Overcoming the 'Rattle Effect'

Brian Taylor

February 27, 2011

Undergraduates can be a wonderful source of affirmation as well as exasperation, as much for the novice assistant professor teaching that first course as for the senior scholar offering a final lecture before retirement. The major difference between those two situations is the "rattle effect": Junior faculty members, already under pressure from the demands of the tenure track, are often inordinately flustered by problems with students.

In recent months, I've been writing about how to handle conflicts with your colleagues, your enemies, and your boss. But it's undergraduates who are the single most likely population to cause a probationary faculty member angst and inspire kvetching.

Luckily, we as faculty members have certain tactics we can adopt to reduce the chance of discord with our young charges. Twenty years of teaching and watching teaching in higher education have convinced me that many dust-ups with undergraduates could have been prevented by a mix of planning and common sense:

Don't play favorites. A major complaint about faculty members that students lodge—in the dorms, on, and in evaluations—is unfairness. It is an easy charge to dismiss, since we have all faced undergraduates who, for example, define "unfair" as an exam on which they fared poorly.

But there is another type of unfairness that can be a legitimate beef. Do you, in attitude or action, favor one student over another?

An assistant professor described how, halfway through a semester, he realized that he had, without intention, singled out two students in his class for unequal treatment. One was smiling and attentive, chanting agreement with the instructor. The other was gruff in tone and expressed doubt and even challenges to lectures and readings. Guess which student the assistant professor praised and which one he treated curtly? Worse, guess which student received an extension on a late assignment while the other didn't?

While the professor's main goal in the course had been to impart the need for critical thinking, he realized, much to his chagrin, that he had been punishing the lead critical thinker in the class.

As professors, we are only human. But one of our sacred duties is to treat students as equally as we can when it comes to assignments and grades. Fairness is good practice not just because it's the right thing to do, but also because you can get into trouble with your institution if you don't. The less-favored student would have won a grade appeal if he had sought to show that the assistant professor gave a break to another student that was not accorded him in similar circumstances.

Be clear and unambiguous in instructions. I recently taught an undergraduate course in which I repeated the instructions for the format and deadline of the final paper no fewer than 10 times—out loud, on PowerPoint, in the syllabus, in e-mails, and on the course Web site.

In short, I tried hard to reduce ambiguity.

Undergraduates will not remember something you rush through once or state vaguely. They also may not know that particular behaviors are unacceptable unless you specify what and why.

Take the case of an assistant professor who reported to me, in outrage, that students were watching movies on laptops during class. I suggested she explain why such behaviors were forbidden (distractions to others, showing disrespect, etc.) and also specify a penalty in the syllabus and in the first few class sessions. If you want to ensure an orderly classroom, it helps to outline repeatedly and clearly the rules of order. You may never get 100-percent compliance, but you will reduce confusion.

Keep your word. A doctoral student teaching her own course for the first time was enthusiastic and inventive, but also unreliable and erratic. She would create an assignment, define its requirements in the syllabus, then turn around and add new grading criteria that occurred to her after reading the turned-in papers.

By the end of the semester, the students were seething. In their evaluations, many stated some variation of the accusation, "We could not trust her."

The syllabus is a form of contract: what you will deliver, what you expect in return. Likewise, promises made to students in other forms—that you will read a thesis draft or write that letter of recommendation by a certain date—are important to keep. When you break a bargain, you erode your own authority and sow the seeds of resentment, complaint, even revolt.

Show up ... on time. When, as part of my administrative duties, I review student evaluations of faculty members, I understand that one or a few negative opinions may not mean much. No instructor can please every student. But the warning bells ring when (a) the negatives are widespread and consistent; and (b) they identify an action that unambiguously is wrong.

Case in point: A chair of a humanities department described a new hire who was consistently late to his own classes and regularly blew off his office hours. The tendency toward tardiness and absenteeism was revealed both in student evaluations and in the chair's own observations. Everyone has the occasional flat tire or sick child. But while student judgments like "his quizzes are too tough" can be subjective, dereliction of duties for which you are required to be in attendance is serious—as in grounds for disciplinary action.

How can you expect your students to be on time, or even show up, when you don't?

You're signaling by such behavior that it's OK for undergraduates to do that in your course, and in their other courses as well. No one on the promotion-and-tenure committee will appreciate your indirect sabotage of their classrooms.

Keep your cool. Several times in my teaching career, I have lost my temper in front of students. In each case, I felt I was technically justified or provoked to rage. For example, one young Spartacus had shouted at me during an exam because he felt it was "too hard."

About a decade ago, however, I realized that, first, we teachers are supposed to be role models. In a society where ranting, pouting, and screaming are considered elements of normal discourse, dealing with difficult interpersonal situations while being calm and collected and even exhibiting a bit of good humor is a pedagogical duty.

Second, getting angry with an undergraduate just embarrasses you. You may be in the right, but you will always look silly—to the other students and to your colleagues.

Last, and perhaps most controversially, remember that many of them are young. Part of the college experience should be to learn, perhaps by error and then regret, what kind of utterances and behaviors do not get you very far in life. Forgive your pupils while helping them to see the light, or at least to see the dean of students.

Be friendly, but don't be their pal. Novice faculty members are often put in the uncomfortable position of teaching undergraduates who may not be separated that much from them in age, and even less in appearance. The natural tendency is to be casual and friendly, as much as you were with your fellow graduate students.

But professor/pals quickly experience an erosion of their authority and respect. Friends do not give friends low grades or demand that they either turn work in on time or face a penalty. There is nothing wrong with being nice, polite, and outgoing. But being their adviser, mentor, inspirational coach, or cheerleader doesn't require overfamiliarity.

Accept that some problems can't be resolved. Almost all those who decide to dedicate themselves to teaching, whether in elementary school or at a univerisity, do so, in part, because they want to do good for the young. Sometimes, though, we inflate our powers and overreach our duties.

I recall a job candidate for a tenure-track position whose teaching philosophy was "to turn every student into a great writer." Another assistant professor I met told me her goal was to make sure that even the most lethargic slacker left her classroom bursting with enthusiasm about the subject matter. Then there was the assistant professor who ended up spending most of her office hours over a semester, and beyond, counseling a student who had suffered love-life upsets.

Again, it is a question of pragmatism and proper roles. Part of the education of becoming a professor and teaching year after year is that, no matter how hard you try or how much time you put in or how brilliant your pedagogical skills, you will reach only some of the students.

For example, just because students are taking your course doesn't mean they are going to dedicate their lives to your goals and interests. To me, one of the most pleasant lines to read in a student evaluation is, "I took this class because it was required, but the teacher made the material compelling, and I learned a lot."

If you teach in higher education, you probably have been credentialed to be an "expert," or at least a beginning expert in some particular topic.

But most of us don't have Ph.D.'s in clinical psychology. Just because we are older than our students, and more experienced in life and schooling, does not make us therapists or give us powers of oracular wisdom about their lives, and especially their loves.

Some students face problems that can't be solved by a kind word and a long chat. Your institution undoubtedly also has unequivocal rules about student statements or behaviors that should prompt you to report a problem rather than try to deal with it alone.

Professors tend to freely and merrily stereotype undergraduates of the early 21st century, without guilt or reproach. However, many of those students are not clueless, lazy, or unengaged.

You will, I hope, have a long and satisfying career, in which you can look back and think of many instances when you taught much to many and inspired some to extraordinary achievement. But just as students are not all the same, neither are the problems they will bring to you in the classroom. All the better to think ahead about what attitudes and practices you can adopt to reduce the likelihood of confusion and conflict.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the "P&T Confidential" advice column for "The Chronicle." His book "Promotion and Tenure Confidential" was just published by Harvard University Press.