Monthly Archives: April 2007

That Boy vs some real Women.

He turns up every semester, and he is always is a boy, not a young man, or a young adult, so I feel no qualms about the possible sexism in identifying him this way. Female students are annoying in their own ways, too, but That Boy has qualities all his own, and his attitudes to women are part of the issue and part of the reason that he is so hard to deal with.

He’s usually good-looking – for the conventional value of good looking. Not interesting-looking, not actually attractive, but good-looking. He knows it, and he expects a certain level of deference from females (he calls them “females”, in his head, not women). He’s in the class because he needs it for something else, not because he is interested in the subject matter, and because of this, and because he is used to having things he needs provided for him, he expects the female teacher in the class to give him what he needs – which is an A, or possibly an A-.

He’s not actually going to put in any effort himself in order to get what he wants, mind you. He might come to class if he isn’t too busy, or if he’s bored or lonely and looking for some attention. He treats assignments as if she’s asking him a favour. He’ll interupt the professor at any point in her lecture in order to have her attend to his needs; doesn’t matter what she’s talking about, he needs to know, right now, why she can’t just tell him the essay topic instead of forcing him to think of one for himself, or if he really needs 6 academic sources for his research paper. If he could ask her to get him a beer, he would; he uses that tone.

He has very strong ideas about what is appropriate content for the course, too, and will argue strenuously with the professor if she attempts to challenge him. He will always try to turn a discussion of women or feminism into a dismissive put down of the entire subject. If the professor is lecturing rather than directing discussion, he will express his views via eye-rolling and other non-verbal communication.

Rules and requirements don’t apply to him. If he decides not to do any research, or to use Dr. Phil as an authority on marriage in Medieval English Literature, that should be totally fine with her. She has no right to judge him, anyway (she’s only a woman). He will argue about his grade, and if he doesn’t get what he wants, he will try going over her head. He won’t take responsibility for his shoddy work; instead, he comes to one-on-one meetings and asks “What have you got against me?”

If you recognise that boy, I bet you are, or you have, a woman teacher. Male professors don’t seem to encounter That Boy; which is another symptom of his attitudes. The worst thing about him is that he makes academic interactions into personal conflicts. He puts the professor on the defensive, undermines her confidence. Some semesters, it takes all her energy to deal with him, or defend herself against him. Some semesters, he wins.

This is a story of hope. Of how, this semester, I learned that I am not alone in the struggle against That Boy. But I also learned that the fight is important, because I am not the only woman in the classroom he is putting on edge.

This semester, That Boy had big brown puppy-dog eyes, and he made himself known in very early in the semester. He had bought the wrong textbook, and of course he didn’t see why he should put himself out by going all the way to the bookstore to change it. The he had trouble figuring out the mini-assignments I set; I asked for critical reading responses, he gave me whiny comments about Chaucer being stupid and too hard to read. Things were not going well when he presented a proposal for his first essay; it was on medieval women. “You need to revise this.” I said. “Why?” he asked. “Well, for starters, ‘feministic’ is not a word.”

It was around this time that I first got an inkling that That Boy was making his presence felt to other students. This semester, I had a lovely student, Anna, who is blind. She sat in the back of the classroom with her laptop, and I made a habit of stopping to chat with her at the end of class, at first just to make sure she was keeping up, or if she needed any extra help. She is smart and funny, and soon we were chatting about a number of things; one day, after class, Anna brought up That Boy. “Did he ever buy his textbook?” she asked. “I don’t think he ever does the reading.” She didn’t come out and say it that day, but fairly soon it became clear that she was finding him annoying and distracting in the class, but she has a great sense of humour, so she laughed it off.

A couple of weeks later, in the middle of me talking entertainingly about Malory, That Boy put up his hand. “This love poetry presentation?” he began. This would be the assignment I handed out a couple of classes before, the one I distinctly remember asking if there were any questions about at the beginning of class, yes? “You said we have to choose a love poem from our anthology to present on, but how do we know which poems are love poems?” I think that’s the kind of question you get nightmares about. How do you begin to answer it without being insulting? I was just taking a breath to give it a try, when studious Margot, with the laptop and the lip piercing, turned around and said “You could try reading the fucking book, idiot.” Well, precisely.

That Boy made a good deal of hay over choosing and changing his poem, and he also hung back when it came time to present; looking at the ceiling when I asked who wanted to go next, so that eventually, he was the last presenter. He chose to interpret “The Bait” by Donne, and the premise of his interpretation was “guys like fishing, and they like girls.” It was pretty clear he expected the class to find him amusing, but he misjudged his audience; they sat in stony silence.

Now, I have my students mark one another when they give Oral Presentations; it helps to keep people engaged and focussed. Usually, they are firm but fair markers, and offer reasonably helpful comments on one another’s work. That Boy had opened up the floodgates of disdain. “I don’t think he read the poem before he came to class,” wrote Karen; while Melissa, a Chemistry major who was struggling with the material in the class and working like a demon to keep her marks up said “I don’t agree at all with his interpretation. It wasn’t a helpful approach.” The class gave him an overall mark of 2.5 out of 5, which was much lower than the class average. I was starting to feel comforted by their solidarity, but also concerned that students were finding That Boy annoying. Was he actively interfering with their ability to learn or enjoy the class?

When I handed back the presentation marks and comments, That Boy immediately set up a wail. “What? Why did I get such a bad mark?” Again, before I could say anything, other students stepped in, but this time in an unexpected way. Karen and Melissa, who had both been so scathing, turned to That Boy and said “We gave you a good mark.” What was going on? All three of them looked at me, for confirmation, the women with eyes twinkling. “You liars,” I said, and they laughed, good-naturedly. It occurred to me that these two had perhaps dealt with That Boy in his high school incarnation, because they seemed to have his number.

Finally, there was the incident with the information for the final. I admit to being nasty – I tend to give out my special hints for the final on days when there aren’t many students in class. (Hints like, “Wow, we’ve been talking about chivalry a lot in this class, I wonder if that will come up on the final.) The ones who are there appreciate it. Of course That Boy was missing on the day when I had my lengthy discussion, but I offered information about the exam on two other occasions. On the second last day of class, he lined up to talk to me, and the tone was naturally combative. “Why haven’t you told us what is going to be on the final?” “I have,” I responded. “It’s short answers, based on class discussion, and you may bring your textbook.” The message was, if you have been to class, you will be fine. Naturally this made That Boy nervous. He continued to ask for more information, and I continued to repeat what I had already said.

Eventually, he stormed out of the room, and I turned my attention to helping Melissa with her essay. After all the other students left, I went to speak to Anna, who was chatting to Chantelle, who sat next to her, and had been giving her some help. They asked me, “Did you hear what he said?” “No, tell!” Apparently, as he was leaving, That Boy had exclaimed “I hate her! She’s so annoying!” and quick as a whip, Chantelle, quiet Chantelle who rarely contributed to class discussion, had snapped back, “So are you!” And they stayed to tell me. I was delighted and appalled at the same time. As nice as it is to share the hatred, I don’t normally run classes that involve students taking sides against one another.

Well, exam day finally rolled around, and That Boy arrived without his textbook. “You’re kidding!” he exclaimed, as other students brought out their books. There were a couple of others who had forgotten, so I made my copies available. That Boy took one book, and as far as I could tell, used it as an armrest for an hour until one of the other students asked to use it. At the end of the exam, Elizabeth, yet another student came up to me and said “I don’t know why he didn’t bring his texts. I know he was here when you talked about it, and he asked me about it.”

So, by the end of semester, that was 5 women who were annoyed enough by That Boy’s behaviour to speak to him or to me about it. It made me think a lot about how behaviour like his can be problematic; in this case, the women didn’t put up with it, but I know now that when this has happened in other classrooms there may have been a silent group of people affected by this behaviour. I know, having read his final, that he didn’t learn anything in my class, but I certainly learned a lot from him.

How crazy is crazy enough?

Right now, in my office, pinned to the miniscule corkboard, next to the miniscule whiteboard, wedged between my desk and my overflowing bookshelf, is a piece of paper, folded into 4, sealed with a staple. My colleague Darwin gave it to me a few weeks ago. “Don’t open it,” he said. “I just wanted someone to have the name I wrote down here, in case something happens.” Darwin’s a big guy, with long flowing white hair and a white beard; he’s been teaching for years, and he’s an elderly hippy who plays folk music in his spare time. He’s mellow and popular with his students, not the kind of guy you’d imagine would get freaked out by even the weirdest student. But there it is, that white square of folded paper, that says even the most experienced teacher can find himself wondering about his own safety.

A couple of years ago, I was doing some adjunct work, teaching a fiction class at a Catholic college. One of my students was a very strange boy, prone to odd outbursts in class. He took a lot of the stories very personally. I can still remember him railing against Dee, a character in “Everyday Use,” as story by Alice Walker. “She is a bad woman! She will be punished by God!” he exclaimed. It’s pretty hard to come back from that and keep class discussion going, let me tell you. I tried to have a talk with him about his behaviour, and also about his written work, which also tended to give me the wiggins. His response was to follow me one afternoon from my office to the train station, hectoring me about my unfairness. I tried to be diplomatic, but I was getting really scared. “You need to stop this,” I said, “this behaviour is not appropriate.” (“Not appropriate” is a professor’s orange alert; the next stage up is “I’m calling security”.)

I was fortunate; the student backed off, but he was still upset with me. I was never so happy to get on a train in my life. I reported his behaviour to the Dean, and because this was a small institution where administrators took pastoral care seriously, the Dean had a talk with the student. The result was that the student then took to following me around saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” every time he saw me, which was scarcely an improvement. When he decided to drop my class after he failed the midterm, I sent up a grateful prayer to Jeebus; teaching at an institution with a religious affiliation may have its down sides, but I am willing to give credit where it is due.

Another one of my colleagues, The Mandarin, once told me a story about an essay she received from a student which was basically a description of all the people he wanted to kill, starting with his mother. “It wasn’t even remotely on topic,” she recalled indignantly (and it’s a measure of her dedication and professionalism that this did seem to be the detail of the incident that bothered her the most). She naturally felt concerned about the possible repercussions of giving the student a zero. Her Head of Department suggested she make a copy of the essay and any other relevant documentation to keep “just in case.” That was it; no suggestions about alerting security or referring the student to a Counselling or other service. The Mandarin still had to meet with the student in her office in a secluded annexe nowhere near the main area of campus. The student made her so nervous she took to cutting class discussions short and cancelling her office hours for the semester, until he finished her class, and likely went on to terrify someone else. Her story is frighteningly close to the one the Phantom Professor tells about Cho’s one-on-one English teacher.

None of the professors in these incidents come off as a stellar hero who saved a clearly trouble student from an evil fate. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that our options are limited. Complaining about creepy students is just as likely to rebound on you as an instructor; instead of reporting behaviour, we complain to our colleagues, and in extreme cases we write notes, just in case.

Last September, I went shopping after class and came home later than usual, to find Feckless Husband a quivering heap on on the couch, watching the the news about the shooting at Dawson College in Quebec. “I just kept thinking that could have been you,” he said. I don’t like to have that kind of melodramatic reaction, but when I see emails from my institution’s President, as I did in September last year, and again yesterday morning, reiterating his commitment to making our campus secure, and reminding faculty and staff of the counselling services available to them, then it does make me think about how vulnerable I am.

I wonder if any of Cho’s teachers left sealed notes pinned to a colleague’s cork board.

What Hillary and I have in common.

I really didn’t create this blog for the purposes of venting about Feckless Husband, but today he is seriously getting right up my nose. I got an email from him this morning announcing that he and the Vanessa Mae Wannabe are leaving BF, Asia for some remote undisclosed location and will be out of communication for 2 days. Apparently, this is for a concert. Dude, 3 camels in a ger does not a concert make.

There are a lot of things about my situation that upset and annoy me, but apart from the obvious, I found that Jack Hitt really put his finger on one of the deeper underlying issues in his article “Harpy, Hero, Heretic: Hillary“. That link will take you to the full text in Mother Jones, but the key point is here:

Hillary is an avatar of an existential dread skulking in the hearts of every couple who’ve tried to put together a life since the feminist revolution. This anxiety explains why the darkest question a liberal feminist can ask is: Why didn’t she leave that son of a bitch?

The flip side to Hillary’s ambition evokes every career woman’s greatest fear. How fragile is marriage? It can come apart as quickly as that girl delivering the pizza can snap her thong. And there is no amount of superachieving or hard work that can prevent this lurking humiliation… It’s absurd, sure. It’s clichĂ©d and pathetic. But, for the working wife, trying to build a career off the foundation of her marriage to even the nicest (smartest, richest, handsomest) man, her worst fear is that he’ll stray in this, the most debasing of ways. It’s a complete denial of her womanhood, an essential insult. It’s why the kind of anger liberal women feel toward Hillary always circles back around to the issue of why she stayed in the marriage. Why didn’t she take a stand against male grossness?

There’s a lot in that passage that rings true for me, even though it is (ironically) written by a man. I thought I had made an equal, civilised, grown-up 21st century marriage, with an educated man who had ethical and aesthetic standards. Suddenly, my husband apparently prefers a skimpily-dressed airhead who can’t make up her mind if she is 28 or 29, and who has an “interview” with herself on her website in which she makes the following statements:

Do you have a boyfriend or a special person?
Yes, I have a boyfriend; I can’t be without a man!

Which is your favourite musical group?
I very much enjoy watching and listening to Kenny G on sax.

It makes you question the fundamental values you thought you shared. More ominously, it brought home to me that although I thought my marriage was an equal partnership, when the shit hit the fan, it turned out that I was just as vulnerable to male oppression as any woman. Because I refused to abandon it immediately, my husband currently holds all the power in the marriage.

Before this happened to me, I was definitely in the category of liberal women who thought Hillary had betrayed feminist womankind by putting up with this shit. Now, unfathomably, I am in her shoes, putting up with being cheated on. No, more than that, agreeing to let it happen, at least for this month.

There are times when I feel like I have betrayed myself, actually. Why didn’t I kick his feckless ass out when I found out about the affair? Why didn’t I do it when he finally confessed? Is it because I don’t feel able to cope on my own, as a good feminist should?

I’d like to think it is because I am holding on to something worth having, and that he will come to realise that. We have a child and a life together. On my bitchier days, it is because I think, “Kenny G? Seriously?”

Sir Robin and Sir Thopas, or Why I love Chaucer

Tomorrow is the last class of the term for my British Literature Survey class, informally known as Beowulf to Milton. I love teaching this class, and I confess that I do tend to spend a lot more time over the course of the semester on the earlier literature, Chaucer in particular, and we tend to give poor old Milton short shrift.

As a round-off to the semester, I tell the class we are going to do a refresher of the first part of the course (that is, the medieval part), and I act all serious and stuff, and then, when they come to class, I show them Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yes, I am the kind of professor who enjoys perpetrating lame pleasantries on my students.

This isn’t quite as gratuitous as it might seem, because I am quite possibly the only person who teaches The Tale of Sir Thopas in a survey class. Sir Thopas is universally derided as a bad poem; it is even derided within the Canterbury Tales as a bad poem, and it tends to get dismissed as unworthy of inclusion on University syllabi. Except by me, and by the incomparable Terry Jones, who is one Chaucer scholar who gets the joke. Which is why I show Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Tale of Sir Robin (which comes up about halfway into the clip above) is lifted absolutely straight from The Tale of Sir Thopas, and of course, it is quite funny even if you don’t know that. Students who read Sir Thopas and enjoyed it are rewarded with that special glow you feel when you get an in-joke.

So why do I insist on teaching this bad poem? Well, because it really isn’t bad, or rather, it is bad on purpose, so bad that it is good, which is quite a different category. Chaucer the master poet writes clunky rhythm in this poem, and all sorts of dreadful jokes because it is a multilayered parody of knightly romance poetry, and even better, it is a poem inside a larger work which makes fun of the dude who is writing a larger work, and all his pretensions about writing in multiple voices. Chaucer is the only writer I know who manages to laugh at himself and make it truly funny; other writers who try always tend to have a more or less obvious tone of “but really, we both know I’m great, hur hur” tone about them.

Literary scholars don’t seem to like this much, but then I think they probably aren’t huge fans of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, either.

Earlier this month, Chaucer issued a challenge to his readers to celebrate his works. If you want to hear my Gaudete to Geoffrey, click the link.

Sir Thopas, Fitt 1

Reflections on anonymity

I decided to make this an anonymous venture, for two reasons – first, so that I can share my What Ladder? moments without too much of an ethical twinge about student confidentiality, and second, so that if I feel like venting about my feckless husband (currently spending a month working on a concert for a floozy in BF, Mongolia, and no doubt bonking her brains out), I can.

I was talking about anonymity and blogging with my incredibly smart brother, Henry the Philosopher, last night. H the P maintains that no one’s blog is truly anonymous, and his hobby is finding the supposedly anonymous blogs of his freinds, acquaintances and enemies in order to poke fun at them. I challenged H the P to find this blog, and here are his observations:

Here is how to find when a person naturally compromises their identity:

  1. They will mention their cats’ names on their anonymous blog – search their pets’ names.
  2. They will use the same sig as they do on other forums – search for their sig.
  3. If they revealed their new blog to some other person, that person will exist in both the anonymous and non-anonymous places using the same username or sig. Search for their friend’s username or sig.
  4. They will use one email address in conjunction with two different nicks. If people spend enough time on the internet, they will eventually reveal a public email address.
  5. People think they can reveal their age, gender and location without compromising their anonymity, but it really helps to narrow the field. One of the best things you can do to hide your identity is to change your age, gender or location to a false value.
  6. The idea is to create a cloud of search terms which surround but exclude the obvious ones. So you don’t search for a person’s primary nick, but you search for all the terms that show up near their primary nick.

I don’t think you made any of these errors, but maybe you aren’t indexed on Google yet. But you were probably trying not to, plus your blog hasn’t been around very long. Eventually, you would probably be findable in this manner.

I just edited his PhD, and I complained bitterly about that pronoun agreement error, but clearly without any lasting effect. Grammatical niggles aside, I am taking his list as rules to blog by.

It makes for an interesting balance, or a shift in identity. I revealed something here that few of my friends and none of my family members know, although they so many other things about me.

I’m not that into “mindfulness”.

I’m not that into “mindfulness”. I don’t mean that I’m oblivious to the world around me, but rather that the Oprah-esque nature of the word sends a shudder up my spine.

Every weekday morning, I take my spawn to school, and then I have a 25 minute walk home. Usually, I listen to the previous night’s Rachel Maddow Show on my ipod. Rachel and Kent are a great accompaniment on a walk; they give me something to thing about, and I find that news mediated through a left-wing perspective is much less personally stressful – Rachel takes on the burden of my annoyance at the world. This morning, although it was way too early to have to think about what kind of woman would consider dating creepy spit-combing Paul Wolfowitz (obvious answer: the kind who is happy for her boyfriend to organise inappropriate raises for her), my walk was essentially the same as it has been every morning.

Except it wasn’t. Last night, I was chatting to Lorelei, who reminded me about Found Magazine. The whole way home, I was really attentive to all the stuff around me that I normally ignore – little bits of paper, trash on the side of the road, kept catching my eye. It was an interesting transformation, and I thought about mindfulness.


I found a letter, mostly covered in mud, but one of the legible parts is “…since my face was black and blue which no amount of make-up could cover, I tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. I didn’t think removing a small skin cancer on my skin would wreak as much havoc…”

The letter

I suck at graphic stuff. I should learn to do better.

Since this is my introduction, I’ll just start with the acknowledgements:

A bunch of people have been suggesting that I should do this. Well, actually, it’s more of an incredulous “You don’t have a blog?” which makes me feel like a dinosaur. So thanks for that.

I’ve been reading I, Asshole, which is an awesome blog, and actually answered for me the question, “Why would you have a blog?” So, a great big thank you to Assy.

Finally, I’d like to thank the anonymous student who wrote the essay in which the following sentence appeared:

“The ladder is the most important factor affecting multiculturalism, and I will discuss it further in the following paragraphs.”

Think about it. It may take you a minute. I sat in my office for 10 minutes, reading the eponymous following paragraph and the previous paragraph, cudgelling my brains for metaphors about multiculturalism and ladders, and saying “What ladder? What ladder?”

Eventually, the light dawned.

It was hilarious and infuriating, which is kind of what my life is like. It seemed like a good jumping off point.