A new correspondent writes:
As a newbie adjunct, I have a question about propriety. At my Community College, I regularly hear students talking trash about other instructors and colleagues. Recently, I had the pleasure to overhear them trashing me. Alas, it was annoying; however, I was equally stunned by their inability to notice me outside the classroom. Anyhow, I am not sure what proper etiquette is in these situations--especially since I am an adjunct. My inkling is to turn around and say, "What interesting things you hear on campus," or "What an intriguing discussion," and walk off. Ideally, it would leave said students breathless. Politically, is this wise? Additionally, I am a bit nervous that students might retaliate with charges of inappropriate behavior from me (am I paranoid?).
In short, how do you suggest we deal with the imps who skirt official policies but are still irritating little pixies?
I'm frequently amazed at where students draw the line between public and private space. And yes, it can create some delicate etiquette dilemmas, hurt feelings, and the like. (My pet peeve is those little borg-like ear implants that people use as phones. From any kind of distance, it's hard to distinguish “on a call” from “off his rocker.”) The worst is when you overhear them saying something that's inappropriate, accurate, and laugh-out-loud funny. There's just no graceful way out of that.
This will vary by institutional culture and individual personality, but my 'default' rule would be not to call attention to yourself unless the attacks rise to the level of slander or threats. If what you're hearing is along the lines of “he's a loser, and the class is boring as hell,” I'd let it slide. Students have the right to express their opinions, whatever we might think of those opinions. As a newbie adjunct, to use your words, you may not feel like you have much authority, but in the context of the classroom, you do. As someone in authority, you'll attract some potshots. Comes with the gig.
Alternately, you could do the passive-aggressive thing, and pick that moment to have a coughing fit. With luck, the speakers will be caught off-guard and suitably embarrassed. This only works, though, if you can fake it fairly convincingly; otherwise it's just sad.
When in doubt, take the high road. Show some class, and let the random negativity roll off your back. If that seems too passive, think about the alternative. What would you think of a professor you saw berating students in the hallway for comments about him that he overheard? What do you think those students then tell their friends? Even if the original comments were unfounded and nasty, the story that will outlast the moment will be about that insecure jerk professor. Now the issue isn't what they said; it's what you did. Fairly or not, the expectations for your behavior are higher than the expectations for the students' behavior. Politically, a reputation as an insecure jerk would be far more damaging than any random student carping could be.
As with road rage, taking the high road also makes unwelcome escalation less likely. Suppose you confront the students, they take offense and escalate, and then complain that their eventual bad grades were the result of retaliation? These things happen. You don't know how people will react when surprised, especially if guilt and/or shame is part of the mix, so I wouldn't surprise them lightly.
In the best case, if your skin is thick enough, you can take some time later to try to analyze the comments dispassionately. Is there a kernel of truth to them? If so, is there something you can do about that? Sometimes we fall into bad habits without realizing it – talking to the board, taking too long to grade papers, requiring students to buy expensive textbooks that we proceed to ignore. (In my early days of teaching, a sympathetic student pulled me aside after class once and told me that I spoke too softly to be heard in the back row. That was actually useful.) If you're able to salvage some usable nugget of information, you can actually improve as an instructor. If the information is useless, walk it off. Don't let them get the better of you.
Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.