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.