Apparently, while I was crazy busy this week writing a lecture, reading 50 something short papers, and preparing for discussions (which went brilliantly yesterday. I had about a 70% participation rate in my first year class — not bad, but hopefully it will improve. My older students got into a conversation with about a 90% participation rate where I got to sit there saying nothing because they were so into talking to each other. It was fabulous!), my post on the powerful feeling that happens when transforming a surly classroom into a community was linked to by Inside Higher Ed.
This brought a really thoughtful, but concerned and slightly angry comment from a student named Matthew, who felt that my post revealed an arrogant, fear-inducing, hostile, and ultimately disrespectful attitude toward my students. I have to confess I was a little thrown by his comment as I had my first experience with the mis-translations that can happen when you write a blog, when you use that blog to create a hyperbolical voice for yourself that is distinctly different from your everyday voice (let alone your teaching voice), and when you share your inner frustrations, triumphs and fears in a public forum.
I had believed that the post was funny, and that yes, it revealed my anger that I had to patrol a room full of adult college students as if they were toddlers, but I didn’t think that it portrayed me as dictatorial or disrespectful of my students. But, maybe I was wrong.
In particular, Matthew was worried about my quips with the students who had been pushing my boundaries. He said:
“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?”
He was concerned that my attempts to create some boundaries in the classroom were overly harsh:
“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.”
And, then, ultimately, he was very upset at the way I had characterized the students and what the consequences of that portrayal were: “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 am really grateful to Matthew for giving me the opportunity to think a bit more consciously about the connection between a blog persona and real persona, and about the ways that language on the page can be read with a myriad of voices by each reader — some of which may or may not resonate with the voice the author had intended.
Anyway, I thought about his comments for quite a long time and came up with this response:
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.
For the first few days after I read Matthew’s comments, I thought that what upset me so much was that he had misinterpreted my pedagogy. But now, I really think that the central issue I’m struggling with is about blogging voices and personas and the potential for misinterpretation that this creates. I think I’m grappling with the idea that the voice I thought I was creating as funny and overly-harsh in an exaggerated way to emphasize the humor, was distinctly different from the voice he read as vicious and mean-spirited.
I don’t know if this exchange will shift how I post about my life – both professional and personal — but it certainly made me pause and think for a bit about about how when I write my blog, I envision my readers as my blogging folk, people I feel close to in a kind of oddball family way because we share this small part of each others’ lives – folk like Cleis, Scrivner, Jo(e), Histgrad, Badger, Rageyone, Pilgrim/Heretic, Academic Coach, What Now?, Mon, Timna, Suz, Father Figure, La Lecturess, Overread, Brightstar, Caleb, New Kid on the Hallway (and many others – If I left you out, please don’t be hurt!). When I write a post, I always imagine that these are the people reading — the people I feel like I share a community with and the people that I believe understand my blogging voice by default. But I think I am just coming to realize that when you post a blog it isn’t just to the folk you feel “close” to, it is for everyone. This is, I think, both the bad news and the really good news.