Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reason #452 why women leave academia: macho students

Recently I was teaching a class of students, let's say on the topic of rubber ducks. I give the class some exercises related to rubber duckery and let them get to work. After a short while, I ask if there are any questions. Student A, one of my "hat boys" as I like to call them, replied.

Student A: "Well, it would be a lot easier for me to study rubber duckery if the bath was better implemented to support multiprocessor floatation devices and had a better internal physics model of how fluids move." (I'm just making things up here, but you get the idea).

I realize he's just trying to show off. But I know enough about the gobbledy gook he's spouting and can hold my own, so what I intended to say was something like, "Yes, blahblahblah is true, but this exercise is about rubber ducks, so don't worry so much about this other stuff." But before I can get a word in edgewise, Student B interrupts.

Student B: "Uh, no. Multiprocessor flotation devices were, like, so last year. Now the fluid dynamics blahblahblahblah."

Student A: "Uh, no! Blahblahblahblah."

Me: "Look, I - "

Student B: "Blahblahblahblah"

Me: "But if we just - "

Student A: "Well, actually, blahblahblah."

I keep trying to interrupt to tell them to quit chit chatting about this silly tangent and get back to work, but the two students keep ignoring me. The other students start snickering at the interchange. Finally, I put my hand on Student B's shoulder, because he's so engrossed in arguing with Student A he's not even making eye contact with me. And I say, "Let's talk about all of this later, and get back to rubber ducks."

Then Student B has the audacity to say, "But this is far more interesting."

Sigh. Clearly I need to go sign up for those assertiveness teaching classes. Or else start teaching undergrads who have less of a chip on their shoulder. Because I have to say, moments like these, I honestly wonder why I'm interested in traveling down this path toward being a professor. Having to deal with hundreds of smarty-pants kids all at once does just not appeal to me right now. In general I actually enjoy teaching, but not these moments.


  1. Incredible. I'd fly off the handle at a comment like the last one. Even if it's not in your nature, you probably want to start cultivating a teaching personality that leaves no doubt who's in charge.

  2. This is where you put time limits on exercises so they quit their pissing matches. And if the smarty asses want to blither on about how great their shit smells, then make them write papers/essays about their great shit if they don't STFU when you are talking. You can easily pass out handouts for them to fill out before they leave. If you can't keep their mouths shut, keep their fingers busy.

    With you being female and young, it's damn near impossible to "cultivate a teaching personality that leaves no doubt who's in charge." This is where you need to unleash your inner bitch. They don't respect you being polite, so hey, go for it.
    hugs, jc

  3. An approach I recall from my undergrad days is a loud and authoritative, "You're supposed to be an engineer. Make it work with what you've got or prove yourself incompetent."

  4. After spending years in a sea of linux geeks, I picked up a habit without even realizing it. Time and again, I witnessed this scenario:

    Some n00b starts being noisy in a pure dick-waving exercise. Maybe the n00b gets others to participate, maybe not. Eventually the alpha geek in the room gets annoyed by the noise, glances around, and realizes that they are indeed the alpha geek present. With a weary sigh the alpha pauses work to deliver an overwhelming verbal smackdown. When silence reigns while the noisy lick their wounds, the alpha forgets the whole thing and resumes work.

    Most often the n00bs are particularly stunned because they've never seen the alpha show the slightest interest in dominance displays.

    I did this a couple of times and didn't realize that I had imitated the pattern I had seen before until the stunned silence phase of the performance. Now when I do it, it's more conscious. Like those I'd seen do it before me, I don't want to bother, but if I glance around and realize that I'm the one who has to deliver the message, I'll do it. And that message is, "If you are stupid enough to insist on a dominance hierarchy, you find yourself relegated to an extremely low place in it."

  5. Do I smell kindergarten. Here's what's really going on:

    Teacher: Do your work.
    Student A: Look at me.
    Student B: No, look at me.
    Student A: No, look at me.
    Student B: No, look at me.
    Student A: No, look at me.
    Student B: No, look at me.
    Teacher: Do your work.

  6. LOL. I can so picture this, although I am used to the other side of this coin, teaching physics and mathematics.

    Those same guys can't get away with showing off their dim understanding of physics in actual university physics classes, so they take another tack. They ask rude, irrelevant questions, with a permanent scowl on their face. Some years ago I had one (freshman) student who was so disruptive, and resentful at being assigned a female teacher, that I was forced to kick him out. To my surprise, when I finally yelled at him to get out, he walked off meekly like a naughty 12 year old, and everyone else looked immensely relieved.

  7. I asked my wife (who went straight from grad school to being an assistant prof and looked really young) about disruptive male students. She doesn't recall that there were very many incidents, and says that the ones that did happen tailed off pretty quickly as she gained experience. She's not a super assertive lady but doesn't take much crap either. So maybe your problems will take care of themselves over (a relatively short) time. She's in psychology instead of CS, not sure how much of a difference that makes.

  8. Man, that really sucks. My first year teaching a large class was hard. It is especially hard to skirt the line between being perceived as a hard-ass bitch and being perceived as not in control. Many things my male colleagues do would not be perceived in the same way if I did them.

    I find that ignoring the behavior helps (if possible). This year, I often stop teaching until the disruptive behavior stops. If it takes more than a minute for the behavior to stop, I make a brief reminder that I already know the material, so I don't need to review it again if people are not going to pay attention, and usually the belligerent will be controlled by their more interested/grade conscious peers.

    In the case of disruptive students in an exercise, I would just remind them that they only have X time to do the exercise and then fail them when it is not complete. If they are disrupting others, I would kick them out.

  9. Thanks all for the comments. I think part of my frustration with these incidents is that when it comes to teaching I most certainly have impostor syndrome. If I'm teaching in my own field it's fine, but sometimes I teach classes where I only *really* know about 40% of the material and am just faking it for the rest.

    Which is funny, because I don't really have imposter syndrome as a researcher! Except when I truly am faking it, like, say, pretending to know something about computer security.

    I will definitely work on my "teaching persona" and take some classes once I've finished grad school. I've heard a lot of universities have teaching resource centers, which would be good to check out I think.

  10. That happens all the time, although I have learned to deal with it.

    1) I tend to wear extremely macho jackets with padded shoulders the first weeks - square shoulders look threatening.

    2) I make the dick-wavers define their terms, and in general nail them to the wall on some specific point loudly and in full view of the entire class. Yes, I'm the alpha geek in the lab, and the quicker they learn that that little old lady is the alpha geek, the better.

    3) During lecture I have some illustrations of abstract things like linked lists in which I pull the noisiest guys up to the front and make them hold cards and pointers to the next guy. They love the attention, and tend to be very docile after that.

    The impostor syndrome won't go away until you discover that you can, indeed, teach an entire class from memory because you left your lecture notes in the other bag during the rush to leave in the morning. Then you finally comprehend.

  11. WiseWoman, I love the shoulder pad idea - that's fantastic. And anyway, the 80s are back fashion-wise, right? :-) The other suggestions are good too.

    And your last sentence is spot on. I think experience and time will definitely make me feel more confident as a classroom teacher.