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"...another reason I'm intrigued with the hanged of Salem, especially the women, is that a number of them aroused suspicion in the first place because they were financially independent, or sharp-tongued, or kept to themselves. In other words, they were killed off for the same sort of life I live right now but with longer skirts and fewer cable channels." Sarah Vowell, The partly cloudy patriot.


I want to punish you

Today I felt really sick, and despite that, I felt like I needed to still hold class. Last night my throat started hurting, and I started having difficulty paying attention (unusual for me), and started to feel achey. This morning all of that was worse, plus I thought I might have a fever (but I couldn't find my thermometer). I was worried about teaching because of the sore throat (hard to teach when it hurts to talk) and the distractibility. I decided to teach, and then maybe to cancel wednesday if I felt worse.

The problem is that I really needed my students to talk more today, yet for some reason, I didn't tell them this. I think part of it is that I didn't want to seem weak, and part of it is that two male students who have been critical of me (one of the students who was complaining about me - in front of me - in the elevator, and the student who had the angry outburst in class last week) were both there, which made me feel anxious and self-conscious.

Feeling anxious and self-conscious in and of itself is likely to make me flub and do less well - but being sick made it worse.

This class is not a chatty class - despite the fact that participation is a huge part of their grade. I have not had to deal with a quiet class since I was an undergrad leading discussion sections. Even then, I had one section that was quiet and one that was chatty - so it balanced and helped me see it was more just a "class personality" issue. At least with this class I know that at least one other professor is having the same issue with her own class - she cannot get them to talk in class. So, I know it's not just me. But in the face of a quiet class, knowing that helps very little.

I am someone who feeds off of my students' energy - if they are involved and participating, I get energy and feel more enthusiastic. If I ask a question and no one responds ... I feel badly and lose energy.

And today, that kept happening over and over - I'd ask something and get blank stares (or sometimes just incomprehensible responses - which is partly because of the students themselves, and partly because my brain is addled due to being sick). And every time they just stared at me, I'd feel worse and more anxious and more insecure.

They don't even talk when they have answers in front of them!!! I had them get into small groups and answer two questions today (the topic du jour is "power"), and to take notes on their responses (this is how I take attendance). I then gathered the whole class back together, and asked them to tell me what they had discussed - and they wouldn't say anything. I did get some responses, but it was like pulling teeth, "I heard your group talking about eye contact as a way of determining who in a dyad might have more or less power - what did you say about eye contact?" It took so much energy to get them to tell me what they had already discussed! So it's not even like I am asking them questions they don't understand or to which they don't know the answers!

They also have a tendency to talk really quietly - I ask a question, someone will say something, but they say it so quietly, I can't hear them. Today my head is so congested and my ears are so plugged up, that was even worse.

So today, I started to feel really badly and completely powerless (which is so ironic given that it was a clss on power). I began feeling like I wanted to punish them - I wanted to give them a pop quiz or make them put their heads down. I just wanted to hurt them they way they were hurting me.

The real irony of this is that that is one of the things we talked about in class (and a phenomena on which I actually have some expertise): when someone in power actually feels like they have less power, they are likely to feel a need to punish or coerce in order to reassert control. That's exactly what I wanted to do - I wanted to punish them in order to reassert control.

Clearly this is not good, not healthy, not a good place to be with a class, and it is not effective; in fact, this is - I would argue - the main issue underlying most of the families that show up on the television show "Supernanny." The children are completely out of control, and the parents feel like they have no power whatsoever in the family, despite the fact that by virtue of being the adults and the parents they actually are the ones WITH power. What the supernanny (Jo) does so brilliantly is help the parents see that they are the ones with power, and teaches them positive ways of asserting that power.

I wonder if that might be an interesting reality tv show - "Superteacher!" I wish jo would ocme to my class and put my students in the naughty desk and teach me to be an adult with them.

Relatedly, it is curious to me this issue of power and who has it and who doesn't. Typically in a male/female dyad, the male is the one with more power. Men have more power in society, thus they often have more power in a dyad (I'm not talking about within couples, necessarily). But if the woman has more power based on her role (like boss or teacher) does she have more power in an interaction with a male? Or does he still have more power based on his sex? Does role trump gender/sex? Or vice versa?


At 4:56 PM, Blogger psychgrad said...

I get really anxious about teaching when I'm not feeling well. So, I feel for you.

I think the woman professor still has more power, unless she gives it away. Although I have noticed some students try to take over (exert more power), I am quite forceful about maintaining power. One thing that helps, I found, is learning your students' names. Sounds like you're teaching social psychology...so it should make sense that this prevents social loafing. I find that students that were disengaged or rude had a harder time behaving that way when I referred to them by name. Granted, none of my classes have been larger than 55 students. So, this may not be possible if you have a large class. But, even getting to know a few names can help.

I had a hard time getting my class to talk this past semester. I did try to ask really easy questions (even ones that I gave the answer to on my powerpoint slides)...but if they're disengaged, it doesn't matter what you ask.

Maybe you should tell them that they should prepare a response based on their group discussions. That way, they'll anticipate that someone in the group has to speak.

At 5:21 PM, Blogger Ianqui said...

I think there's also something about numbers--even if they don't technically have the power, there are more of them and if they decide they don't like you, then you're going to notice it. Ultimately though, you ARE the one with the power, since you're the one giving the grades. Maybe if you can remind them of that in a subtle way...?

At 6:56 PM, Blogger shrinkykitten said...

I really don't need advice about this - despite how it may seem. I do know my students' names - and i have 60 students. I knew my students' names when I had 100 students. I work hard at what I do, and I care a lot (even though at the same time I don't care at all). I don't teach social psych.

And I'm well aware that my role gives me power. I wasn't asking about my situation - I was asking hypothetically. Although I would argue that adjuncts have a hell of a lot less power than one might imagine as students can really make or break my chances of reemployment (and trust me, if I don't have to teach again, I won't).

What I'm interested in is how power can shift when someone ostensibly has power based on their role. In particular, perhaps based on the fact that I had a male student threaten me with violence over a grade, I am aware that as a woman - I am still vulnerable despite my role.

There has been some interesting research lately on sexual harassment by subordinates. Women are sexually harassed by their employees and students - despite the fact that as the boss or teacher she has more power. She gets that taken away by virtue of her sex. And that totally sucks!

There was also a study recently about sexual harassers and who they target. It showed that women who stepped outside their gender roles (so women who had more power, were more assertive, in higher positions) were more likely to be targeted for sexual harassment in order to "teach them their place."

No matter how much power I have, someone can come and instantly remind me that I am powerless simply because I am a woman.

At 1:25 PM, Blogger Princess Pointful said...

I hate that sentiment, but I completely understand... I've experienced it both in academia and in my day-to-day life.
I just moved last month, and my building owner was being a total jerk. I was considering getting my father to deal with him (as he was coming into town to help me move)... and then I just realized how disturbing that was, that everytime someone in business or an associated field screws me over, no matter how many of the skills I apply (and, damn it, I am a successful person!), he just gets better results that I do. And I know it wouldn't be the same if it was my mom calling.
(I always feel a little guilty hijacking someone's blog comments as a newbie... whoops!)

At 5:53 PM, Blogger psychgrad said...

I guess people blog with different intentions in mind. When I blog about a problem, my hope is that I'll get suggestions from others.

I do agree that threats/harassements certainly can cause a shift in power dynamics. My comment was not in response to potentially violent situations. I was thinking specifically about the type of contexts you were describing where you felt powerless because of a lack of control you seemed to feel over your students.

If we're talking about being able to maintain/exert power in "relatively normal" classroom environments, then I do believe that a female professor can be more powerful than a male student. If we're talking threats to personal safety, then all bets are off.

The issue I struggle with is how power is perceived. A powerful female is not perceived the same way as a powerful male. Personally, when exerting power, I find myself using hedging language to make my opinion/request more pallitable.

P.P - I do the same thing. I generally avoid making calls or dealing with service personel for the same reason.

At 7:45 PM, Blogger k8 said...

I totally get the power issues involved here. I've had some aggressive students in the past - usually male. However, because I seem fairly easy going, they don't realize that I can be very competitive and aggressive right back. I have no problem calling them on this sort of crap. In the one case I had that was really disconcerting (very very creepy guy - his female and male classmates found him unsettling) I was very firm with him. He would try to "push" me back by standing too close to me, stuff like that. I don't think he was prepared for me to stand my ground and stare right back at him. I am stubborn. He finally buckled when I suggested we meet with the director of the program to discuss whatever issues he felt needed to be addressed. He dropped the class the next day.

I once had to teach for a week and a half without my voice. We actually worked around it better than I though we would. I normally had about 5 minutes of voice to use for the day's plan. Then, we either went into small groups, or this: I scripted out the lessons (including questions) on transparencies, and slowly moved down the page, uncovering material as we went along. I made signs with common teacherly responses for me to make, and held them up at appropriate moments. I exagerrated facial and hand gestures a bit. It was actually pretty funny. The students laughed and played along.

But, when I have students who respond as your's did, I have them take 5-10 minutes to freewrite their thoughts about the issues and then ask them to read or summarize what they wrote about. Conversation typically picks up on its own after a few readings. I know, you weren't looking for suggestions, but I'm all about sharing the teaching techniques.


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