Category Archives: teaching

Pointing and laughing at idiots, and other hobbies.

So, you know I have a class full of dumbasses, but I also have a class of smartarses, which, oddly enough, is actually my remedial (in that it is a Grade 12 equivalent course) class. This class is like an academic lucky dip (a misnomer, surely, because all my childhood memories of winning handkerchief and pipecleaner dollies would suggest it was more of an unlucky dip); sometimes you get assholes; sometimes you get amoebas; sometimes you get a 2 or 3 dedicated students who had raw deal in high school but who are appreciative of the opportunity; sometimes, in a golden semester, you get 6 or 7 of those, and some of them have a sense of humour.

That’s what I got this time.

Naturally, this makes Sarcastic Bastard hate me.

However, mixed in with the smartarses, who are doing their assignments and their reading and turning up to class cheerfully prepared to have a stab at expressing an opinion on Romeo and Juliet, I have also got Aggro Girl, who went off on a rant at me for being so unreasonable as to assume she would know what a subject and a verb are, Lazy Dude, who dared to ask “Did I miss anything?” even after we read and discussed Tom Wayman’s awesome poem in class, and Mikey.

Mikey is special.

Mikey turns up to class, but he doesn’t pay attention. Now, perhaps this is because he is physically incapable of taking in information. He may be ROMulan (ie his memory is all read-only), which would be sad, but it doesn’t make my classroom a good place for him.

The problem with Mikey is that he sees his problem with taking in information as my problem, or possibly a more global problem (naturally, it isn’t his problem), and so he is constantly asking for explanations of things that have been explained already, sometimes more than twice. I know, you are thinking, “why doesn’t she write stuff on handouts”? but the thing is, I do.

Mikey’s information retention problem extends to written information in the form of handout sheets, none of which he can retain either. I have given him at least 2 copies of every assignment sheet I have handed out to the class, and he still comes to me after every class, claiming to have lost, or often, not to have received, handouts.

The reason Mikey is annoying, as opposed to merely the object of pity and quiet derision, is his determination to spread his problem around. His conversation with me on Tuesday is a prime example. He came up to me after class (a class with a librarian, which I had scheduled specifically n order for students to get help with their research assignments, by the way), and asked for yet another copy of the assignment sheet. “I don’t think you actually handed them out to the class,” he claimed, despite the fact that everyone else obviously had the sheets because they were, you know, working from the sheets with the librarian. Then he went on to chastise me about the assessment for the course. “No one knows what the assignments are. I really think you should go through them in class so everyone can be clear what they are.”

I have to admit, gentle reader, that this really pissed me off, and so, I plotted my revenge, which occurred thusly:

Me [coming in to class, and being all cheerful and shit]: So, Mikey says no one in this class knows what the assignments are or when they are due, and that I should go over them all with you.
Class [groans]: No wai! We have all handouts and shit for this! We are totally clear!
Me: Now, don’t be shy; Mikey was brave enough to come to me with this problem, so I will respect your issues here, and I can spend a half hour at least going through this stuff with you.
Class: Can’t we please watch the second half of Shakespeare in Love?
Me: Assessment is important, and I don’t want any of you to be confused.
Class [more groaning].
Aggro Girl: Shouldn’t you wait until Mikey is here before you do that?
Class Clown 1 [throws something at her, behind her back].
Me: No, because that would entirely miss the point of pointing and laughing at him.
[at which point Mikey came in, because clearly karma approves of pointing and laughing at idiots]
Me: So, Mikey, we were just going over the assignments.
Mikey [oblivious to the raucous heckling he is getting from the back row]: Oh, good.
[Here follows several minutes of actual going through of assignments and what’s coming up in class and stuff, punctuated by numerous comments of “This is totally in the Course Outline!” and “We know! You told us already!”]
Me: Okay, just about done, but I need to remind you that we are starting to read short stories next week, so you have to buy your Course Pack, and read the story for next Thursday. [Holds up copy of said Course Pack, which is a horrible day-glow orange; this is a deliberate strategy on my part because I pick the cover to be something hard to misplace.] This is what it looks like, since there was some confusion about it not being in the Bookstore earlier.
Aggro Girl: Mine is blue.
Me: Does it have my name on the cover, and our section number?
Aggro Girl [with the tone of “when will this fucking bitch stop requiring me to know ridiculously esoteric crap?”]: How would I know?
Me: Well, you probably bought the wrong one, but if you go and ask them nicely [thinking: and explain that you are really, really stupid], they might exchange it.
Aggro Girl [absolutely enormous flouncy teenage sigh].
Me: Make sure you get the orange one, with my name on the cover, and read the first story for next Thursday.
Mikey: When do we need to have it by?
Class Clown 2: Dude! You totally didn’t just ask that! Tell me you didn’t seriously ask that!
Me: So can we watch the movie now?
Class: Yes! Already!
Me: Wait, someone’s cell phone is ringing. Who owes us M&Ms?
Aggro Girl: Dammit.

In case you are feeling at all sorry for Mikey, I can advise that he came up to me after class and told me he had lost the essay sheet (again), but that it was okay because he was going to make up his own topic. I can imagine that going well.

In the category “things I never told you about before” (this is a gesture at the fact that SJ tagged me with that meme and I ignored it), I knit. I made this:


for the Red Scarf Project. Feckless said “but you don’t do stuff like that.” Apparently I do, on occasion. I like to think that somewhere there is someone who is grateful for the opportunity to go to college – just as an antidote to the aggro and the lazy and the dumbassy.

(Oh, and don’t worry, this is not going to turn into one of those scary knitting blogs where I show you horrific pictures of my ugly projects. I have no idea what it is about knitters that makes them do this; if you don’t believe me, just poke around blogspot with a knitting needle. Okay, now I realise I need to write a whole post dedicated to mocking them.)

Teaching Chaucer to Dumbasses

So. This semester I have 2 sections of the same course, which is a Brit Lit Survey from Beowulf to Milton. I may have mentioned before that I like this class; it’s my area, and I get to teach lots of cool stuff I like. I think I teach it well, and students tend to enjoy it, if the comments on my evaluations are to be believed. (I got my favourite comment ever on an evaluation for this class, actually; it said: “this course was not nearly as boring as I was expecting it to be.” Backhanded, yes, but something about it really pleased me.)

Taking all that into account, believe me when I tell you that I am teaching one decent group, and the other is a rancid pile of dumbasses.

I started having my suspicions earlier in the semester – it was becoming clear that the Good Class read and the Bad Class didn’t. The Good Class hands its work in, the Bad class asks repeatedly “is there something due?” The Good Class are thinking about their essay topics; the Bad Class are still coming up to me and saying “I think there was a handout about an essay or something last week?” The Good Class come to class; the Bad Class email me weak excuses. You get the idea.

Today we were reading some of the portraits in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. These are usually fun, and I take them slowly because this is most students’ first experience of reading Chaucer. Usually they get the general gist of it, and we use class time to go over some of the more interesting nuances of the descriptions. There are some good jokes, and so it is a class that gets some laughs.

Today, I had to spend 10 minutes explaining a couple of lines of portrait of the Prioress to the Bad Class. By the end, I felt like someone explaining a knock knock joke to a slow-witted foreigner: “Well, the idea is that I pretend I am knocking on your door.” “What door?” “There is no door, but we are pretending there is one.” “Why?” “So I can knock on it.” Et cetera.

Here are the lines in question:

Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely,
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

So, the deal is, Chaucer is talking about this nun, who seems to be from a nice family, and she has some social pretensions. He makes a little joke about her French being very Englishy. Here’s a rough transcript of me trying to get this across to the Bad Class.

Me: So, he says she sings through her nose. Anyone got any idea what that might mean?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: Who talks through their noses?
Random Dumbass: People with colds?
Me (talking through nose as snobbily as possible): Well, possibly, but I was thinking more along the lines of a general stereotype. [Dumbasses appear to notice nothing.]
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me (still talking through nose, and now tipping head to look down nose): No one can think of anything you associate with noses and social class?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: How do snobby people talk?
Front row Dumbass: They use big words. [If this were the smart class, I would think that was a little dig. As it is, I am unsure.]
Me: They might, but we were thinking about noses, remember? [He clearly doesn’t. Dumbasses omnes look blank. Pause.] Well, sometimes people say that people who are snobby, or who are trying to sound very proper talk through their noses.
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: No one heard of that before? [Apparently not.] Then, he goes on to comment about her French. What does he say about it?
Least Dumb Dumbass: It’s very good?
Me: Well, he says she speaks it very nicely, yes. Where does he say she learned it?
[Long pause while they all look at the text for a couple minutes.]
Tentative Dumbass, reading from the book: Stratforde atte Bowe?
Me: Yes, and where is that?
Mumbler Dumbass: [something that sounds like, but cannot possibly be] Russia?
Me: Sorry?
Mumbler Dumbass: Nvmnd.
Dumbass who can read footnotes, but not the whole of the footnote: Middlesex.
Me: Yes, that’s partly what the footnote says. Where is that, then?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: If you look at the rest of the footnote, it explains that it’s just outside London. So, what kind of French do they speak in London?
Back row Dumbass: Good French?
Me: Really?
Least Dumb Dumbass: Not so good French?
Me: Possibly. Why would that be?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: What language do they speak in London?
Random Dumbass, having a flash of brilliance: English?
Me: Right! So, if the Prioress learned her French in London, and she doesn’t know Paris French, what does this say about her? [They stare blankly. I realise that this question was far too complex, and so I backtrack.] Remember the video we watched last week about the French invading England, and how the language changed?
A few Dumbasses: [Vague nods.]
Me: And who spoke French?
Least Dumb Dumbass: The king.
Me: And who else?
Front Row Dumbass: Rich people?
Me: Right. And remember how the guy was talking about families paying for people to teach French to their children? Why did they do that?
Least Dumb Dumbass: Because the were rich? Or noble class?
Me: Yes. And who else would want to do this? [By this point, I totally feel like Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Why do witches burn?”]
Girl Dumbass: French people?
Me [Kindly ignoring this sally]: “What about people who might want their children to associate with noble people? Would they want their children to speak French like the nobles?”
[Dumbasses nod sagely.]
Me:  So, we could call them social climbers? [No, of course we couldn’t. This gets more blank looks.] Anyone know what that means?
Mumbler Dumbass: People who smthing r other.
Me [desperately grasping at straws]: Yes! People who aspire to a higher social class, or who want to look like they come from a higher social class. So, teaching your children French would be a way to gain social status. But if you didn’t speak French yourself, would you be able to tell if they learned to speak good French?
Least Dumb Dumbass: Maybe not.
Me: Right, so maybe Stratford French is the kind of Englishy French, and it might be the kind that people who want to look like nobles speak? [The Dumbasses graciously concede that this is so.] So, he’s making a little joke about the kind of French she knows, and maybe saying she isn’t as good as she thinks it is.
King Dumbass: It’s not a very funny joke.

At which point I groaned and banged my head against the desk.

However, I did have a moment of teaching genius today. Professor Birkenstock was moaning (bragging, actually) to me and assorted colleagues in the hallway about his brilliant class of keeners. “They all have their drafts done already! I don’t know what to do with them.” I said, “So, give them the talk about how smart they are, and how, because of this, you are going to have to raise your standards and increase the difficulty of the material.” He looked nonplussed. “But then I still have to think of new things for them to do.” Poor poppet. “No you don’t,” I said. “You just do exactly what you would have done anyway.”

In which I yet again admit I am slack (oh, and evil).

I am working on a post about my brilliant insights into Harry Potter, and it was the first week of term, so you know, busy and all. I feel bad aboout procrastinating, of course, and once more vow to do better. So, in lieu of anything deeper, I offer one funny anecdote, and a bit of silliness.

As you may guess, or possibly know from experience, the first week of term is characterised by a general feeling of not-knowing-arse-from-elbow-ness. Students come to class having been told that English 135 is interchangeable with English 351, and other such nonsense, professors can’t get their keys to open the smart cabinet, bookstores claim no knowledge of the concept “book,” and librarians concur. In the context of all that chaos, then, it takes a really special something for a student to manage to stand out as particularly clueless. One managed.

Clueless: “So, like I was at Much Bigger U last year, and I failed everything.”
Me (noncomitally, but kind of backing away): “MmmmHmmm?”
Clueless: “So, like, I am here this year, to kind of like, upgrade, or something.”
Me (wondering where this is going): “And you were hoping this class would help you with your GPA?”
Clueless: “No, like, I did a class that was kinda like this one.”
Me (still not clear where this is going): “Mmmmm?”
Clueless: “And I was kinda, like, hoping this class used the same book.”
Me: “But it doesn’t?” Thinks: wow, this is the kind of dedication and purpose I like to see in a student.
Clueless (a little despondent): “No. It’s this one.” Holds up copy of Norton Anthology.
Me (brightly): “Oh, you know what? Dr Hobbit is using that edition in his section. If it really is important to you.”
Clueless: “Wow. Thanks.”

Now, don’t get all disillusioned. I never said I wasn’t evil.

In another corner of the internets, I have been involved in ongoing discussions about the vileness of 12 year olds and their internet speak. Someone amused the populace by finding an English to 12-year-old translator, which really is scarily good at reproducing the usual level of nonsense. However, it clearly falls down when presented with a more challenging literary translation, for example of Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare.



Clearly, while the translator has modernised the spelling, I don’t think it truly gives the flavour of the discourse of the 21st century internet 12-year-old. In other words, it doesn’t explain the poem in ways idiots can understand.

Thus, I make my own humble offering, which I have not rendered anti-grammatically into 12-speak, but which, I like to think, offers a much clearer reflection of the thought processes behind the OMG WTF!!!oneone type discourse.

 K, like I think you are hot.
Rilly, rilly, hot, but not, hot like actual temperature.
You have nice boobs, and I can say this because you are also nice, and won’t take it the wrong way.
You are hot because you are young.
Hot in like, a Lindsay Lohan way.
Or, you know, like how Brittany used to be hot.
But now she is all saggy
And stuff.
I actually think I might still like you
when you get older, because,
I like you for more than just your hotness.
Which actually says more about how I am a deep
and sensitive person than it does about you. Really.

The one bad apple.

Although I can see in theory the value of having students in a composition class do peer review on one another’s essays, in practice I find that it is generally a huge flop. They don’t bring their drafts, or they complain that they “don’t know how” to make helpful suggestions. After several semesters of experimentation (making it worth marks, offering incentives, begging), I now don’t bother with peer review.

However, there are circumstances in which it can work, I discovered today. My students all have their knickers in a degree of twist over their essays which are due soon. Yesterday in class I said, “We’ll talk about editing strategies,” and a couple of students actually asked if they could bring their drafts in. “Well, hell yeah, if you actually want to,” I said (this is more of a paraphrase, actually), thinking I would devote the last 20 or so minutes of class to a short peer editing session.

So when I got to class today, there they all were (only 2 missing: the girl who won’t participate in group work, and the guy who doesn’t have a topic yet), and what’s more they all had drafts of their essays. Some of them were alreading talking to one another about what they had written. Well. I dumped my class plan, and we had a short discussion on editing strategies, and the difference between helpful, structural editing and proofreading, and I then let them have the rest of the time for peer review. I said “come and talk to me about your specific questions. I won’t read your essays, but I will look at specific sentences and paragraphs, and I will help with citation.”

With one exception, they all got to work reading and discussing, and they asked me intelligent questions. At the risk of repeating myself, I will just say again how much I lurve my class this semester. And I learned that peer review works when you have a class full of intelligent keeners.

Now, with all that for context, I will go on to whine about the one exception in the group.

First, some background. V has been struggling with the standards for the class all semester. If she had turned up to either of the first two classes, I would probably have advised her to take the lower level class, but we missed that boat. She has a real chip on her shoulder about writing, too, which adds to the layers of difficulty she has with the assigned tasks. In class discussion, she has some good ideas, but she isn’t the best listener, and she tends to have trouble with organising her thoughts. So.

In class a week ago, I had students share their ideas for their thesis statements, and then we discussed how the statements could be improved. Some of them were quite reluctant at first, but as it became clear that actual help was being offered, more of them volunteered. Then it was V’s turn. She read a really vague paragraph that wandered around the topic but never quite got there. So I asked if anyone had any comments; there were a couple firm but fair “I don’t get which parts of that are your actual thesis” comments. Then Doug – one of those great big guys who looks scary but turns out to be a great writer and a really nice person – said “Here, I think what you need to say is this:” and he just blurted out the best encapsulation of her ideas. “Fantastic!” I said. “Write that down, V,” and then we talked about why Doug’s sentence worked as a thesis. Five minutes later, at the end of the discussion, V muttered “I don’t see why his sentence was better than mine.”

The next day, V was missing from class when we had an in-class essay. I thought she was probably in a snit, and wondered if she would be back. The next class she turned up with her assignment. Now, I have a very clear rule that in-class work cannot be excused or given an extension without prior notice, which V had not provided.

I asked her to bring me a copy of her course outline, and pointed to the relevant paragraph. She read the following paragraph, and then looked at me, puzzled. So I pointed again. “Well, that’s not fair; I never read that.” Possibly true, but I pointed out that the rule had been discussed in class, and that she had also been explictly instructed to read her course outline and ask me if she had any questions, since she missed the first two classes. Of course, she had a big rant about how unfair it all was, and how I was ruining her GPA. I explained that the rule applied to everyone, and that no one else had been allowed to make up an assignment unless they followed my guidelines.

Unable to argue further along that line, she then went into a rant about how long she was spending on her assignments. Dude, that’s just ridiculous. Work smarter not harder. I tried to make some suggestions; I said, “I’ve been trying to help you; remember I sat with you last time we had an in-class and went over your work and told you how to improve it?” Grudging acknowledgement. She didn’t actually implement most of my suggestions, but I refrained from rubbing that in. Given all of that, I suggested that she go immediately and make an appointment with the learning centre for help with her major essay.

So, with all of that previous history, V came up to me in the editing class and said “Can you read through my essay and check it?” Well, no. Didn’t I just specifically say I wouldn’t do that? Had she made an appointment at the learning centre? She had not. Had she asked Doug or anyone else in the class to read her essay, since that was what we were doing? She had not.

“You are my teacher,” she said, “It is your job to help me.”

I had to concentrate really hard to remember the 19 other people in the room at that moment, all working, all coming to me for appropriate amounts of help, all trying to do their best to write good essays they could be happy with.

The f-word.

I haven’t bitched about my students this semester (I’m teaching an intensive Spring class; we meet 4 times a week). This is because I have the dream class; the class that makes me remember why I actually do really like my job. They are keen, they read, they talk, they ask and answer questions. We have interesting debates, and generally I get the impression that they are learning and thinking, and they tell me they are enjoying it. It is so awesome, I could just collapse into a warm fuzzy glow.

We did have a moment last week, though, and it was particularly interesting in the context of this class because they do seem to be bright, and open to ideas. I had them read the widely anthologised essay “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” by Emily Martin. Martin’s essay essentially talks about the way we are all taught that science and science writing is neutral and objective, and yet when you read it carefully, it presents its material through “stereotypes central to our cultural definitions of male and female.” Thus the sperm is the active, heroic figure, bravely battling its way to the passive egg, which waits, rather like Sleeping Beauty.

How is it that positive images are denied to the bodies of women? A look at language – in this case specific language – provides the first clue. Take the egg and the sperm. It is remarkable how “femininely” the egg behaves and how “masculinely” the sperm. The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively “is transported,” “is swept,” or even “drifts” along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, “streamlined” and invariably active. They “deliver” their genes to the egg, “activate the developmental program of the egg,” and have a “velocity” that is often remarked upon. Their tails are “strong” and efficiently powered. Together with the forces of ejaculation, they can “propel the semen into the deepest recesses of the vagina.” For this they need “energy,” “fuel,” so that with a “whiplash motion and strong lurches,” they can “burrow through the egg coat,” and “penetrate” it. (from Signs 16.3, 1991. source: JStor, footnotes omitted.)

Martin’s essay presents a case made up of numerous specific examples from a wide variety of articles; students always complain about how long it is, but when pressed, they admit that the weight of evidence is partly what makes the essay work so well. They agree that it is an excellent example of linguistic and rhetorical analysis, that Martin supports her case thoroughly and that her research is well documented (there are 12 footnotes in the passage I quoted above). Did they like it? Survey says: “not so much.”

“Why not?” I ask, because in my class rule one is “you may have any opinon you like, as long as you can support it.” There’s a pause, and then Mickey, a very put-together PR student who is working as a realtor while she studies for her degree (i.e. successful and ambitious working woman) says in a depricating tone, “Well, it is a bit feminist, isn’t it?”

“You say that like it is a bad thing,” I reply, and there is a collective intake of breath. Now it is on for young and old. Excellent.

I have a version of this conversation every semester I teach this course and ask my students to read this essay. Sometimes there is a big argument about it, other times the class is apathetic and hasn’t read it, or doesn’t care, and no one says much. Usually, there is some antagonism, often directed at me for raising the issue of the f-word in the first place, other times members of the class get into it with one another.

There was a solid group in the class who, earnest as they are, really tried hard to get me to see their point of view, which essentially boiled down to: “The article would have been so much better without the feminist parts”. What? “The evidence without the connecting argument?” asked Nathalie, who suddenly emerged as an Amazon heroine after being quite quiet up to this point. “If you take away the feminist parts, then there is nothing to say.”

Further pressed as to their objections, it became clearer and clearer that the students agreed in principle with what the article was saying, and more broadly, with feminist ideas. The problem is not feminism itself, but that they have an allergy to the word. I think this attitude is sadly prevalent. I see it all the time in other contexts, too. For instance, on that argumentative forum, a character who claims to hate feminism and all that it stands for said the following:

Am I a feminist? No, I am not. I just don’t let any person take charge of my life. I have self confidence and don’t really care what anyone thinks of me and how I live my life. I’ve always been that way.

Now to me, that idea about not letting anyone take charge of your life bespeaks a strongly feminist ethos, but apparently, to the writer, “feminist” is some kind of insult.

My students seem to feel that way, too. “Can’t we use some other word?” they often ask, as if the word itself is somehow offensive, or that it signifies something unspeakably evil. I say “unspeakably” advisedly, because they have a lot of trouble defining their objections. One thing they often bring up is that feminists have “extreme views,” which, in the case of Martin, apparenly means “she expresses a clear, strong opinion on the topic at hand.” This, of course, is what I nag them to do all semester.

So we went round and around the topic, and while none of them disagreed with Martin, or with any of the views I presented to them as feminist ideas, or even with the examples of gender stereotyping and body image I brought up, they were still resisting this nebulous feminism in the article, and more generally.

Finally, another heroine appeared. It was Annabel, who said, a little defiantly, and a little diffidently (understandably enough, given the previous discussion), “Look, I used to be like all of you, and think that feminism was a bad thing. But I didn’t really know what it was, just that I didn’t like it. Then I read a couple of books on feminism, and I realised that these were ideas that I agreed with. So, now I am a feminist.”

I couldn’t help it. I collapsed in a warm, fuzzy glow.

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.