Saturday, February 25, 2012

Laughter in the Classroom

Graduate school was more than becoming involved in the peace movement, protesting the Vietnam War, and having two students take over a history classroom. In the midst of all this I took three classes a quarter. One of these was a literature course in which I studied the works of Hermann Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

            The professor who taught this class was in a publish-or-perish mode. To receive tenure he needed to publish a scholarly work the following year. As the class progressed, it became clear he was writing on the “heart of darkness” delineated by Hawthorne in his short stories and novels. 
            His teaching revealed his philosophy of education, and I didn’t agree with it. He would laugh at students’ responses, belittling them with a snide remark. Soon many students ceased responding to his questions.
            However, three female students in the second row seemed to have psyched out what he was looking for in a response. When they answered, he’d frequently wave them to a halt. “Wait! Wait a minute,” he’d implore, “while I write this down.”
            Then he’d pick up his notebook and transcribe their answers. This was, we all knew, the notebook in which he kept the jottings that would ultimately become part of his proposed book.
            The favored student would complete the convoluted answer. The professor would tap his pencil against the notepad and proclaim, “That’s the kind of answer that leads us deeper into the darkness of Hawthorne!”
            As weeks passed, I became more disillusioned with his teaching. I was learning about two great American authors, but this learning was happening in a classroom in which the professor displayed no respect for his students. He built no community among us.
            One day the professor told us that a student had complained about his teaching methods. “So what do you think?” he asked us. “Do you think I’m a good teacher?” Immediately, the favored ones assured him that he made learning interesting. He was brilliant. Articulate. Truly gifted. He beamed. They continued with their accolades. The other students looked down at their textbooks, awaiting the bell’s release.
            Finally, I’d heard enough. When I raised my hand, he called on me. I said something like the following, “Professor XX, it’s clear you know your subject matter. But when students respond to questions, you frequently laugh at their answers.”
            “Laugh? I don’t do that.” Then, glancing at the second row, he laughed aloud. When he looked beyond those three females, however, he saw that many other students had turned toward me with the thumbs up of approval.
            He looked confused. Bewildered. “I don’t do that!” he insisted. “What you say is ridiculous. Silly.” One again he laughed at the absurdity of my claim.
            “You’re doing it now. You’re laughing at what I said.”
            “That’s because it’s ridiculous,” he sniggered.
            The bell rang. All the students, I among them, rose to leave the room. Several thanked me for expressing their own concerns. Together, we observed the professor leave the building. He looked beaten.
            Studying at the library later that morning, I considered what I’d said. I hadn’t wanted to attack him personally. I’d wanted only to suggest that he consider his teaching style. I walked across campus to his office, knocked, and was told to enter.

            I opened the door. The professor sat behind a desk in the corner of the room. He looked up, rose abruptly, scuttled behind his chair, and backed into the shadowed corner.             
           “Please don’t shoot me,” he begged. “I’m sorry I laughed. Don’t hurt me!”
            The light bulb went off in my brain. Just a few days before two protesters had brandished guns and taken over a history classroom. Now, as the literature professor cowered before me, I witnessed the reverberations of that incident.
            “Professor XX, I don’t have a gun.” I held out my gun-less hands toward him.
            He shook his head back and forth, clearly distraught. His eyes pleaded with me.
            “I want you to know,” I said, “that I wasn’t talking about you personally today. I was talking about your style of teaching. It’s hurtful.”
            “I’ll give you an A,” he muttered. “Just don’t shoot me.” He reached for his grade book.
            “Listen to me! I don’t have a gun. I just want you to think about how you treat students. That’s all. Just think about what we feel like when you laugh.”
            He laughed then. Somewhat manically. And I left.
            As to his subsequent teaching . . . during the next week, he was somewhat obsequious in the classroom. The following week, less so. The third week, he was back to laughing at our answers. In the long run, nothing changed.
            As to my grade . . . I got a B.


  1. I have had teachers like that, too,--fortunately, not many-- & some doctors. There are certain professions where people seem to develop a God complex. Perhaps they already have that complex & their choice of work allows them to exhibit it.

      I'm really behind this week already, and so I'm going to leave only this one response. Thanks to all of you who found this story interesting and the professor like others you have known.

      I believe that Friko would have liked me to be more straightforward, but at that time, I was seldom able to simply say what I thought--I always wanted "to be nice," afraid of hurting anyone's feelings. Which meant, of course, that sometimes I was wishy-washy. Also during that time, I so wanted to be liked that speaking up and stating my opinions was difficult. I didn't want to alienate anyone.

      The day Professor XX asked our opinion of his teaching, I wanted to respond immediately, but waited, hoping the other students would speak up. I'm sure they didn't because they feared he'd lower their final grade. Wielding their grade book, professors have the power to keep a student from getting scholarships and financial aid.

      A final little addition to the story: For the last assignment, we had to write a lengthy term paper. I wrote on the symbolism of Melville's "Billy Budd." A few days later Professor XX returned the papers. On the last page of mine he prefaced the grade with a few remarks that began with this statement:"I find this paper totally laughable."

      Then he added a long paragraph in which he cited the real initiation I'd shown in my research, his appreciation of all the symbolism I'd found, and a thank you for making him consider new aspects of the novel.

      He followed this complimentary paragraph with the scrawled words "For this and many other reasons, I can give you only a D." None of that made sense to me. But clearly he hadn't appreciated my remarks on his laughing at our answers.

    2. HELLO ALL,

      In the next to last paragraph, I meant to say "the real initiative . . ."


  2. Irrepressible egos will shoot you(even if not physically), but they sure as hell don't want anyone shooting at them. THAT makes it a whole different story(because they are always the main character of the story).

    You have a keen appreciation of real justice, in all areas of life...he had a keen appreciation of super-justice, for him.

  3. I admire your courage, Dee, in speaking out; but I also admire the dispassionate nature with which you said your piece. You handled it wonderfully. But some people are in a place where we are not the right people to reach them. Inside, just as outside, they run scuttling for cover in the face of a direct gaze and an honest heart.

    Ho hum :-)

  4. I admire your courage in speaking out. Even more I admire your compassion in trying to assure this poor sad man that you were not attacking him personally. It doesn't sound as if he learnt a lot though.
    Another very moving post. Thank you - it is Sunday morning here and I have many, many things on my to-do list but reading your post was much more valuable.

  5. Colleges and Universities seem to burst at the seams with professors like him. I knew some, my children knew some. My son did graduate work with one almost crazy-with-ego professor. Sad that learning hits a wall in college.

  6. Good for you for speaking out, Dee! And for showing what a coward this academic bully really was. I had a couple of professors like that in both undergrad and graduate school. I remember one humiliated me in an otherwise all male literature class by sexualizing my analysis of color imagery in Hawthorne -- something I was teased about for some time to come. Another propped up his own ego by making fun of students. There is such a difference between professors who are tough, who expect a lot but who care for their students and those who are just egomaniacs.

  7. Dee, this is such a vividly described situation. Sadly, I think you had much more real maturity than your professor, whatever his age. I too have seen people in authority who need their sycophants to prop up their own self-esteem and who are positively punctured by criticism. When a teacher laughs at and belittles his students, it's a clear indication he's in the wrong job, however good his knowledge of his subject.

  8. More people need to speak out. I have difficulty when I think I might be ridiculed, but sometimes I do it anyway. This situation you described has never happened to me, but your description made me glad to call you a friend. You are brave and speak for those who, like me, often keep my thoughts to myself. Thank you.

  9. What an unusual circumstance, Dee! I admire that you spoke out, but I am so impressed that you willingly went to his office to clarify your position and also give him an opportunity to respond in private. To think that he reacted to you as someone threatening is kind of surprising to me, especially once you gave him reassurances. Don't you sometimes wonder how he got along in life outside the classroom! He sounded bullying, and I wonder if that carried over into his family, and friends, if he was able to have friendships! Did he ever get his book published? Great story! Debra

  10. Oh Dee, what a sad story. I guess I was lucky as I can never recall having a teacher even remotely like that. Especially in college. I had some wonderful professors, many that I still remember with fondness.

    You were brave to speak your mind, and like DJan, I probably would have been very grateful for you speaking out, but, wouldn't likely have spoken out myself. Given the times, it isn't too surprising that he was scared of you, but that also leads me to think he knew he was a bully and sort of expected retaliation!

    I did have a couple of instructors who were difficult to learn from, but they weren't bullies or mean, just way above my head!!

  11. I had a professor who would sometimes reply with "bullshit" when a student answered a question. I mentioned it on the class evaluation at the end of the semester. He never did it again. Professors don't like it when other professors, especially the department head, know they're doing something inappropriate.


  12. It takes courage to do what you did and it is such a pity that in the long term he reverted to his old ways. I can see you were worried about being hurtful to him but you thought of the good of many - and he should have been adult enough to take it but he clearly had problems of his own aside from the shooting incident.

  13. I do admire you, loved the read.

    Thanks for the visits, getting over my jetlag.


  14. I'm glad you said something. ;). It's sad he went back to his old ways.

  15. Good morning Dee. You were indeed brave to stand up and express your opinion to Prof XX. He probably,in many ways, couldn't have been teaching in a more tumultuous time in recent history. He sounded confused and caught in the transition between the 'old' way and the 'new' way that was hitting him and many others between the eyes.
    You were compassionate and caring in your approach. You learned, he didn't I'm afraid.

  16. What an amazing story. How many people do we meet who cannot see who they really are? I wonder if the class pets were messing with him to get their A's or if they were doing the good girl thing.

  17. For an adult you were remarkably polite and non-committal. Would it not have been better for all the students n the classroom who did not admire his style of teaching to have told him so?
    He did ask, didn't he? I don't think this would happen now, or in a European classroom.

  18. It would seem that this man was a very troubled soul who was absolutely in the wrong place either for his own good or for that of others. I wonder what became of him...

  19. I just have to ask, Dee, did he publish or finally perish?

    I admire you for standing up to Professor XX and calling him on his behavior, as I do for taking the time and having the courage to knock on his door. He sounds rather unbalanced to me, or just very full of himself.

    I am amazed at all that happened around you, Dee, in such a short amount of time, and your remarkable memory of details under duress. I look forward to hearing more.

  20. Everyone has already said everything about this professor that drives me nuts so instead I will say this my friend. This was truly a wonderfully told story. You really made it come to life. I love these kinds of post from you. Truly showing your personality, and your heart..

  21. I'm stopping by very late, Dee. Like you, I too have cut back on blogging, but probably even more so than you. I can only echo the general sentiments expressed here and love the way in which Melynda has summed it all up in her last two sentences.

  22. That is quite a story! Wow! I applaud you for speaking up and following it up with the professor...even if he didn't get why you went there.

  23. I started college at 48 years old and was older than many of my professors. I ran across several professors that were as terrible as yours and I wondered how the kids dealt with such nonsense all the time. Being older I didn't care what professors thought of me and often spoke up to ask clarification and questions and things that were unfair. The younger students started to come to me outside of class (or whispered during class-I became a popular person to sit next to) to ask me to approach the professor about this or that--LOL! I often transformed into the class spokesperson. Can you imagine how you would have been if you'd been near 50 at the time! :):)

    Oh and there are always the suck-ups like those girls, too--ROFL!! ;) College was an eyeopener.

  24. I can't tell you how many teachers (and bosses) I've encountered like this. I admire your courage in standing up to him and having your say. It's too bad he wasn't ready to hear what you had to say. Here's hoping he heard it somewhere else later and was able to change. If not, you certainly gained the respect of your classmates.