Ask the grumpies: Dissertation Student from Hades

Stacie asks:

I have this student. She is a PhD student and she gets under my skin! Several months ago I could tell things were not right between us as she was very combative and defensive in class. I tried various ways to figure this issue out in class to no avail. I finally asked for a meeting and honestly felt blind-sided and rail-roaded by her response. When I tried to discuss her behavior, she was quick to retort how she wasn’t the problem, it was me and began to recount my failings [update:  failings were that Stacie is “cold and distant”]. It honestly caught me off guard and I didn’t know how to respond. I ultimately tried to diffuse the situation and talk about how we would work together in the future. I did find out that other students definitely see problems in her behavior in various classes, but have yet to find another professor who will vouch for this. I’ve asked and they say they have no problems with her, but then I hear other students talk about how much this student is being difficult in their classes… (this also drives me crazy!) I talked to my Chair whose overall response to most things seems to be “oh well” so that didn’t really help.

I am really having a hard time keeping my cool around this student who continues to be defensive in class. I am definitely having trouble “teaching others how to treat me” – probably because I don’t like conflict, try to be “nice”, and don’t have great one-liners at the ready to respond to student behaviors.

Yes, I am the newest faculty member, one of the only young females in a mostly senior, male faculty, and have been told I’m the most “human” of any professor we have. (I used to think this was a good thing, but now am not so sure.)

I was wondering if you could help me with how to think about this issue or some phrases I could use regularly with this kind of thing with students or other things I can do to survive this kind of issue. I have a feeling this won’t be my last student who challenges me like this, but I don’t want to always worry or over-think these things. I honestly have some great students, but this one student is the only one I can think about! It drives me crazy!

Well, we don’t have any great advice on this particular student.  Avoiding her completely would be awesome, but it sounds like that might not be an option. Mostly, it sounds like you need a mentor who has handled PhD students at your school for a while and has tenure. They can give you suggestions for the circumstances.  It also sounds like you’ve tried in vain to find such a mentor, and that really sucks.  We’re sorry you’re not getting more support on this.  :(

However, you can also look outside of your department.  Seek out the following resources: 1) talk to the head of the teaching development center at your school, whatever that’s called. (Or teaching & learning, or teaching & Faculty development, etc.) They exist for things like this! 2) talk to your faculty ombudsperson, as they may know more resources and probably have seen similar situations in the past. 3) attempt to get mentoring informally from senior colleagues — if not in your own department then in other departments. You could talk to other people who supervise PhD students, members of the student’s dissertation committee, the Director of Graduate Studies for your department, or the Dean of the Graduate School (or someone in their office). Take them to coffee and ask for advice. It’s good for the future to be friendly with these sorts of people anyway. 4) Outlast the student. Unfortunately this also takes time.

In terms of how to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future with other students, Teach like a champion is an invaluable resource with tactics that really do work. It isn’t quite as much help for what to do after a problem has started, but it’s great for setting up a professional environment where problems won’t start. We have some posts on teaching tactics from it that you might find helpful if you want to get a taste while waiting to get it from the library.  Maintain control of the classroom, and very strong personal boundaries. Don’t let the turkeys get you down.

Update:  That is an incredibly gendered complaint.  Professors are allowed to be cold and distant and setting boundaries and having a personal bubble helps immensely when you’re a young woman professor.  If you didn’t have such a bubble, students would be complaining about something else because they would perceive you as unprofessional.  There’s no way to win.  Allowing space and distance is the way to go because it isn’t so time intensive or emotionally challenging, even if you get punished for it.

Getting grey hair is also good for reducing student challenges. And experience is great for not letting obnoxious students get to you so much. But those strategies take time.

In the mean time, hopefully the academic part of the Grumpy Nation will chime in with additional suggestions.  We’ll also try to get a signal boost from Historiann to get her always helpful readers.

36 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Dissertation Student from Hades”

  1. Anon Says:

    Wait it out and do your best not to be her target I.e. give her another target. Listen carefully to what problems she has with others then sympathize with her and you’ll diminish in her eyes as a foe. Once you are done with this class avoid her. Let her become the problem of a tenured male professor.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Listening and sympathizing has danger — she may take it as assent and say things like, “Well, Stacie said…” when you didn’t say, you just listened and sympathized. It can also be a huge time-suck and emotional drain and make it difficult to avoid her in the future. And it might increase the probability that she turns on Stacie in the future. We’re definitely on board with avoiding if at all possible.

      • Leah Says:

        Yes, I wouldn’t sympathize too much. That can become dangerous. When I have listened to student complaints, I try to keep sympathy minimal. I turn the conversation to a fixing sort of mode. That way, students know complaints to me = let’s solve this. I can sit and listen to friends/my husband/etc, but it’s not my job to be a sounding board for my students’ emotional issues. For academic things, sure. But not their feelings.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        My response to emotional issues (that I was trained to do while working as a resident assistant in grad school) is always to refer them to the counseling center, because I am not trained as a clinical psychologist(!). Of course, I always have to preface that with words making it clear that there is nothing wrong with going to counseling (depending on the person and the problem, I might mention that I went to counseling for test anxiety in graduate school and it worked really well) because there’s so much stigma around getting help for mental or emotional health. When there’s a serious problem that’s affecting a student’s grades in an extreme way, I point out that the counseling center can work with them to get a medical withdrawal for the semester which means their grades won’t count and they’ll get some of their tuition back.

      • Leah Says:

        Yes, I always recommend emotional issues to our school psych and say similar things as you. It is always okay to go talk to someone. I usually just say “Ms. X is a really awesome listener, and sometimes it’s nice just to get everything off your chest.” I listen but rarely suggest other than encouraging them toward a conversation. And then I email the school psych about whatever the student told me, just in case.

  2. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I like to remind students who are giving me trouble that it’s their education and career at stake, and that regardless of any difference of opinion as to why things are the way they are, they are the one at risk of adverse outcomes.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That doesn’t work so well for untenured women as it does for tenured men. I foresee that resulting in the student telling the chair that Stacie has threatened her and the chair having a talk with Stacie.

      Better to focus on her professional outcomes, not her personal outcomes. If the student’s problem had been something like, “You don’t listen to differing theoretical viewpoints” or “You favor the men in class over the women” or “You’re unprepared to class and don’t give feedback in a timely manner,” then the student’s complaints would likely be worth taking seriously. But this is a gendered complaint and it can’t be answered the way a middle-aged white guy would because nobody would ever *say* that to a middle-aged white guy.

  3. TheologyAndGeometry Says:

    I may be reading something into Stacie’s question that she didn’t mean, but she kind of makes it sound like the student started behaving inappropriately all of a sudden. A sudden change in behavior (if that is indeed the case) makes me wonder if the student is having some kind of mental health issue. Campus mental health services might have some suggestions for dealing with her, or suggesting the student avail herself of those services might help the situation while make Stacie seem more “warm and fuzzy”.

  4. Leah Says:

    I know I teach HS and not grad, but I think some things still apply. The student claims her teacher is “cold and distant.” But is that a reason for being defensive and acting out in class? The student may very well perceive that, but that’s no reason for being petulant.

    Stacie needs to focus on the actions the student is doing that are derailing the class. Is she speaking out of turn? Does she talk too much? Does she put down points other students make and not allow for good conversation? Then, she needs to focus on that and nothing else when talking with the student. Document concrete examples. Discuss those actual examples. Unless Stacie is egging on students to behave poorly (I doubt it), then the main issue here is how the student is behaving.

    And, at some point, it might be a “move on and pray she’s not in another class with you” situation. Managing a class when someone doesn’t want to behave is challenging. Good luck!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s really great advice!

      I noticed that when I stopped reading the books on how to teach college students and started reading the books on how to teach K-12, things got a lot better in terms of inappropriate student behavior. I suspect it’s because it’s middle-aged white guys that write the how to teach college students and students are used to women in K-12 and feel comfortable with really good female K-12 teachers.

      • Leah Says:

        Thanks. This can still be a mixed bag, even when armed with all that. I’ve had success with some students and not with others. I suggest also the following, if Stacie is similar to me:

        1. Write everything out. Both when documenting and when planning on what to say. That way, you can edit for clarity and focus. You want to stay tight when discussing issues with a student to avoid turning into a pile on the student of every single thing that others you. You can’t fix everything all in one go. Focus on fixing whatever is harming class. This is about making your class environment better.

        2. Practice saying these things dispassionately and not getting derailed. If the “I can’t believe you’re still mad about XYZ” type thing comes up, refocus. The problem isn’t because of your feelings. “All the students in the room have a right to learn, and your actions are hindering the learning of other students.” If Stacie lets the emotions come in, that revolves back around to the same problem she’s citing above.

        again, good luck! Might not work this time, but you’ll get better with practice. Students like this seem to pop up occasionally.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That focus on the other students in the class is one that I use a lot (mostly in terms of, “if I give you this special exception, that’s not fair to the other students in the class”). I think it’s one of those things that works for women– we’re allowed to criticize or brag if we’re doing it on behalf of other people, even if we’re not allowed to do it on behalf of ourselves.

    • chacha1 Says:

      This would basically be my advice. Document the attitude problems and disruptiveness that occur *in class*. Then call another meeting to discuss the documented issues … only I’d advise having a third party present.

      I would also suggest writing up an Acceptable Classroom Behavior guideline and distributing it to all students. I’ve been in classes with those people who just have to Argue, and they waste everyone else’s time for no good reason. If it’s made clear that random argument and speechifying are not going to be tolerated – because they waste everyone’s time, which at university means they waste money – then offenses can be related directly to something that you’ve verifiably put the entire class on notice about.

      Stacie’s job is to convey certain information to her ENTIRE class. It is not to “work around” somebody who wants all of the attention.

  5. Rented life Says:

    Find people outside your department. I never had any luck with department members as mentors but outside my department I met some great people who cared about teaching instead of saying “well that’s just how it is.” If there’s a professional development committee, talk to those people. Like Nicole and Maggie said, it’s good to develop a network outside your department anyway. (I got along better with those people AND learned a lot more about campus politics and who had power.)

  6. becca Says:

    Dos for Stacie:
    *Do realize that even if you can’t get away with being *as* indifferent as CPP, in the long run you have a lot more slack to recover from this bad relationship. A student can make class a PITA. A prof can ruin a student’s career (not that Stacie would, but it’s frankly not that hard).
    *Do develop a plan for next time. I believe letting this kind of thing fester for months is not optimal. We all have different comfort areas with different types of conflict, but it’s always easier to address interpersonal problems when there is still a basic assumption of collegiality. Also, depending on how the behavior from the student is problematic, it can be valuable to have a “guidelines for discussion” section in a syllabus to refer back to.
    *Do assert your unwillingness to address the issue at the level of your personality. “Well, I believe in trying to meet students where they are at, but my basic personality is unlikely to change” is a fine thing to say.
    *Do realize that just as a professor has a right to refuse to cater to a student’s expectations that (female) profs be warm and personable, a (female) student has a right to be confrontational and assertive. If a (female) student has difficulty projecting “confrontational and assertive” without projecting “distainful and disrespectful” it is worth bringing it to the (female) student’s attention to see if they *want* to address it, assuming that due consideration has been given to how very fine a line we sometimes ask female students to walk on this matter. (ok, so that bullet of advice is flagrantly about *my own* issues in grad school… but it may be relevant here)
    *Do discuss the matter with the student in terms of the behavior of the student that she has control over, and maintain a focus on the future.
    *Do feel free to rant to the internet, a partner, friends, or a therapist

    Don’ts for Stacie:
    *Don’t validate other student’s impressions that the student is acting out, no matter how tempting. And *certainly* do not ask students things like “Is it just me, or is she really acting out?”. That can cause the whole thing to be dismissed by third parties as a “cat fight” type personality conflict. It does not maintain a professional professorial distance.
    *Don’t discuss the matter with the student in terms of the personality defects of the student – even if she did it first ;-)
    *Don’t rant about it in the workplace.
    *Don’t bring others into the issue unless it is their job to mediate student-faculty disputes, and even then be aware it may not be worth the emotional strain.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Most of these are great points. HOWEVER, male graduate students should not be confrontational *either*. I have had to bring in male professor back-up when having to deal with such students in the past (and thankfully, we no longer service that major because a subset of their majors were such assholes to all the women who taught the required course that eventually enough of us complained and now they have to teach their own stats). Everyone, students and professors and everybody in between, needs to behave professionally in an academic setting. There are ways to question and disagree that are professional (and should be encouraged) without being confrontational.

      • becca Says:

        Well of course, we Grumpeteers are of course Practically Perfect In Every Way, and would never EVER apply a lower threshold for what constitutes “confrontational” for female identified individuals compared to male identified individuals. So I’m sure that’s not Stacie’s problem.
        And I would agree that being *physically* confrontational generally has no place in professional work environments. And I also believe being loud and invading a space bubble counts as physical.
        But some things need to be confronted (indeed, I do believe Stacie should have confronted the student prior to this turning so sour)…. so I’m left thinking whatever “confrontational” means in my idiolect, it is something different in yours.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That’s probably right. Our confrontational has a degree of impoliteness. One can disagree and bring up subjects of disagreement without being confrontational about it.

  7. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    Lots of good advice above. I’ll only add: yes, take this opportunity to continue developing your skills as a teacher/mentor, but don’t let this situation take over your professional life, or even a small part of it. A student who perceives a teacher as “cold and distant,” and acts out as a result, sounds like a potential bottomless pit of neediness. Be courteous, of course, and (briskly) sympathetic in recommending possible sources of emotional help (in other words, don’t get caught up in blaming back, or otherwise stoking conflict; I agree that consulting with other students is not a good idea), but define your boundaries (including your boundaries for acceptable behavior in class) and keep your distance. She doesn’t need to like you, or think you’re nice She does need to behave well enough in your classroom that she’s not disrupting others’ learning.

    And you need to get on with whatever will earn you tenure, which almost certainly isn’t figuring out how to get along well with this student (though figuring out not to let her become a problem for you, or your problems with her a problem for others, probably is worth the time).

  8. Practical Parsimony Says:

    I have a comeback that usually stops confrontation in class. “I do a solo act, so let me get on with it.” The other students laugh because they are tired of interruptions. However, the class knows from past experiences that I do entertain questions and allow others to speak. I even allow interruptions! After I say this and finish what I was saying when so rudely interrupted by a confrontational woman, I do ask if there are any questions. I know this was “only” GED, but having students ranging from 16 to 50 in one class presents a challenge some days.

    Other times, I have stopped, gone to stand in front of the student, and asked seriously and with no ridicule in my voice, “And the point is?” Once I take the student seriously and listen to ramblings, I just ask the student to come into my office and discuss it with me the next day. Usually, by the next day I get an apology or not. I think if I talk to the student that day, the whole meeting sounds like punishment. Then, I focus on her job in class and my job and how she is thwarting my job efforts on the behalf of students..

    Are these rude things to say to a student?

    • Kellen Says:

      I would probably be offended/embarrassed by the “and the point is?” comment, but also would probably benefit from it. One of my bosses I was nervous around would call me out on rambling with a “What’s your action item?” –basically meaning, what’s your point–and it made me squirm a bit with embarrassment, but I also feel like I benefited from it. I would probably have hated that happening in a classroom full of people, but I’m also not the type to put up my hand in class and ramble on with no point. The other students probably love it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That action item thing is from Getting Things Done. I’ve started making my students read the chapter on meetings when they have a group project. (And I think it helps in faculty meetings– we don’t repeat the same thing meeting after meeting without actually doing anything.)

  9. Fiona McQuarrie (@all_about_work) Says:

    I agree with the advice to keep a written record of the discussions and what was said, along with a record of her behaviour in class. If the student decides to make any kind of formal complaint, that documentation will be really important. I also agree with the advice to have a discussion with the teaching & learning centre or whatever it’s called. It could be a source of very useful ideas, and it also shows that you are being proactive about resolving any alleged issues on your side.

  10. OMDG Says:

    Agree with much of the advice above. What stood out to me was that Stacie was looking to the other students for validation of her opinion. Stop doing this! You are not a student any longer. Act like it! Focus on curbing specific behaviors this student exhibits. Be professional (this is not the same as “cold and distant”). Try to keep your emotions out of this. It’s ok to dislike a student, but not ok to act on it.

  11. kt Says:

    What kind of defensive behavior is this? Insisting that she’s right when you point out problems in her reasoning, or pushing a point of view that’s at odd with yours (I guess I wouldn’t call that *de*fensive), or… just being quiet? Clearly not the third, but I think I don’t understand what the actual behaviors are.

    I try to relentlessly refocus on the material, and if that’s not enough then point out that we don’t have time for everything in class and bring the conflict out of class. Then out of class I relentlessly refocus on the material. Admitting I’m wrong reasonably quickly if I see that I am also helps; it’s occasionally really melted a confrontational student’s offensive. And every 3-4 years I find losing my s(*& to actually be the right response. In a professional, alpha kind of way. Women sometimes need to do a dominance dance too. Starhawk wrote some interesting things about that…. traveling so don’t have the reference…

  12. Kellen Says:

    Would be interesting to hear a couple examples of the behavior. My only point of view on this is as someone who occasionally has really disliked a professor, for what might be legitimate reasons, but then it was beyond reasonable, and I just got annoyed at everything this professor did. I recognized it was a personal problem though, and a lot of it was frustration with the course matter. So my main advice to the professor would be to remember that this is the student’s problem, not Stacie’s, so I think Stacie should feel guilt-free about NOT addressing the issue if she wants. Of course, if they are interrupting class, then it is a bit different, but if it is the student being defensive in class, but not speaking out of turn, then let her deal with her own attitude issues. Dealing with it might be the “mature” thing to do, but having conversations with her about it, etc, might just let the student validate her thoughts and escalate the situation.

  13. xykademiqz Says:

    Warning: too long a comment ahead. Sorry!

    This past semester I taught a required course for two majors (required = many kids don’t want to be there) . The class was about 100 people. During the semester, there were a couple of people that I could tell just hated the very essence of my being. One spent the entire semester in seething fury in the back of the class, and every time he spoke with me he was at the verge of exploding. Another was absolutely dead serious in all interactions, and after the final sent a complaining email about me not valuing understanding (which he would presumably show given more time on the exam). The thing is he wanted an A, and getting a B or AB was a horrible injustice inflicted upon him (rather than realizing that he needs to work more or that there are simply people with more ability in that class).

    In every class, especially large ones, there are always a couple of people who hate my guts. My evaluations are generally quite high and I am considered a good teacher, but there is always someone who just does not find me to have any redeeming qualities. I really wonder what’s up with those kids.

    One of those I asked a few years ago “Do you actually have any instructors you like?” and he took a while to answer and then gave a name of a person I would consider… having a very different personality from mine. But there were 5 others that he mentioned he hated. Sometimes, these kids are young curmudgeons and there’s no pleasing them, so we shouldn’t bother trying.

    Now that I am older, it is easier to be in command of the class (people tell me I am quite terrifying, which I think is hilarious, because I am a huge softie on the inside; but, I will take it). Many write in evaluations that I seem really cold and tough at first, but then they get to know me and see I don’t bite. My office hours are always full and a lot of fun.

    One thing that helps is that I try hard to learn everyone’s names (yes, even if there are 100 of them). Then I call them out by name when they are disruptive, and that is very effective in stopping the behavior (“Ryan, did you have a question?” when Ryan is just giggling with a friend. Usually that stops it.) It also works at encouraging people to ask questions when they feel you know them.

    A couple of years ago I had a student blow his top off after I returned a graded exam. He started to lecture me in class how he wasted too much time on one problem but it carried few points, and how it’s not fair that some problems carry more points than others when all other professors have all problems carry the same weight (which is totally not true). I kept my cool and said that problems carry more points if they are conceptually more difficult or if they require more work than others and that I am happy to talk more after class. He was all apologetic later and we devised strategies for him to do better on later problem sets.

    To Stacie, I would say that some of the command of class will come with time and experience. I completely agree with N&M in that I started being much more effective with undergrads when I started treating them not as adults but as adorable oversize toddlers. Which means: rules and expectations are consistent and clear and simple; don’t waver in your expectations no matter how much they bitch and moan because they are only testing boundaries (it’s amazing how quickly they get with the program and rise to the challenge when they see you are unwavering); show them care and compassion (learn names, have plenty of office hours, discuss professional plans and goals with them beyond college). But you are in command of the class, and essentially it’s your rules and your expectations, and you will help the students rise to the challenge, but there is absolutely no requirement of warm and fuzzy. You will help them if they ask for help and come to office hours or ask email questions, but you are no one’s mom/sister/shrink. The student perception of your warmth is irrelevant, ESPECIALLY if she never comes to see you 1-on-1 in office hours.

    To wrap up — don’t let the student ruffle you in front of the class. The class expects you to be in command and firm (it gets easier with experience). Your first duty to all students is to be effective in the classroom, which means eliminating disruptions. Being liked is a welcome bonus but not necessary; it does correlate with being in command. Good luck, Stacie!

  14. Historiann Says:

    I’m sorry! At a conference on Friday & then traveling with family this weekend. I think everyone here has pretty much covered it. I guess my question is: how is this student “Stacie’s student?” In my department, it’s faculty and not students who choose to work as advisors/thesis directors to students, and not the other way around. It seems to me that after documenting the conflicts described in her class, she could have a meeting with the student (and poss. with department Chair or Grad Studies Chair) and inform her that she won’t advise her or mentor her unless or until these behaviors change dramatically.

    IOW, finding a mentor seems to be the student’s job, not a faculty member’s job. If a student can’t find anyone who will work with her because she’s such a jerk, then that’s a major signal that this program isn’t working for the student. There are cases of course when it is in fact the faculty who are at fault and not the student-but the result will be the same. The student needs to come down to the anxious bench and have a reckoning with herself about her conduct, or she needs to find people she can work with in another program.

  15. Stacie Says:

    Thank you, all, for the great advice. I feel surrounded by wisdom which is a nice feeling after feeling alone w/ these problems among my own faculty. The biggest problem behavior, I’d say, is that it seems like she is combative to most things I say – to the point where I’ve noticed she contradicts herself because she seems to just be disagreeing with various perspectives I’m introducing. Also, I will ask things like: “Now that we’ve discussed x, how do you think that applies to y?” And she will pipe up almost every time with: “I don’t think they have anything to do with each other so it’s not worth talking about.” It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to not doubt my own questions and just push past her retorts and keep going with the conversation.

    In the past few weeks, I feel like I mostly ignore her comments because there is not much there that elevates our conversation, but rather she tends to shut the conversation down. So now I probably really am coming off “cold and distant.” :) Thank you, all, for encouraging me to embrace this “cold and distant” thing. That is enlightening and a relief. :)

    But, yes, I did end up talking to students several months ago who witnessed an interaction that I thought was disrespectful and I wanted to get their perspective on how that interaction went. I am hearing you loud and clear that I need to make sure I don’t do that again. :) And I agree. That is the risk, I think, of not having support from faculty – to have weird boundaries with students. And I have definitely made some mistakes in that department, but now see and feel clearly the importance of having firm boundaries.

    Luckily, I shouldn’t have her in any more classes or be required to mentor her on anything in the future. Also I did reach out to my school’s teaching assistance program and hope to meet with someone soon. I also appreciated the advice that sometimes you just can’t get support from your department and to look to faculty in other departments. I tend to give people too many chances and I think I was still a bit stuck in fantasy thinking of “maybe my faculty can be more supportive someday.” It’s time to go find my support elsewhere. Honestly, if this student really wanted mentoring from me and I said no and they went to my chair or other faculty to complain, I would get pressure from faculty to “forgive” and mentor the student. So we are not great at being allowed to have boundaries with students in my department. So I feel a bit like I need to walk this road alone, but I can do it. Luckily I have the grumpeteers. :)

    Also, I like the idea of focusing on professional outcomes rather than delving into emotion processing – I think that has been my initial response to this kind of behavior – to figure out what’s going on, but that gets me in trouble as it typically brings up emotions and wastes a lot of my energy. Professional outcomes and future plans seems like the thing to start doing more of and I thank you for the encouragement in that direction.

    I am hoping this experience makes me stronger and I will see this behavior earlier on and nip it in the bud. I think my tendency and preference to “give the benefit of the doubt” has worn thin and that might be a good thing as I need to stay in command – even though I find it a bit difficult to do among PhD students who will be my peers/colleagues very soon.

    Thank you!

  16. Stacie Says:

    Ooh, I should also add “eye rolling” to the list of behaviors this student has been using. I have been surprised to see that kind of behavior at the PhD level, but it’s there!

    • xykademiqz Says:

      Sometimes a student, erroneously, really thinks that you are dumb/don’t know what you are saying or doing. I have had that happen a few times (less now that I am older). There is no way to fix the relationship with such a student. If your relationship is confined to the classroom, you simply have to completely pull out emotionally and remind them who is boss. What worked for me is being direct and calling them on the bull$hit “You seem to think I don’t know what I am talking about. I have no idea why you would think that, but I assure you that you are very wrong. Let me remind you that you are here to learn from me, so cut out the eyerolling and back talk and act respectfully.”

      I have had a stubborn student or two in my research group, and the eyerolling and talking back in group meetings damages your authority with other graduate students. It wasn’t easy to combat and it wasn’t pleasant, because the impostor syndrome makes you doubt yourself anyway, but students of both genders are more likely to act that way towards female teachers, especially young ones. Here it helps to “fake it till you make it.” Even if you don’t feel like the boss in charge, do act like one. You don’t have to work with any graduate student for any reason. One such student (quite talented) was also itching to leave prematurely; I advised against that, for the sake of his future career, but he insisted, and I wasn’t too sad to let him go. I thought where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do (a postdoc in a certain group) would basically close off his chances of a faculty position and told him as much, but he wouldn’t listen (because I apparently don’t know what I am talking about). I didn’t try very hard to convince him to change his mind because he’d been a pain in the a$$; there is only so much caring I can muster in spite of people’s jerkiness. It’s years later now and he’s stuck in a forever postdoc situation, as I had told him he would be (because that group has a horrible record of placing people in academia, being that the advisor is a selfish slave driver with no scientific imagination). But the student wouldn’t listen ’cause he knew better.

      I am worried, though, that you feel the department would not support you if a student wanted to work with you but you said no. That’s a really bad sign. Where I am, it is understood that working with (advising) a graduate student is a big commitment and no one would force another faculty to take on a problematic student. I really feel bad for the lack of support you are getting.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I’ve had some success with that type of student (the “you don’t know what you’re talking about” type), but I’ve only had that problem with guys so far. It’s a bit easier for me though because I have a pedigree and I teach math and I know way more than they do. It usually only takes a couple of times of me proving them wrong in class (but pretending that they’re actually confused and not just trying to intimidate me, “That’s a common misconception” or “I’m glad you asked that, let me show you why it’s exactly wrong,” etc.) so I tend to end up popular with them by the end of the semsester. My female colleagues in less mathy classes or who aren’t white or native English speakers etc. tend to still have more trouble with that kind of student. The students who caused us trouble all semester are the ones in the required classes who don’t think they should have to be there at all with support of their faculty who also think thought they shouldn’t have to take a hard stats class (and we were able to say, you guys do you, we are happy not to service your majors anymore!) Though the woman they got to teach their replacement stats class is completely burnt out after two years of it and they’re hiring adjuncts to teach it. Poor adjuncts.

  17. Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 1 | xykademiqz Says:

    […] if this comment at nicoleandmaggie’s is any indication, my guess is that they mostly they don’t like […]

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