Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Toxic Students

Let me start by saying that by and large, I really enjoy interacting with my students. Most of them are courteous, hard-working (more or less), intellectually engaged, and wonderfully funny. I spent most of last Saturday wedding-dress shopping with one particularly delightful former student who has since become a dear friend.

But. There are the exceptions – those students whose arrogance, or insecurity, or sense of entitlement renders them impossible to work with. They wander around campus exuding a poisonous miasma that infects every class they become a part of. In twelve years of university teaching (including several years as a T.A.), I’ve encountered only a handful of these toxic individuals, but their memory lingers long after the other students’ pleasant, smiling faces have blurred into oblivion.

The Lady of Chichester: My first toxic student was dubbed "The Lady of Chichester" by my fellow T.A.s after the very first lecture of the year. Unintimidated by the 800-seat lecture theatre, she expounded her theories on the sonnet, prefacing her oration with the news that she was from England and thus had a head start on us rustic colonials when it came to understanding Keats and Shelley. All the T.A.s waited with bated breath to see whose tutorial would be blessed by the presence of this fount of knowledge, and in the end I drew the short straw.

Lady of Chichester’s most memorable trait was her outright refusal to believe most of the things I was trying to teach. She flatly denied that the Wife of Bath’s scarlet stockings were indicative of her lascivious nature, asserting that the association of the colour red with passion was of much more recent provenance. I was too flabbergasted by her brazen manner to recall, at the time, the Scarlet Woman of the Book of Revelations as proof of the antiquity of this symbolism, so I floundered for awhile and recommended that she check the Oxford English Dictionary as a special research project.

One day I was helping the Lady with a landscape description she was working on, and I circled the capital letters she had used to spell Barn Owl. "But it has to be capitalized!" she insisted. "It’s the name of the species – like Human Being." When I remained unswayed by this analogy, she sighed in exasperation. "We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one!" she said.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Lady of Chichester. She clearly had a hard time handling the fact that a twenty-five-year-old Canadian girl, with a baby face and a colonial accent, was daring to teach her about English literature, but she was essentially harmless – her occasional breathtaking attempts to undermine my authority had little effect on the functioning of the tutorial, unlike the other two characters in my gallery of student horrors.

The Conspiracy Theorist: One of the most dangerously contagious forms of student toxicity is the persecution complex, the belief that every aspect of a course has been designed with the express purpose of putting this particular student at a disadvantage. The most paranoid student I’ve encountered – let’s call her Victima – lodged a number of complaints over the duration of a six-week summer course. It was unfair, for instance, that the course was team-taught by two professors, since this required her to adapt to two different lecture styles (and created a constant terror on her part that her essays were being marked by the meaner of the two profs). Furthermore, it was unfair that her essay received a lower mark than her neighbour’s, since a quick count of the red-pencil marks on the page showed that Victima’s essay had fewer errors. (It was entirely useless to explain to her that there is more to grading an English paper than simply totting up the number of spelling and grammar mistakes.)

Although complaining was a customary mode of self-expression for Victima, her real forte was the filing of formal appeals. She lodged a protest, for instance, when the confidential course-and-instructor evaluations were conducted. Her evidence? She had overheard me instructing the student who would collect the evaluations to take the completed forms to "the office" (meaning the departmental office). Without consulting me or the student involved, she assumed that the evaluations had been delivered to my office, where I could tamper with them at my leisure.

Victima’s greatest triumph occurred at the end of the course. This was the summer of the massive power outage that left most of Ontario and several neighbouring states without electricity in the middle of a scorching August heat wave. The lights went out on a Thursday afternoon and, without knowing whether or not the university campus would be officially open, I arrived the next day to conduct a brief exam review with the handful of students who showed up. Over the following weekend, Victima rounded up her posse and emailed a request for an additional review to be held on Monday for those who had missed Friday’s class. Out of the generosity of my heart, I complied, and the moment the class ended, Victima and her henchwomen marched straight to the undergraduate office to launch yet another official complaint on behalf of the students who were not at the review class because they didn’t know it would be taking place. The department’s official response? Instructors are at liberty to provide extra help upon request without occurring any obligation to those students who have not made any request for extra help.

This story has an ironic dénouement: after hounding us for extra marks for six weeks in the hopes of achieving an A she did not deserve, Victima froze up on the final exam and failed to complete much more than half of the questions. I still have a copy of her email, sent off in frantic haste that evening, entitled "Exam Tragedy." According to department policy, a failed exam means automatic failure in the course, but in an attempt to turn the other cheek, I petitioned to have the policy waived so that she could pass mathematically on the strength of her term marks. If nothing else, all those tearful, accusing office interviews had made it abundantly clear that she had worked hard and learned enough that she deserved to pass the course.

The Hijacker: Far more than the Lady of Chichester, Victima had the power to poison the atmosphere of the class, creating little pockets of resentment wherever she went. Before and after every class, I could see the surreptitious glares and hear the whispered complaints as she attempted to rally the troops. Once class began, however, she subsided into harmlessness. Not so the Hijacker, whose presence utterly dominated what might otherwise have been an enjoyable class. By far the most problematic student I’ve ever encountered was Moravia the Militant Lesbian (not her real name). At the bottom of my conflict with Moravia lay a kernel of justified outrage. I was teaching a class on twentieth-century rewritings of nineteenth-century romances: Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride and Prejudice, Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre. Moravia had a genuine point when she objected that the course syllabus reinscribed the compulsory heterosexuality of these texts by omitting gay and lesbian alternatives. I don’t happen to know of any gay or lesbian rewritings of classic nineteenth-century novels, but that is not to say that they do not exist. Nevertheless, the course syllabus had been approved by the undergraduate committee, the books had been ordered, and it’s not exactly up to the students to introduce changes to it on an ad hoc basis. Moravia’s strategy for coping with this inequity was to interrupt my lectures with interminable monologues that rarely had any noticeable connection to the course material. I’m not convinced that there was ever an occasion when she stopped talking of her own accord – usually she subsided only when I found an opportunity to jump in with a graceful segue linking her analysis of lesbian porn back to Mr. Darcy’s courtship of Elizabeth Bennet.

I never developed an effective strategy for curtailing Moravia’s hijacking of my class (as several commenters noted on my evaluations). Usually I prepare six pages of notes for a one-hour class, but for this course I never made it through more than four – the rest of the time was pure Moravia-management. Worst of all was the day of the group presentations: having finally been given the floor for what was supposed to be a ten-minute presentation, Moravia droned on for half an hour while my blood pressure spiked dangerously. Moments after the class ended (with my apologies to the groups whose presentations had to be postponed until after spring break), Moravia cornered me, demanding to know her mark. When I murmured evasively, she announced, "I’ll have you know, that was a fantastic presentation!" Finally I escaped to my office where I collapsed at my desk and relayed the confrontation to my scandalized and sympathetic office-mates. Just as I was reaching the climax of my tale, Moravia herself stepped into the doorway with a dramatic flourish, cackling with triumph.

The rest of the story is hardly worth telling – a complaint to the department chair, an apology, a failed attempt to appeal the grade on her final paper (failed because the other professor gave the essay precisely the same grade I had), and then a few strange and awkward encounters on campus, including one where she very pleasantly admired my newborn baby while I stifled the urge to clutch him to my chest and run. In some ways, I think, the Lady of Chichester and Victima brought out the best in me – gave me, at least, a chance to demonstrate some greatness of character. But Moravia invariably rendered me a weak, pathetic version of myself, a mixture of bossiness and cowardice.

It is less revealing than it seems that all three of my most memorable toxic students have been women. The ratio of men to women in my classes is about 1:3, and although most of my male students have been pleasant, there was that one fellow many years ago who, upon receiving his first graded essay, charged to the front of the class, waving it my face and shouting, "How dare you call this plagiarism?" But he did apologize later (saying, with admirable frankness, "I’ve realized that it’s in my best interests to be polite to you") and dropped the course a couple of months later, so for the most part he managed to fly under the toxicity radar. My toxic students have not been entirely without their uses. They have stiffened my backbone over the years – I try very hard to ensure it’s not just the squeaky wheel that gets the grease – and they have made me grateful, genuinely appreciative, of all those respectful, lovely students, whose names I can’t quite recall at the moment, who are the reason that I love my job.


Christina said...

I'm laughing myself silly right now. I taught Theatre 101 at my university for a few years, and I think I had each type of student you described. Especially Victima - lots of those, and many of them men.

I don't want to hijack your post, so remind me sometime to tell you about being up against a clear case of plagiarism with two students who happened to be on the football and basketball teams, one of which was leaving for a college bowl game soon.

Izzy said...

I taught at the college level for a couple years, mostly to freshmen, and there was always a toxic student present and in one instance, an obnoxious toxic couple who refused to accept that I was not going to do a daily review for them covering what they had missed due to their chronic habit of being thirty minutes late for every class. They ranted and raved and complained to the administration. It was so absurd.

Mayberry said...

Wow--you are so good at describing people! And you are officially a SAINT for being charitable to those first two.

Nicole said...

I am currently in the middle of a graduate class right now that has "one of those people" who can't seem to sit through an hour without speaking/interrupting at least 20 times with useless and unrelated topics. Granted this is a 5 hour class that meets once a week but it is ridiculous how much this woman interjects! Class participation is part of the grade, but for goodness sakes I wish she would shut the $%&@ up! (I just figured out that this was a “woman” in the sense of gender – I thought she was a man for a while….then she brought up in class the story of when she started to menstruate in high school! I considered her a "Pat" - you know that type of person who you are unsure of their gender!) The poor professor is just flabbergasted by the end of class with her. She has a mild case of CP and all she wants to talk about is how she would like to meet someone who is "okay with having sexual relations with someone who is disabled" - I know, it's really sad. She brings up all the time that she has never let her disability get in the way of any of her dreams or goals in life, and I think that is wonderful, but she also has no boundaries whatsoever! She is even doing her project for the end of the course on "why persons with CP have difficulty establishing sexual relationships with 'normal people'"

So, consider yourself lucky this one is not in your class! Sometimes it's mind blowing how much someone can annoy you!

p.s. Our professor just announced that she is prego with her 2nd child and that is why she may be "a little off" at times and she needs to eat on the hour. Totally understandable in the first trimester - so hopefully those horomones don't kick in and she doesn't go off on this girl with CP!

sunshine scribe said...

Yes - I agree with Mayberry. Brilliant descriptions and sainthood is just around the corner. I am sure there will be more interesting characters in your teaching future and now you've got the arsenal you need to handle it.

kittenpie said...

This was a great post! I love the names, the details. And I am killing myself over Victima's ironic near-downfall! I'd like to think it might have taught her seomthing about whose fault all of it really was, but sadly, I bet it didn't.

bubandpie said...

Funny that there are so many Victimas and Moravias out there - though I think the Lady of Chichester may have been one of a kind.

And Nicole - I'm so feeling your prof's pain right now! I was in my first trimester while dealing with Moravia, and the hormones and nausea did NOT add anything good to the mix.

I'm getting nervous now that this is the kind of post that could get me dooced, so it may disappear in a day or two - thanks for reading it while you can!

Mrs. Chicky said...

Would you like to know a secret? Those types of student personalities are not exclusive to the college lecture hall. Sadly, they grow up, start families and, ultimately, get dogs and bring them to my classes to be trained. They've mellowed a bit over the years but not much. Some of them have even bigger chips on their shoulders. People! Its learning! Get over yourselves!

Her Bad Mother said...

I know these students. These are my students. And, yes, they are all women (I do, however, have a few disturbing male types. The boob-starers, the suck-ups... ah, there's a post...)

Thanks for the laugh.

penelopeto said...

It was not fun being in class with those kinds of students either!
Hopefully those students have mellowed and are not now driving their bosses and co-workers crazy.

lildb said...

oy. I'm simultaneously horrified for your sake, pleased that you have used the experiences for growth (smarty pants), and reminded of my own fairly recent college classes and toxic peers (and one fairly nasty prof). also, I'm more than a little nervous that I may have been the student that pissed people off, b/c I'd get into discussions about the texts with the professors, oh I HATE when I second-guess. sigh.

this is a fabulously interesting post, G. loved it. thanks for sharing this aspect of your experience with everyone. :)

Gwen said...

Hey B&P have you met Teacher Lady? And by "met," I mean, of course, read her blog? ( It sounds like you two might have more than a little in common, although I swear Canadians are much less dangerous--even when toxic--than we Americans. And I base this opinion, naturally, on all my many--errr, one--adventures in Canada. The toxic students exist in high school in abundance, too, but in so much less sophisticated ways: their class disruptions generally involve throwing things and passing notes and a whole lot of lip smacking .....

How is/are your sick baby/ies by the way?

bubandpie said...

Hey Gwen, I'll check Teacher Lady out. I often consider changing over to the high-school end, but I'm too chicken... They would eat me alive, I'm sure.
And my babies are still coughing but no longer feverish - thanks for asking! (I thought maybe my spitting in the faces of the gods was not going unnoticed when Bub's fever seemed to linger on for days, but it's gone now, and he's more himself, in a cough-y kind of way.)

Binkytown said...

You are a better woman than I! I would have let Victima have her exam tragedy. She was lucky to have you!

Bobita said...

My most memorable student was of the Hijacker-mold that you described. At one point, I actually confronted her IN CLASS because her hijacking was causing the other students to complain...about HER to the Academic Administration office.

She was my student for a full year. I will never forget her...and am grateful to her for what I learned about myself because of her!

Emily said...

I loved this insider's perspective. I've seen these types as a fellow student. Very interesting to hear this from a prof.

Veronica Mitchell said...

I have been in class with a Lady Chichester, only it was a biblical Hebrew class and she was Israeli. So naturally Americans had nothing to teach her. Nothing at all. Even when she was embarrassingly wrong.

Nancy said...

I have sometimes thought about becoming a teacher or professor. Then I remember that I would actually have to interact with people, and I come to my senses. ;-)