? Good job using yours wisely!
And thanks for another great story.

At 7:37 PM What Now? said...

Congrats on a great story! If you were willing to share your document analysis system, I'd love to learn what you do; I teach a class that sounds sort of similar to yours, and I'm always eager for new ideas and processes.

This system of teaching the same course, but sometimes to freshmen three times a week and sometimes to upperclassmen only twice a week, sounds kind of confusing. Is that going to undercut some of the class prep advantages of having multiple sections?

At 11:35 PM Dr. Mon said...

Good job Stewgad--keep up the good work!

At 12:28 PM Pilgrim/Heretic said...

You rock!

At 10:27 AM Georgia said...

One of the things I like about online teaching is that I no longer have to deal with disruptive students -- nobody loudly shuffling papers, nobody whispering to his/her neighbor, no cell phones, nobody talking over while I speak, or some other student speaks, no one sleeping in the front row, etc.

I personally wouldn't have let that student with the cell phone off the hook. I would have answered the phone, and if it turned out to be the other student, I wiould have sent the caller packing. Your solution may have been the best.

The last time I taught a face-to-face class I outlined the basic rules of civility in the syllabus and told them what would happen if they flauted the rules. It's awful that I had to treat them like children, but that's what it has come to.

I used to be into "radical pedagogy" -- and to some extent I still subscribe to it. But that can work only when there is a certain level of civility and respect, not only toward the professor but also toward other class members.

It seems to me that classroom teachers at all levels these days could use some version of "Nanny 911" (a tv reality show, for those who don't watch). Like parents, we all need to remember that it's not our job to be liked or to be our students' "pals."

If we end up being liked it needs to be because we start with being respected. Otherwise, we have failed.

At 3:47 PM Matthew Keys said...

Our English teacher referred us to this page. It saddenes me deeply to see that you, as a teacher, have taken a route where stern discipline and teaching are the norm in your classroom. Before I go on, I've had teachers tell me in the past that what happens in their classrooms are their own business. If you feel that's true, stop reading here.

The best teachers I've had in grade school are those who treat their students with respect, not spit back at them "You want me to call you 'hey you' for the rest of the semester?" How are we, as students, expected to respect someone who doesn't necessarily show disrespect, but a lack of ANY respect, for us as human beings? I know these students are giving you a hard time--they will. They're college students. You wanted to give them praise? Encourage dialogue among them! Let them form groups and discuss topics YOU set forth. If they're not discussing the topics in their groups, fail them. Don't make it a big deal, though, if you do fail them. Simply let them know afterward that they weren't following procedure and you couldn't pass them (not that they weren't following procedure and they deserved the F...you'll get a different reaction that way).

You say, "Somehow, this gave them some security." You're wrong. You're teaching these students to fear authority by being harsh on them. You need to teach these students to respect authority. Nobody respects something they fear.

You call them in your entry, "stupid dumb ass 12-year old boys trying to test my authority." How can you be so disrespectful? They're expected to respect you and get nothing in return? That's not the way the world works. I respect people who show it back, and people who show it back earn respect from me. Key word: EARN.

"I then proceeded to explain that this was a discussion course and that the name tents were important because they all needed to know each others' names as well." But you won't let them talk with each other on the first day of school? How can you encourage dialogue when, from the get-go, you discourage it?

As a student, I have learned far more on both course material and on life from teachers who have respected me as an individual being. Your job as a teacher is to effectively teach the material, and I can guarantee you if you don't make some changes to your teaching style, they won't learn anything. They'll come to fear you, to hate you, and I doubt any teacher wants that. I know you want your students to succeed in life, to persevere against obstacles they encouter, to rise above and beyond the minimum standard life sets for them.

It'll be rough, no doubt. Students don't change overnight. I guarantee you, though, that you'll see a gradual change over the semester if you show a little respect. See them as more than some "stupid dumb-asses" and instead, see them as an individual you can help mold. Isn't that the neatest thing about being a teacher? You have the power to help mold a person into what they'll become for the rest of their life. That's powerful stuff.

So, do the right thing. Change your attitude, and they'll change theirs.

At 6:40 PM Cleis said...


At 7:26 PM Stewgad said...


Thank you for your comments. Good teachers are always open to suggestions from colleagues and students. I welcome any suggestions that will help me improve my teaching. I take my work extremely seriously and am always looking for ways to grow as a teacher.

However, I have a few cautions to offer you.

First, do not mistake my blogging persona for my teaching persona. They are two separate things.

Second, do not mistake my post-class venting with my pedagogy. They too are two separate things.

Third, be careful not to assume that you can know from my written work the tone that my in-class comments carry. It is often easy to confuse humor and venom when written on the page and when one is not present to witness the subtle nuances that voices, faces, and human interactions convey.

In particular, when you expressed concern that when I had suggested to the student who in the very first minute of our first class had rejected out of hand my long-used and time-tested idea for creating better communications with and among the students (a clear example disrespect for the Professor and his fellow students if I have ever encountered it) that I would call him “Hey You” if he did not put up the name-plate, you did not hear the humor in my voice, nor see the smile on my face, witness his chuckle in response, or see the smiles of the other students in the room. Yes, there was disrespect going on in that exchange. But it was not coming from me. In that encounter I had respected my student as a person, I just had not respected his refusal to participate in our classroom culture. And in response, I earned his respect and his willingness to become a part of our class community. (Which is based in small group discussion – that you can see in my previous post.)

Fourth, be aware that young, small women face different issues of authority in a classroom than do older men, young men, and older women. When I come into a classroom, young, blonde, and 5’6”, believe me when I tell you that students do not fear me. Nor do they automatically respect me. I know this from many years of teaching and it was yet again borne out on this day as the two young male students in my class proceeded to disrupt the whole class by phoning each other in the middle of our time together. Yes, this angered me. And, yes, later on well after the fact, I used harsh language to describe my feelings about that incident. Professors are human. We have feelings. And mine were hurt at that moment when these two students thought it would be funny to take up class time, delaying the work that the other students were doing, just to test my authority in the classroom. I come to every class newly ready to respect all of my students. Those two momentarily lost mine with their juvenile behavior. You are correct in your assessment that respect is a two-way street. But, can you tell me honestly that you think two guys phoning each other in a classroom deliberately to make their phones ring to interrupt the instructor is respectful? Can you honestly say that that kind of behavior is worthy of my respect? At the time, I laughed, and suggested that they not let it happen again. They looked sheepish and grudgingly respectful. I do not think I taught them to fear me. I think I taught them what the boundaries of acceptable classroom behavior were. Since then, no phones have interrupted our class discussions, which have been rich and fruitful, with much active participation from all – even the two guys with phones.

I completely agree with you that the goal of any good teacher is to cultivate communication and community in a classroom. Making sure that students are comfortable enough to engage with each other, to share their ideas, and to ask questions is my primary goal as an instructor. But this kind of open community cannot happen if there are students in the room who are disruptive and disrespectful of their fellow students. I do not create an environment of fear in my classroom, but I do insist on an environment of mutual respect. So far, we have had no more interruptions and have had some really interesting conversations. I get the sense that things are working like they should.

Thank you for the chance to think a bit more about my pedagogy and about my responses to these incidents. I appreciate your comments.

At 8:14 AM joanna said...

I came here from Yellow Dog, so I'm not a regular reader here, and I don't have the benefit of knowing your whole "blog voice," as it were. When I read this yesterday, I thought that you were teaching for the first time, since your voice seemed so vulnerable and hostile. Today, having read your exchange with Matthew, I have a different perspective and am coming away from this with a different perspective.

You're right, your blog is your place to vent etc., and that your readers lack the chance to see your facial expressions and vocal tone, either on the blog or in the classroom. Nor could we have seen the tone and behavior of your students in the classroom, to see if they were being sulky, resentful charmers, or simply up to first-day high jinks that you as the prof. will extinguish.
I can't speak for everyone who reads IHE, but since this post of yours is out there, I'd like to hear from you what your school and the students are like.
And, finally, I'm 5' 6" and female and I can well relate to your point on authority.I have always resented the idea that I have to mimic masculine behavior to be perceived as "in control." over the years, I've found ways of being myself and using humor (slight sarcasm) and brain numbing firmness to make my point.
Anyhow, here's to a good semester for you.

At 12:54 PM academic coach said...


I think that this post, and the discussions it has prompted, are fulfilling the goals of your blog:

"We (Academics) tend to be isolated, lonely, and freakishly secretive about our work and the process that it takes to do that work. With this blog, I want to open up that process, to let in a little air, and to feel like I am accountable to somebody other than myself as I struggle..."



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