Friday, January 09, 2009

Day 03 (Round III) "In the trenches" (smackdown edition)

In which the Good Doctor shall discourse upon ye efficacy, suitability, felicitous & appropriate timing of ye pedagogical & bureaucratic technique known as

ye Smackdown.

I like situations that work. I like looking at situations and figuring out ways to make them work better. Conversely, I am stressed-out by situations that I perceive to be not working, particularly when I believe that I have at least an idea about how to make them work better ("the definition of stress is the tension that arises in refraining from choking the living shit out of some asshole who desperately deserves it"--ask me off-blog about the Tourette's patient at the bar who the barmaid keeps serving, in contradindication to every therapy I've ever heard of for that condition). I am hugely fortunate in that the ratio of not-working situations over which I can exert some constructive influence, versus those over which I cannot, has shifted very much in my favor over the past 8 years. I don't have to put up with stupid bullshit (tenure is amazing in that respect) in too many situations any more, and I am very, consciously, grateful for that.

What this comparative distancing provides me, after years having to put with every bit of stupid bullshit that any fucking suit in any office felt like giving me, is a bit of a perspective on how to cope with it, and to know when to (a) suck it up and wait, (b) passively resist, (c) document and disseminate (always a good strategy when some asshole is trying some kind of illicit bullshit), and/or (d), incredibly gratifyingly, provide a precisely-calibrated and surgically-applied smackdown.

At this point, as chair/supervisor/professor, I am confronted with certain situations in which certain parties attempt to behave unfairly, unethically, dishonestly, or manipulatively. Any more, it tends to happen more frequently at one remove: some punkass little criminal will try some unfair, unethical, dishonest, or manipulative bullshit on one of my staff--because they damned sure don't try it too often with me.

It's part of my job, then, to both know and convey when, where, and how to apply a smackdown: to really just flat call a fucking halt to bad behavior, and/or to provide my staff with the tools to do the same. Given my personality and propensities, I have to be careful not to react too swiftly, too ferociously ("maximal overkill" is the phrase that comes to mind). I can't do that, because there is way too much potential for inadvertent but lasting damage. I wouldn't call it "mature," exactly--that is not a phrase I can apply particularly logically to myself--but "strategic" seems accurate.

Therefore, knowing when, where, and with how much severity to impose discipline is absolutely essential. Undergraduate students tend to be hyper-conscious of what is or isn't (or what they perceive to be) "fair"; they hate to be embarrassed, and they will whine or bitch virtually perpetually if they are embarrassed or feel unfairly treated. This doesn't need to reflect reality--only their perception of reality.

Hence, a very fine line to walk. If they are one iota too embarrassed, feel one iota too little culpable, they will conclude, terminally, that they have been wronged and thus share no fault--and if that happens, you will never get them back again. Discipline, especially in the classroom and in front of their peers, even if deserved, thus becomes a quite-explosive thing. If you're mean, dismissive, humiliating, or contemptuous, you will never regain their attention, trust, or commitment.

But, on the other hand, sometimes concrete and explicit reprimand needs to happen. And, sometimes, it's the right and constructive thing to apply. And it can work: if your timing and tone are just right, if you can catch just the right moment to convey "Okay, later for all this 'fair' and 'unfair' bullshit; you were at fault, weren't you?", you can cut through their whiny entitlement to the actual heart of the matter, at which point,surprisingly often, they will acknowledge, implicitly or explicitly, "OK, you're right, I was out of line. I'll do better next time."

As well, sometimes it's important to be proactive, especially if you've got prior information via the professoriate's jungle telegraph that a particular group, pod, or individual is a particular problem. You may want to make certain moves, set up certain behaviors or parameters in the teaching situation, so as to seal the behavioral loopholes that certain criminal types may be prone to--because precluding the opportunity for the crime is a hell of a lot more effective pedagogy than belatedly attempting to punish the crime in its aftermath.

I'm speaking here of students who you have learned, from third parties, may potentially present problems. This could be a group, a type, or an individual, but it is different than the situation of students with whom you have your own prior history of error, defiance, or irresponsibility. those latter kids, when they again appear on your radar screen, tend to be very scared that you will hold past misadventures against them.

This is one of the key perspectival contrasts between undergraduate students and their teachers: the students tend to assume, in the wake of bad behavior, "S/He hates me!"--that is, they personalize the relationship ("He hates me!"), when in fact this is the last thing a responsible professor wants to do. For all the bullshit that the Radical Right spouts about "hate the sin, not the sinner" (and which is typically a massive falsehood: I am comfortable in unequivocally stating that Ann Coulter, Rick Warren, and the Westboro Baptist Church truly do "hate fags", not just their "sin"), professors are actually far more adept at separating conduct from personality. It is our job to reprimand error without personalizing the reaction. I've blogged before about the importance of a public persona which is dignified, in command, and above the petty, tangled interactions of personal perspectives; I think this facilitates a healthy separation of the personal and the professional in the classroom.

So when a kid reappears in my classroom whose last appearance was marked by attitude, irresponsibility, or dishonesty, I am usually at pains to convey a positive, "yes we have a prior experience but that just means that now we understand one another better" vibe. Typically,
such students are visibly and massively relieved.

No, I am talking about other students, either new or recidivist, who manifest an attitude of unrepentent defiance or criminality. Those are the persons who, at the right moment, with the right tone, and a general demeanor of implacable professionalism, may require a smackdown.

So to today's post--because in the last 24 hours two such situations have arisen, in which the specialized pedagogical technique of the smackdown was both appropriate and efficacious. In private conversation, my admired boss has admitted to me that he likes these; though relentlessly professional and even-keeled, in private conversation about one or another problematic little criminal, he's occasionally said "oh, I think I'm going to enjoy that particular conversation." He's very careful about behavioral interactions, but it's clear to me that he, too, recognizes certain situations in which a cracking-of-the-whip-of-authority is in fact the momst constructive and appropriate action.

First of these opportunities was the recurrence of yet another whiny criminal who'd missed more classes than he attended, made a poor grade on the final because of lacking attendance, and then had the nerve to threaten my adjunct staff member with "legal action" if his final grade was not changed to the higher value that he felt he "deserved" (hadn't "earned"--just "deserved"). When the little punk kicked it upstairs, it crossed my desk, and, as my boss (cited above) said, I actually enjoyed penning this following (redmissive:
Mr Student:

I am the Chair of Musicology and Professor Conga's immediate supervisor, and it is in that capacity that he has forwarded to me your message. Professor Conga informs me that you had an average of 80% prior to the final exam, that you earned a 65 on the final exam, and that the cumulative result upon your semester grade yielded an 75.9. Additionally, our attendance records confirm that you had unexcused absences which further negatively impacted your grade.

You say that this is your "second message"; Professor Conga confirms that your "first message" was sent on May 5, long after both the semester had ended and final grading had expired.

The result of your percentage points for the semester confirms that you earned a C. Not an B. Professor Conga is the professor of record for this class and his decision is final.

I have copied this reply to Professor Conga. I have also copied to the School of Music's Associate Director for undergraduate studies, the SOM Director, and our College's Associate Dean.

We consider this matter closed.

Dr Coyote
As I suspected , confronted with the above, this kid folded. There is a time to say "OK, the whiny bullshit is over. This is the way it is." This was such a time.

As I said to my adjunct, during discussion in the aftermath:
Sometimes, really elegant and clearly-articulated language can provide the same kind of social leverage that table manners can: you can come from nothing, and just because you know how to *say something better* than your opponent, you win.
You want to keep your dignity, your professionalism, your cool, and never ever succumb to "arguing." They're not entitled to an "argument"; and once the fair hearing is done, the case is closed.

So to Wednesday's (first) meeting of the undergraduate class. This is the fourth and final increment of a four-semester sequence; in this particular case, the first semester that this particular group and I have worked together. I had been warned by two different colleagues, in relatively consistent ways, that they both had experienced this particular group to be one-or-another-way problematic. So I had a prior knowledge of the general demeanor and (mis)behavior of this group, and an expectation of the probable necessity of setting the lines of authority early. In fact, the graduate teaching assistants who had previously dealt with these little criminals were gleefully anticipating the first day of class, and more than one of them had asked "hey, can I come and be a fly on the wall for this?!?"

So I had thought a good deal about the professorial approach and general vibe I wanted on that first day. It's easy, easy for me to intimidate--but that would be excessive, and needlessly (and destructively) freak-out those students in the class who weren't potential trouble-makers. I'm pretty authoritarian and I have to watch out for this.

Of course, one needs to know names, call on people, recognize personality types, crack jokes, keep the pace moving, change the dynamic, move around the space, combine multiple media and presentational methods, know the personality types, keep them guessing and engaged, and so on and forth. But, given the prior knowledge via the jungle telegraph about the propensity of this group for bad behavior, some supplementary strategies were called for:

Don't ignore the tardy ones, the whispering ones, the ones trying secretly to check their text messages or pass notes back and forth. Call on them immediately--and when/if they say "I'm sorry, Sir [Jesus, I had it when they call me "Sir," as if the term of respect will make up for their not knowing the fucking answer], I don't know," reply "I'm sorry, that's not an acceptable answer," and then wait--make them sit there and fidget and not have anything to so say. Don't let things slide--call them on their crap.

Of course, this has to be balanced with a very positive, preferably entertaining and enjoyable presentational and interactional style; it *can't* just be relentless, jackbooted authoritarian ferocity--because then 2/3 get scared and the other 1/3 get sullen, and everybody's performance suffers.

Rather, the idea is to have them internalize the (typically, for 21st century 19-year-olds, utterly unfamiliar) message and insight "wow, if I show up prepared, pay attention and participate in class, and do my work in a timely fashion, he's really nice and funny, and this is actually enjoyable...and I even get a good grade! and it's fun!" And the flip side reaction (which, with the particularly recalcitrant types, has to be acted out at least once in class) is "Holy crap, that student acted out just a little bit, and Dr Coyote landed on him with hobnailed boots! I better not fuck up!"

You don't want them scared--but you do want them respectful, and you do want them to really internalize the message that "Choices (in terms of attendance, participation, preparedness, and professional demeanor) have lasting and permanent consequences." And, for the sake of classroom efficiency--for the sake of maximizing everybody's constructive experience, you want the potential trouble-makers to assimilate that insight very very early. They'll be happier, they'll do better work, they'll be less of a drag on the class, and everybody will benefit.

Hence the smackdown.

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