Historiann started a conversation (which I’ve found at turns interesting and frustrating) over at her place yesterday based on this post over at University of Venus. What I’m about to write isn’t really a direct response either to the conversation at Historiann’s nor is it a direct response to the tale recounted over at U of V. But it is about my experience on both sides of the desk, first as a student who pushed boundaries and, later, as an instructor whose students push boundaries.
I want to make it clear up front that what I’m about to write is not to deny that there are clear instances of inappropriate behavior that occur between teachers and students, that female faculty and faculty of color and queer faculty often are targeted in the classroom in ways that straight, white, male faculty are not, or that there need to be mechanisms in place, for both students and faculty, to address hostile, aggressive, or coercive behavior that may occur in a university setting. So if at any point during what follows you get the impulse to deride me for being too permissive or complicit or whatever, I would like you to return to this paragraph and read it. Thanks :)
As I noted over at Historiann’s, when I was a student, I submitted a couple of assignments that probably had inappropriate sexual content. They technically followed the letter of the assignment that I was given, but I, on purpose, chose to write about those things because I was acting out. I wanted attention (in one case I didn’t think that the professor actually read our papers, and, from his response to what I submitted, I still think that’s true); I wanted to punish the professor for giving me an assignment that I thought was stupid. In both of those cases, I targeted professors who read as straight and male. Looking back, both of those professors were dismissive toward women students, and looking back, I think that part of my agenda was to make them regard me as a person. Now, we might question my logic and my approach, but I think that was at least part of what was going on.
And thinking about those couple of instances made me think about other boundary-pushing in which I engaged as a student: skipping class, lying in order to submit assignments late, not doing my reading, doing the crossword puzzle during class…. I didn’t do those things in classes that I took seriously and I didn’t do those things in classes with instructors whom I respected. I didn’t tend to be disruptive, but looking back, I clearly did not act like a good little girl or a good student in many, many different contexts over the course of my education. I think I got away with a lot because I was smart, because I was female, because I wasn’t overtly disruptive, and because I went to a large state school where class sizes were large and where I could get lost in the crowd if I wanted to do so.
As an instructor, also at a large state school, I’ve had a number of situations where students have written what many might consider “inapproppriately sexual” papers. Primarily this has happened in composition courses and in literature courses for non-majors, and usually it happens very early in the semester. It happens for a lot of reasons: a student trying to demonstrate a lack of respect, a student being confused about the line between appropriate and inappropriate, a student trying to assert his/her personhood in what is often a very dehumanizing environment, college. Sometimes this takes the form of oversharing. Sometimes it takes the form of a clearly aggressive attempt to get a rise out of me. Sometimes this takes the form of the student just not having the vocabulary to handle the sensitive issues that he/she wants to handle – issues that in themselves are appropriate for a college paper, but only if framed in certain ways.
I’m not going to lie: I have felt uncomfortable with much of the above. At times, I have even felt threatened, and when I have done so, I have made sure to take steps to have backup if that became necessary. (I’ve been lucky: it never has gotten to that point.) But I really believe that it’s important not to let my discomfort get in the way of me teaching my students.
This is not to say that I don’t set boundaries. I do. And I’ve learned how important it is to make my boundaries clear before students start submitting their work, and to address even “obvious” things explicitly and repeatedly. And if a student crosses one of my boundaries, I clearly address that, and I work with the student to get them to act more appropriately or to respond to assignments in more appropriate ways. And no, that’s not fun, and it’s not comfortable for me, and it’s not pleasant, and a lot of times I really hate the students upon whom I need to expend this sort of energy. Yes, I said that: I hate them. And sometimes the students choose to drop my course once they realize that I’m not going to rise to their bait and allow myself to be bullied by them. But sometimes, those students turn out to be really great. Sometimes those students learn a ton. Sometimes those students leave my class different people than they were when they entered it. Not always. Not most of the time, even. But once in a while, that sort of transformation does happen.
And this is where I think it’s important to insist that the classroom is not a purely professional space. The classroom – even the college classroom – must allow for students to make bad choices or inappropriate decisions in order for it to be a space where true learning and transformation can happen. Now, when I say that I do not mean that anything goes. A student’s behavior should not affect other students’ ability to learn, other students’ performance in the course, the ability to get through material on the syllabus, etc. And if a student continues to exhibit inappropriate behavior, to the extent that the instructor cannot effectively teach that student or the other students in the course, then it’s important to get that student “into the system” – referring that student to the dean of students, to psychological services, to the department chair, to those who have the expertise and the power to handle that student. But seriously: if a student submits a descriptive piece of writing in which he chooses to discuss the naked bodies of women (something that’s happened to me a couple of times, actually)- a piece that no other student in the course sees – that doesn’t necessarily mean that the student is a sociopath. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the student cannot learn. As a professional, I believe that it’s my responsibility to make my classroom a safe space for learning. As a professional, it’s my responsibility to respond professionally even if what the student submits is unprofessional. Even that student who wants to write about the naked ladies deserves that. The student deserves more than one strike, even if I personally feel some discomfort.
Now, you might say that college students are adults and that they should understand appropriate behavior, but look, where I teach, many of them don’t. And an even greater number of them don’t know how to interact with a woman who is in authority who doesn’t enact the mommy role. And I do think that part of my job is to educate them about those things.
And further, if what I want is for my students to push their boundaries and to understand that learning sometimes mean that they will feel discomfort, then I believe that it is not unreasonable that sometimes in that process they will push some of my boundaries, too, and that sometimes I will feel discomfort. How can I expect my students to read novels that challenge their beliefs if I won’t accept student work that challenges mine or teach those students who submit that kind of work? How can I expect my students to feel safe enough to have an original idea if I demonstrate to them that only certain ideas are acceptable?
It’s not only women faculty or faculty of color who have to deal with students acting out in these ways, through their writing. Yes, I do believe that there is a different and more malignant intent, sometimes, when such behavior is directed at women faculty or faculty of color, but even with that being the case, such behavior is, often, a part of learning. And so, at least for me, my first impulse when I see such things is to respond as a professional – as a professor – and to try to educate the student through my response.