A Poor Desk-Side Manner

Shari Wilson explores the all-too-common ways that some instructors frustrate their students.

September 7, 2005

A brilliant art instructor at a state university opens up the class for discussion. A returning student waves her hand, is called on and starts to talk about art. Almost seamlessly, she drifts into her experience as a nurse in World War II. After four minutes, students are shifting in their seats. After nine minutes, three students leave to "go to the bathroom." As this lonely, older woman takes the class hostage, the instructor sits and does nothing.

A philosophy teacher who has presided over classrooms at a local community college is talking about Kant. A student asks a challenging question. In an angry tone, the teacher not only belittles the student, but then reels off his list of credentials and publications. Thirty students sit, stunned. As the semester unfurls, they learn to meekly nod their heads and tell him what he wants to hear.

An anthropology instructor lectures. It is obvious that she knows her subject. She then points to a student and asks him a direct question. Unsure, the student starts to answer, then stutters. She immediately attacks him verbally, "I thought you knew this subject. How could you let me down?" It is as though she sees the student's lack of confidence as a personal attack on herself. By the end of the week, two students have broken out crying and left the room. The others sit, shocked by the brutality they've witnessed.

A poetry teacher at a state university sits at the podium, untested. He insists that his students go to poetry readings where his old cronies preside. Should a student ask him a question that even hints of dissent, this instructor will go into an incoherent rant. No iambic pentameter? Out. Not a Shakespeare fan? Out. The final was based on his offhand verbal comments during the semester. Oddly enough, he was absent half the time.

Disappointing desk side manner. It's as bad as getting a doctor who not only won't tell you what you've got, but how to get better. The stories? True. Told to me over breakfast and lunch meals punctuated with disappointment and anger. The past students were happy to unwind their memories and share what worked -- and what didn't -- with instructors that were in charge of
their education.

The problem? Ego? Fear? A deep disappointment in one's job? Too many years behind the podium? Insecurity? It's a complex problem -- but I see a few common threads:

Your opinion doesn't count: This is a hard one. Yes, we instructors are the experts. Yes, we are charged with the job of imparting that knowledge to our students. No, we are not God. This idea of being "better than" may stem from years of teaching undergraduates who don't seem to know the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Years of dragging unwilling general education students through the course load, hoping that one (or two) will actually get something out of it. Yes, it can be disappointing. The best antidote? I think it is inviting comment. Yes, limiting input, but inviting other opinions.

Once in a literature class at a business school, a student piped up with an idea about the text we had been reading -- Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. His offhand thought changed the way I thought about that play. Yes, I had to fight feelings of inferiority (hey, why didn't I notice that?), but I just took a breath as he was speaking and considered content -- not the position of the person who was giving his opinion. I realized that his opinion, though not based in years of study as mine was, was valid. And I was going to run away with that insight and incorporate it into my next few classes. For a moment I might have felt insecure, yet I was the one that walked away with more -- and my future students would be better off for this one student's insight. I thanked him during class. It cost me nothing.

I want you to like me: It's strange to think of teachers as people who need encouragement, kindness, or a listening ear. But some in our field are afraid to take control of the class. For non-tenured faculty, there may be a backlash here. Softening the curriculum and allowing the students to run rampant can result in complaints from the students who came to class hoping to listen. But the flip side is that those without security on campus may feel compelled to "play to the class," knowing that not making demands on students will result in a "feel good" evaluation at the end of the semester.

I have overheard students in the hallway complaining about an instructor who refused to address disruptive behavior -- I'm disappointed that everyone's chance to learn has been spoiled. I have actually watched a colleague struggle with a course. A trio of students in the front row whispered and giggled; a set of lovers in the back completely ignored her lecture. At break time, half the class disappeared and never returned. I felt embarrassed, yet I realized I was witnessing a painful lesson. If it is more important to be liked than to take lead, the students will walk all over you.

When given the chance to take her class for two days while she had surgery, I leaped at the opportunity. I walked in, confident in stride, class list in hand. I looked left, right, back and front. I made eye contact with every student. And then I began. The two that couldn't keep their hands off each other? They settled into their own seats. I drafted the ones in the front row to pass out handouts; humiliated in their new role as "teacher's pets," they immediately became quiet and attentive -- if a bit sullen. Before the break, I announced that I would take roll after the break and anyone who was late would score a "tardy" in the book. Surprisingly only two came in late with sheepish looks on their faces. The difference? I had already decided that these students were not my friends. I did not care if they liked me or not. What I did care about was that they leave that class with the ability to write varied sentences with a minimum of error. Everything I did that night was backed with that idea. And they responded with a degree of respect.

The areas where I find that I do care what others think seem to be when I am in contact with other colleagues and administrators. They can teach me a great deal -- and their opinion of me matters. I work to bond with them. That is where the friendships should be. And over time, I have developed a friendly yet firm style with students that relieves me of the ache to be liked by each and every one. What a relief.

I'm the boss: This is almost the antagonist to the people-pleaser. Not only is he or she unable to take criticism, they must belittle and browbeat to feel important. This is the most dangerous kind of
instructor. They may not be physically violent, but they will suck the curiosity out of students faster than a new-age bagless vacuum. I have known experts in my time. Many, many teachers that knew years, even decades worth of information that I did not have as a student. But they never lorded their credentials over me. In some cases I only found out a teacher had a doctorate when I visited their office or saw their name on class materials.

Why browbeat and vent on a bewildered student? For some, this ensures simplicity. They will no longer be questioned. Their midterm and final will be easy to grade. No dissenting opinions will mar their syllabus. They can teach until retirement without the mess of having to take into account other's opinions. And at least in the classroom, they will be the authority.

Sad, but true, some of these instructors may just be misguided. Others may feel small because of some history or some circumstance. Made fun of because they had glasses, were shorter than others in their class, or had braces on their teeth, they find themselves in front of a captive audience -- and without noticing, they have become the tyrant. Students wither under this kind of rigid, authoritarian training. Some drop; others pretend to agree and just get through the semester; still others writhe under the thumb of the instructor, coming into conflict again and again. The antidote? Check your evaluations. If other instructors have heard about you -- or your dean has heard complaints, check to see if you're carrying baggage into the classroom. Maybe it's time to see a mental health professional off campus -- or take the summer off to evaluate. Observe friendlier, "softer" instructors who score high with students and keep an open mind. Maybe you'll balk, thinking that they're playing the clown to the students, but watch and wait. You may find a style that is in-between that will work for you.

Teaching is difficult. It's difficult to prepare the right thing. Be in the right place. Teach with a style that works for you and the students. It's difficult to find a balance. It was just like my experience writing. In my first year of creative writing at a state university, I started rolling out prose like Hemingway. Later I found myself moving into a florid Henry James voice -- still later a Jane
Austin look-alike. With practice, I finally found my own voice. Teaching is the same. I borrow ideas and small bits of style from others, and strangely enough, with the pressure of teaching, my own
style emerges. I talked to a new adjunct at the departmental meeting.

She asked me how I handled unruly students. As we chatted outside a classroom crowded with teachers, I realized that she was taking bits and pieces from me. I smiled, knowing that I would listen and learn, too. That the chair of my department, dapper in his gray suit, may give me a nugget that I need. Or the reading instructor that runs the lab. Or the woman who is known as the grammar queen. Each is a helpmate, an example, and on a good day, a fine example of teaching.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track. Her last column was about misguided student friendships.


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