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.