My students are making me nuts
January 21, 2022 9:26 AM   Subscribe

I have a handful of antagonistic students in my Zoom college-2nd-year Gender Studies 101 class of 50 and I am losing sleep about how to deal with this graciously. I am burned out and a parent to toddlers and just don't have the energy to give a shit about this... but somehow I do.

Sorry this is so messy. I feel like I am genuinely losing my mind and my husband is like, "you bring this up EVERY DAY stop it." So here I am. Sorry, I wish I had a jr professor group text to shoot this one out on but I don't :(

I vow not to complain about students on social media and I also make it a practice to not overinvest my emotional energy in my teaching or like... care too much what students think of me. We have a couple other youngish women faculty in the department who are really INTO caring about students and I just look at them and think, no, not me. It's a SLAC.


They raise their lil zoom hands to correct me in lecture about things they are wrong about, ask whether I am a "liberal or radical feminist" ??, they interrupt class exercises designed to get everyone to speak and tell me they'd rather just have the opportunity to talk, they say their classmates' perspectives are "not interesting" and that they "expected more from this class." These are young women. I've never experienced this scenario in 13 years of college level teaching. I'm flummoxed, and also tapped out.

I can't tell whether its just two or three outliers who need some kind of intervention or the whole class is just "not on my side." I don't want to ruin my credibility by being a KIDS THESE DAYS feminist in a room full of Gen Z enby queers. I don't want to see where this goes anymore. I don't want to be too firm and I don't want to be too gentle. I don't want to stay up past my bedtime typing this question because I am so stressed.

I sent an email to the class tonight about a logistical thing and added, because of the "not interesting" comment today which I kind of softballed, that everyone's perspective was valuable and that no one voice is intrinsically more important, let's all listen and learn, time to nip this antagonistic energy in the bud, etc. Now I feel like even that was too much and they're all going to hate me. Hate me as much as a series of disembodied voices coming from little black computer boxes can hate me.

I dread this class already and its week 3.

Tell me this is ADHD RSD, tell me I need to get back in touch with my annoying therapist, tell me to do think pair share, tell me we're all burned out. Is this just year 3 of teaching online full time (we never went back in person)? Is this just me trying to care less in order to finish my book and inadvertently ending up investing way too much? Could you give me some perspective here?
posted by athirstforsalt to Education (39 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Why are these students in your class? Are they gender studies majors or is this a mandatory, required course that all students must take? If it’s a requirement to graduate and these students are not there because they are interested in the subject matter, I think it can be expected to not have the same caliber of classroom engagement as someone who has selected this as their major.
posted by lovelygirl at 9:36 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this. A class of 50 on Zoom is a lot to handle.

One idea is to reach out to a trusted colleague who is really good at classroom management. Tell them about the current dynamic, and ask them to do a guest lecture for your class. There are procedural ways of structuring discussions and keeping the hecklers at bay. Observe how they do it, let them set the precedence, and then you can have things back on track.
posted by dum spiro spero at 9:44 AM on January 21 [16 favorites]

These kids are really into the topic and would be best served by a small, in-person seminar. Because of COVID and the structure of the university, they're not getting that. Also because of COVID,
they're not getting the hangout time with other kids where they could shoot the shit about these topics--no dorms, no feminist/LGBTQ clubs, no whatever. I mean, they could use Discord, but it's not the same as what they must have wanted.

ALSO because this is a SLAC, they (or their families) are paying a large amount of money, so they feel entitled.

That said, it's incredibly rude to outright say that someone else's perspective isn't important. Is there any way to get in touch with those particular students and tell them that if they aren't respectful towards others, this class isn't right for them and they should drop? Or other punitive measures? (In my day this kind of snotty attitude was all guys, it's nice to see all genders can be pigs now, I guess...)
posted by kingdead at 9:48 AM on January 21 [19 favorites]

Oh hi there. Another college professor here, although not in WGS. I’m sorry this is happening to you. It’s been such a hard thing to work in academia during the pandemic, so the first thing you should do is definitely give yourself some grace. It’s one shitty class in another shitty semester, and you have a book to finish, so it’s okay for this one class to be that one class we’ve all had that just wasn’t … as good as most of ‘em. It happens.

When I’ve been in a similar situation, I have tried to restructure the class a little bit so that there’s less room for this kind of disruptive discussion. So if it were me, I’d do…more lecturing and less discussing, first of all. And if you aren’t already, I’d consider pre-circulating discussion questions or prompts for class so that you can keep the focus on what you need the focus to be on. “That’s an interesting point, student; can you help me see how it connects to the prompt?”

Another thing I’ve done that helps burn a little of the time students might otherwise have to drag the discussion in a weird direction is to give them class time to write responses to those discussion questions / prompts (that I ask them to turn in so I can review them). You can mute the Zoom for 15 minutes or so while students draft responses to a prompt and email them to you, and then you can draw on their writing to direct the conversation—or just call on someone (not one of the troublemakers) and ask them to summarize what they wrote. Then call on another student to explain how what they wrote compares/contrasts with first student and so on.

Essentially, the goal is to give the disruptive students a little less time and free reign to direct the discussion.

And in the meantime, just keep reminding yourself that it’s one class for one semester. Only x# of weeks to go until it’s over.
posted by pinkacademic at 9:49 AM on January 21 [47 favorites]

We have a couple other youngish women faculty in the department who are really INTO caring about students and I just look at them and think, no, not me.

Have you spoken to these faculty members about how they would handle this? They might have some good ideas in how to build rapport with these kids.

As a (albeit mature) student in classes with kids like this -- I'm not surprised at this reaction. These kids have been taught to speak their minds, no matter what they're thinking, and that speaking back and calling out is a form of engagement. They're also, like you, probably burned out, stressed and exhausted by the fact that they're being taught online (I know I am) and that their lives have been massively derailed, or even changed for good, by the last couple of years. They may be in mourning for that lost time or just frustrated with that situation and taking it out on you. This isn't something you can fix.

They raise their lil zoom hands to correct me in lecture about things they are wrong about, ask whether I am a "liberal or radical feminist" ??, they interrupt class exercises designed to get everyone to speak and tell me they'd rather just have the opportunity to talk, they say their classmates' perspectives are "not interesting" and that they "expected more from this class."

Do you not have rules about interrupting in class? Enforce them. Tell them that they need to respect their classmates and learn to sit and listen, or they will be reprimanded (or whatever you have as a form of correction). Don't treat them differently just because they're young women or saying things that make you anxious. They're being rude to you and their classmates. I bet there are quiet kids in that class who are also feeling anxious about the atmosphere being created. Stand up to them.

Now I feel like even that was too much and they're all going to hate me.
I dread this class already and its week 3.

Yes, you care too much. They're kids, they don't hate you, they're angry at a lot of things and you happen to be in the way.

Get in touch with your therapist. Talk to your colleagues instead of judging them. Do you have a good work/life balance? Are you answering emails and calls outside of work hours? Stop it. Enforce boundaries between yourself and your work, and yourself and your students.

in a room full of Gen Z enby queers.

As an aside: I know you're venting, but if this slightly snide offhand remark is indicative of your attitude towards your students, maybe they're picking up on that.
posted by fight or flight at 9:49 AM on January 21 [26 favorites]

Oof, I feel this deeply. First, it's not just you, everyone is more touchy lately, and I know a lot of faculty (myself included) who have noticed way more pushback of late.

Practical things to do ASAP:

1. It's unclear whether or not your are tenured (you call yourself a junior faculty, but also note you have 13 years experience). If you are not tenured, and given you are at a SLAC (i.e. student evals are crucial), I'd contact your chair (or whoever evaluates you) to set up a meeting to discuss the class. This way when/if you do get destroyed in the student evals, when your chair reviews them to do your annual evaluation, they will know the context of the evals and all the work you did to problem solve. If you don't do this, they might assume you just didn't give a shit, as I learned the hard way my first semester teaching.

2. Look into whatever DEI resources you have on campus. At my graduate institution, the DEI office offered two services: 1) you could call and talk over any DEI-related classroom issue with their staff and 2) you could have one of their people come into your classroom and talk to the students about how the class was going and what problems there were, they would act as the filter and then report back to you *constructive* criticism, and help you problem solve how to improve things.

3. What's on your syllabus? A good first-day activity can be collectively writing a "classroom code of conduct for students and faculty" together. If you haven't done this already, maybe take some time in your next class session to do this. Say that based on recent classes, you're worried that you haven't done enough work to make sure everyone's voices are valued in class (own your mistake), and so you'd like to do this exercise together.

Otherwise, I'm curious what sorts of things they are claiming you are "wrong" about - like, are these instances where perhaps you are presenting one version, because that's the simplest thing to do? I teach a lot of potentially contentious topics, and whenever I do, I present them as topics where there is debate - I often do present my view as authoritative, but when I do, I make clear why - i.e. here is the evidence I base my view on. Other times, I acknowledge that there is more legitimate debate, with say two opposing view points that both make good points, and then I leave it up to the students to decide which resonates more with them.

Edit: On preview, I want to just strongly disagree with the advice above to tell the students in question that perhaps they should drop. DO NOT DO THIS. Seriously, that has a high chance of blowing up in your face, especially if you are in a department struggling overall with enrollment and getting majors. Reaching out to them to talk one-on-one to understand their concerns better is a good idea though.
posted by coffeecat at 9:56 AM on January 21 [12 favorites]

Do you not have rules about interrupting in class? Enforce them.

Right. This is on zoom. Mute them if they're interrupting, close the chat. Explain why you're doing it in a positive way, enforcing norms of respectful discussion, not interrupting others, etc.

These kids have been taught to speak their minds, no matter what they're thinking, and that speaking back and calling out is a form of engagement.

In this context, they might also be familiar with community agreements as a way of managing discussions and might be respectful of those.
posted by Mavri at 10:00 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]

Students right now are angry, righteous, and want to talk.

Are they correct? Sometimes. Is it a helpful attitude to bring to a learning environment? Not necessarily.

My best recommendation is not to tamp down on that energy. It will want to flow somehow. Some students interpret a pushback as a familiar opportunity to fight. And while I personally think this can be harmful and is misguided, it's also understandable. The more you try to 'quiet' them down or operate as an authority, the more they're going to push back against you.

Instead, my best recommendation, in my own teaching experience, is a judo move: have the class be explicitly about disagreement, and shift it away from you.

Do students want to disagree with you? Great! Why? Turn it around into a debate. If you think their thoughts are shortsighted, ask friendly questions that are pointed. Frame it so that they're in a position of agency; you're not
bringing the answers, you're prompting them with insightful questions.

Someone wants to speak and is taking too much time? Give students an outlet to do so, but perhaps in the form of a deliverable that's not in-class conversation. Maybe they want to write a manifesto, or a short story, or a guide, or a zine, that is relevant to their experience, in conjunction with an essay or a paper? I've had students write peer support guides or create work around mutual aid support as a generative and academic outlet for their interests.

Now, if they're limiting someone else's ability to speak, that's a hard no, in my book. You might talk about this essay, perhaps: Timekeeping as feminist pedagogy

This move requires for you to see yourself as allied with them. I also get some hints of condescension in your attitude, to be honest. I have empathy; it's an intense time to be teaching, and I can imagine some of the weariness being pointed towards the students. But I don't think it's helpful or nice. Ultimately, I imagine they signed up for the class to find solidarity and support in intellectual and academic discourse -- the same way that I'm presuming that gender studies operated for you, too, perhaps especially at their age. So, while at least a generation apart, there are probably a lot of shared sentiment and experiences present. It might be helpful to tap into that to understand why they are so passionate.

This move also requires you to shift your teaching/assignment structure, a bit. You will probably have to shift your grading / project structure to be a bit more open-ended.

This move also requires you to be focused. It's not the goal of the teacher to be liked, or hated! It's the goal to be interested in something together. Perhaps you're actually a little personally distanced from the material because you've got a lot of stuff going on (childcare, etc)? That's understandable, but worthwhile noting it to your self; students can feel this, and will respond accordingly.

Ultimately, you've got a lot of energy in the classroom. It wants to go somewhere. If you try to tamp it down, the hotheaded students will get angry or check out. Give it channels to flow that are not against you but into something else that they find meaningful, focused in an area that you find meaningful as well.
posted by many more sunsets at 10:00 AM on January 21 [17 favorites]

Cripes. You've been teaching longer than me and are teaching much harder classes when it comes to this, so I can't offer much advice. But, to paraphrase very useful advice I've recieved, "sometimes you just have to be mean and accept that two students out of a hundred will hate you, and being the asshole is sometimes part of the job and makes things better for everyone else." Telling a student to shut up 'cause they're wasting everyone's time feels awful. Used sparingly, it can be really useful. Even if the student means well. Learning that I can be a good lecturer without being a friend to everyone has been a challenge for me; I don't know if it's the same for you. Best wishes.

(Also, don't forget, they signed up for the class because they were excited by it. Or, at least, more excited by it than other classes that filled requirements. They're already rooting for you to succeed and can be incredibly forgiving. Most of them. Few people buy tickets to a play because they want to see it fail.)
posted by eotvos at 10:02 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure what you wrote in the email you mentioned, but you need to establish clear guidelines for class communication and participation if you haven't done so.

One of these needs to be that as the instructor, you must be treated with appropriate respect. Comments that insult or undermine you (which are not the same thing as comments that respectfully question your statements) cannot be tolerated. If a student violates this rule, remove them from the call.

Second, it should be clear that no one should be dismissive or insulting to anyone else, such as by claiming that the perspectives of others are "not interesting" or by demanding to monopolize discussion time. Everyone should have the chance to respectfully participate, period. I would also remove students from the call for violating this rule.

Third, I would try to de-emphasize the use of labels for ideas and people. Whether you are a liberal or a radical or anything else should be immaterial because your job as an instructor is to help students master the material and the skills to be learned. If a liberal feminist student has a radical feminist instructor or vice versa, that's just a part of life. We can't impose litmus tests on everyone in our educational experiences, and doing that would only narrow what we learn anyway. Labels should also not be used as criticisms in and of themselves. If a point of view is radical, then... So what? Why does the radicalism of the idea make it more or less valuable? I would talk about this with students prior to discussions and try to redirect things if labels become too prominent in the discourse.

It isn't your job to be liked. It is, however, your job to maintain a respectful and fair classroom environment where all students can meet their educational goals, even if that classroom happens to be online. If someone hates you for that, or because your opinions and theirs aren't in complete alignment, then that's their problem. Setting clear standards of what is and isn't acceptable is an essential part of the job.
posted by Chuck Barris at 10:03 AM on January 21 [9 favorites]

ask whether I am a "liberal or radical feminist" ??

When I've seen this question or variants discussed by Gen Z queer friends in fannish spaces, it has been a sugar-coated version of "are you going to say TERF shit, in which case I should expect to drop, tune out of, or argue through this course?" If the drop deadline has passed, then their options would literally be fight or flight, and it's tough to choose flight in a room full of peers who may not be familiar with trans issues.

If you inadvertently gave trans people or their allies the impression you weren't going to say TERF shit until they couldn't leave without academic (and maybe finanical!) consequences, and then you said TERF shit, they might feel trapped, tricked, and furious. I would.

They raise their lil zoom hands to correct me in lecture about things they are wrong about

If this is about language like "people who can get pregnant," then just generationally, I feel like you're going to have a bad time.

It's hard not to pick up on others' energy/subconscious stances, and if their energy is "I have to win this verbal sparring round in order to reduce the risk that members of my community are killed, denied employment, made homeless, barred from receiving medical care, harassed in public spaces, or otherwise marginalized" then it's not at all surprising for the space to feel high-stakes and acutely adversarial. Because it is!

These are young women. [... This might be] a room full of Gen Z enby queers.

Which is it, or is it that you think all young AFAB people are "really" women? The combination of these two phrases is at least a yellow flag, for me personally.
posted by All Might Be Well at 10:04 AM on January 21 [35 favorites]

This is really hard, as a fellow professor trapped in Zoom land (and coincidentally also teaching a 2nd year gender class!)
First recommendation is to check out r/professors on Reddit. It's a sanity saver for when you feel like it's just you, it just your class. Everyone goes there to complain :)

Next, I understand exactly where you are right now. We have been socialized to be the "buddy" or "nice teacher" not just by our gender presentation as kids but by reviews from students and by our junior status. I too care if my students think I'm nice, interesting, friendly, etc...but large groups of teenagers require that you (outwardly) let go of that. Summon up your inner "male senior faculty" persona, or imitate what you've seen, and test that out. It's early enough in the class that you can become more stern and seize the wheel.

Pragmatically, there's two things worth trying. First thing, next time this happens point out clearly and with authority that this is disruptive, does not foster mutual respect necessary for a learning community, and maybe dedicate the rest of the class session to brainstorming with them on how the class might be structured for them to not behave this way. Your goal is to socratically guide them to the practical solution, putting them into either breakout rooms or separating the class into chunks that meet on different days to discuss the same things and only come together on discussion boards. The brainstorming should absolutely happen in breakout rooms. 50 people is a clusterfuck.

You don't owe them a maternal face, not are you actually their friend. More structure as soon as possible, and next time you'll add some stuff about respect and discussion to the syllabus (and will start to learn why our syllabi bloat to 10 pages even before all the mandatory institutional crap)

You got this.
posted by Grim Fridge at 10:11 AM on January 21 [7 favorites]

Ugh, this is why is left my SLAC job for industry. I hate hate hate lefty Twitter and my class was becoming lefty Twitter. And I wasn't even in a politically charged field!

I don't have any tactical advice for you on handling these kids (because I never figured it out), but tune them out as soon as your working day is over. Their concerns and nitpicking and virtuous fights are not worth your mental health. Treat your class like a job, not a life mission. Who knows, they may actually respect you for it.
posted by redlines at 10:14 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]

All Might Be Well, I didn't even think of that--they might have a completely different concept of what a gender studies class should be. It used to be a synonym for "let's read some second and third wave feminist thinkers" but that isn't gonna cut it anymore, will it?
posted by kingdead at 10:15 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]

I wrapped up a master's degree during the first year of the pandemic. Nothing was worse than large group Zoom gatherings - and I never had anywhere near 50!! people in a class. I'd limit as much as possible the amount of lecture time and time you spend in that large space and maybe even say hold the questions for breakout. Quickly go to small groups, breakout rooms, etc., and let these kids talk and share and prattle on in smaller, more accountable spaces.

The question about liberal / radical feminism seems... okayish in a Gender Studies 101 class? You might not feel like answering it directly, but your theoretical framework probably informs some of the choices you make for your syllabus? Its probably not about you, per se. When one is 18-22 and in relatively privileged learning spaces, it feels *really* important to know who is more or less radical, b/c these folks are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. As you know, students that attend fancy ass liberal arts schools have been taught to be precious and combative - let them engage with each other that way, and then you take a healthy distance from it, recognizing you have a different role (with a certain amount of power) as instructor in this classroom.

Last thing - you must be doing *something* right b/c in my zoom classes, most people would not say a word unless forced to, would throw thousand yard stares in response to any question, or just turn off their videos and we'd sit uncomfortably or the prof would ramble on.
posted by RajahKing at 10:16 AM on January 21 [11 favorites]

I'll add, since I didn't preview: When they ask questions about feminism and your identity, pivot to the terms and away from your self! So, both "what do you mean by radical feminism?" and a brief lecture, either promised and recorded/uploaded later or in the moment, on radical feminism/liberalism etc. Définitions are really important in theory classes, and having space for testing those out without undermining the project of, you know, teaching and learning, is both important and helps the students feel a sense of ownership/universal application over what they learn. Because, yeah, they're young and living in a time when identity markers are considered equivalent to epistemology...and so they want to "check the ID" of anyone teaching them something, in case that person is a TERF.
posted by Grim Fridge at 10:19 AM on January 21 [16 favorites]

Came here to say exactly what All Might Be Well put so eloquently. It's a litmus test and an important one. I took a gender studies class in college 10+ years ago from an incredible professor. She had been extremely active in the women's movement, a ton of experience, and I was beyond excited for her class. Sat down my first week and realized she had trans exclusionary views and my experience in that class was poisoned. Worst semester of my education.
posted by coldbabyshrimp at 10:19 AM on January 21 [22 favorites]

ask whether I am a "liberal or radical feminist" ??

Why is this not a valid question? Frankly it's more intellectually advanced than I would have thought to ask as an undergrad, but given that you're a researcher and a teacher, surely you have a theoretical orientation that it sounds like they're interested to know more about. I don't know enough about your discipline (and neither probably do your students yet) to say whether or not the framing of the question is incomplete/problematic, but if it is, that seems like a useful educational moment?
posted by dusty potato at 10:23 AM on January 21

Ok, I have a few more thoughts after reading the recent answers...

1. I've found college students (as has always been the case), assume that whatever certain terms mean today, is the meaning they've had for all time. So to the question, "are you a liberal or a radical feminist" I would start by asking them how do they define those terms, which would then open a discussion about how what counts as "radical feminist" has changed dramatically over time. It also has the advantage of helping students who may be totally lost/too embarrassed to admit they don't know what different terminology refers to.

2. A someone who also teaches sensitive topics, I find it helpful to be upfront about who I am and where I stand on the first day of class. There are different ways of doing this - I do a short talk about my background and my research. I also signal certain key parts of my politics through the course description. Students want to know who is teaching them, especially for certain topics, and so I don't hide that.

3. I've also noticed that students of late need a bit more legwork upfront in terms of the value (sometimes!) of learning about both sides of an argument. There is a certain about of knee-jerky lefty "both sides is violence" that is good to be aware of and plan for - I only present both sides of an argument if I think there is real pedagogical value in presenting/tussling with both sides, and I am careful to make this explicit beforehand- if students know why you are introducing them to a potentially upsetting line of argumentation, they are more likely to trust there is a point - i.e. they see you're doing this intentionally, not because you're a clueless old(er) person.
posted by coffeecat at 10:23 AM on January 21 [25 favorites]

I feel for you so hard. I'm in a different field from you, but I'm noticing a lot of anger in my students right now, too. I'm trying really hard to not take it personally, and not to back down. I can't speak about your specific area of study, but I can speak about a few things I try to remember that help my emotional wellness.

1. These are young adults testing their voice, and they are seeing what they can get away with and are allowed to say. They claim to hate "Karens" but don't hesitate to go full Karen on you at the drop of a hat. I had a student write my dept. chair last week because I held firm in a syllabus policy.

2. I really, really do NOT want students out there saying, "she's nice." Having the reputation of being nice just leads to a lot more push back in upcoming classes from other students who hear how nice I am.

3. I am up to my neck in hearing how accommodating we should be because of the pandemic. I'm running dual modality right now so students who have to quarantine can participate in class. I want them to. But this makes it an unprecedented time for students asking for leeway on every kind of thing and expecting to get it. How will we ever make our way back to placing normal expectations on students?

4. My institution has fully embraced the idea of nurturing the students, which is a great pivot for some of the crusty old curmudgeons. But it is just terrible for female faculty. Students already see me as a mom or a nurturer due to my age and gender. When I don't perform mom for them correctly, they feel very betrayed. They lash out in a way that they would not if they didn't see me as someone who should nurture them.

I don't have the solution for you, but we can be junior faculty together for the purpose of AskMe!
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:37 AM on January 21 [24 favorites]

I’d try to turn these disruptions and statements into teaching moments and some effort for the students, jiu-jitsu style, and have them educate themselves about epistemic justice, or watch a lecture on these notions by Miranda Fricker, during class time, reducing the time during that class where you worry about disruptions.
posted by meijusa at 10:42 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

This is a college class, you are the instructor. You're not their to hold their hands, be their friend, or pander to their feelings. You're there to instruct them, by following the plan worked out between you and the college.

You don't owe them a certain grade, you don't have to tolerate their nonsense. If they want to pay for a class they learn nothing from, so be it. Let everyone know that each speaker will have a (predetermined, SHORT) time to ask questions in a manner that contributes to the discussion, so long as there is time available after any lecture, and that disruptive or dismissive behavior toward other students won't be permitted. Then moderate, as is your right, on Zoom.

Your qualifications may be found on your college's instructor profile page, or on your syllabus. You owe them nothing beyond what you choose to provide in those locations. You need not defend your right to teach to them; the college is your employer, not those students. Just because they've likely come out of a (terrible these days) public school system in which they mistakenly think they rule the world, does NOT mean you must pander to it. In fact, the reality of the world often first occurs in college - where an instructor simply does not, and should not, care whether or not a student passes. It's up to the student to put forth the work, not the instructor to hold their hand and pass them through anyway.
posted by stormyteal at 10:49 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]

If a point of view is radical, then... So what? Why does the radicalism of the idea make it more or less valuable?
Because radical feminism is now synonymous with TERF shit and trans and non-binary students especially should not have to put up with that in any of their classrooms, especially not gender studies classrooms. I do find it curious that the students didn't ask if the instructor is an intersectional feminist, though.

I have some experience teaching feminist theory to undergrads, and I have definitely had the occasional student who says that they don't believe in feminism, or that they won't read anything written by women, etc. I have no problem telling those students that they can leave my classroom if they don't want to do the reading. Especially in classes with intense, complicated topics like gender and race, I find that setting a class code of conduct during the first few weeks of class is really helpful. I ask my students to brainstorm our discussion rules in a short free write, and then we come together and come up with a code of conduct as a team. I think you could still do that in this class and then it might help. Also, you should be having discussions about the different types of feminism very early in class just to set the definitional understanding. I have found that a lot of students, even those in gen z, think that feminism means "women should be equal to or more important than men." Going through, very early on, the different approaches to feminist thought, and specifically aligning yourself with one, is actually very useful for students, and I can see why they might ask about this.

How will we ever make our way back to placing normal expectations on students?
Honestly, as a professor who's been teaching college level and up for over 10 years, we won't. We will not get back to placing the expectations that we used to place on our students. Frankly, they were barely sustainable as it was. Also, people than ever before are disabled and that number will rise. As instructors (especially but certainly not limited to professors at state universities, which are beholden to serve the residents of their state) it is our job to accommodate students who have disabilities. As a disabled professor, I can tell you that the best way to do that is to design your class for disabled people, which at this point means learning how to teach in hybrid mode and changing our pedagogical styles to match the constraints of our classroom. The expectations and what we consider to be academic work will change as a result. We have to meet our students where they are.
posted by twelve cent archie at 10:51 AM on January 21 [19 favorites]

...they might have a completely different concept of what a gender studies class should be. It used to be a synonym for "let's read some second and third wave feminist thinkers" but that isn't gonna cut it anymore, will it?

I should make clear that I think that could cut it in 2022, especially for a 101 undergraduate course. The vast majority of undergraduates haven't done any of that reading, and would find a course like that intellectually challenging, enlightening, and a good foundation for more advanced courses.

People who self-select into fandom conversations (i.e. media analysis as a hobby) are typically hyper-literate and far more likely to have had firm opinions about Mary Daly and other thinkers at 19 than is normal. A few dozen Gen Z students scattered across the planet who have chosen to participate in a particular nerd space aren't a representative sample of the whole, and I realize now I might have implied they could be.

If you have a 50 person class with 3 students who are essentially 19-year-old versions of me who consider your language harmfully imprecise and are in their third year of the pandemic, that is probably a once-in-a-career stroke of bad luck. It might help to take their anger seriously and consider that it could be grounded in solidarity rather than entitlement.
posted by All Might Be Well at 11:14 AM on January 21 [14 favorites]

they say [...] that they "expected more from this class."

Some types of classes benefit from a discussion around the beginning of the term of what everyone's expectations are for the class -- students and teacher alike. Have your students (all of them, not just the ones in question) told you what they're actually hoping to get from the class? Do they have a sense by now of how you see your role as a teacher for this particular material? (Do you see yourself as someone whose role is to neutrally introduce the field as it stands currently, or as it has evolved over time? Or someone who believes that it's not really possible to be neutral, and therefore students should know both the state of the field and where you stand in it? Are you a teacher hoping to foster debate on what positions are better or more right, or are you a teacher hoping to expose students to a wide variety of fields and teach them to approach them analytically? Whatever your choices are, have you articulated them to the class clearly, and gotten a sense of whether students understand and are on board with your approach?)

There's always a question of whether these students are acting in good faith or not. Calling someone's perspective "not interesting" isn't a great sign of good faith, although absent more context it's hard to judge. But questions like what kind of feminist you are, or the corrections they keep making, might be coming from a serious place, as some comments describe above. Either way, from a pedagogical perspective they can give you a lot of material to work with. Students tend to come in with either no views on a subject or some very set views. As a teacher you have the opportunity to provide broader contexts than they've been exposed to until now, to help them position the views they have within that context and within the conversations that have been going on in the field, to discuss the issues on which you disagree and what the source of that disagreement might be, and so on. You have to decide how all that fits into your syllabus and general approach, and it's certainly a challenge to the teacher-as-ultimate-authority that is, despite our best intentions, by far the easiest and most pleasant mode to teach in (when students are willing to accept it). But pedagogically speaking, it can be valuable to step outside that mode.

That doesn't mean letting people ride roughshod over others in class, but it can mean taking a step back from your approach and challenging yourself to see things differently.

On a different note, you might try encouraging students (not just these ones, but including these ones) to start a discussion with you outside of class. "That's an interesting point, and I think that for today's class we don't have time to go into it in depth. But I'd be interested in hearing more, and I'd be glad to meet with you during office hours, or to find another time that works for us both to talk."
posted by trig at 11:17 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]

More than anything, as some people here have said, it's really important to resist the temptation to see the relationship between you and them as adversarial. Even if you think that's how they see it.
posted by trig at 11:20 AM on January 21 [10 favorites]

These are tough times. Your students have not yet tried college as it is supposed to be. All conflicts are magnified when they are mediated. Also, the youngest generation -- Z or whatever -- clearly include a fairly radical group who are challenging traditional notions of gender and race and some other things in a new way. They have their favorite theorists, but in reality they don't know a lot, they do a lot. I kind of like it, but it is not an easy group to deal with in physical class and it can become a lot worse online.

To me, the place to start is to get them to interact with their peers in a constructive manner. You can say clearly and loudly that everyone comes from a different place, and needs to learn to meet new concepts of being. I would say (have said in a similar situation just before Christmas) that I can understand that some people are angry because they have been bullied or exposed to unfair treatment or conditions, and that they have a right to be angry. But the purpose of higher education is to inform that anger, or whatever else motivates them, and change it into something empowering. They don't need education if their sole purpose is to tear down everything. But if they want to build something different, education makes things a lot easier. And higher education means that you have to put up a reasoned argument in a respectful manner instead of just shouting people down. To be honest: how would they know? They are isolated, the "adults" in the media behave like 3-year-olds, and are literally burning down the only planet we have. Even those who are supposed to be allies and mentors seem untrustworthy or just feeble.

Higher education is about knowledge, and also very much about method, in your case critical reading and thinking and writing. But for many young people, all of their education has been about rote learning. No knowledge, no method, and lots of unqualified claims. Usually, we spend the first year of their college life helping them to unlearn the bad habits of their schooling. But that has been practically impossible under corona. It is not possible to create the trusting atmosphere needed for that in remote conditions, unless you have endless time on your hands.

Threatening them is not going to work. These kids, if they are anything like the kids I had a discussion with last year, feel they have nothing to loose.

At this point, I think the best thing you can do is divide them up into groups, and give them different group assignments. Put the critical students in the same groups, and give them the task of explaining their position using academic methods. Let them find the literature, read it critically and present it to their peers. Maybe make a quick survey to find out the other interests in class, and group the other students according to interests as well. I'd go for 12 groups.
Make four bigger groups of three groups each, who are each other's "advisory boards", and put out rules for how to interact in that context. It is obligatory to read the other groups' work. It is OK to ask questions, but not to put down others. Supervise the interactions. Make sure everyone feels safe. Remember that when people are aggressive it is very often because they feel threatened.

Don't put in more hours than you are paid for. Be kind to yourself, as well as the students. Make it clear to the students that this is a condition.
posted by mumimor at 11:38 AM on January 21 [10 favorites]


I forgot to say: I have this kind of physical reaction to conflict. Pretty much any conflict, regardless of whether it's perceived by both sides or just by me. For me I think it's a PTSD thing. So yeah, you might want to get back in touch with your annoying therapist (or one you like more!) to deal with that side of things.
posted by trig at 11:52 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

I used to teach at the college level, and I would always be a little stern, even a little brusque, using a slightly more clipped tone and authoritative manner in the first few classes, and then warm up later. This sends a message, especially to younger students, of what you can be like nice, and less nice. It also communicates that you're not a pushover. I've found it *really* helps prevent problems.

I also think an ordinary lecture watched on a computer, perhaps for many or all of your classes, from the student perspective, is a nightmare. The experience is radically different in "break-out" rooms where 6 or 8 people with barely any moderation can talk more or less as they would in person. I would find excuses to experiment with breakout rooms both so the students can get to know one another, and get to know you.

One way to approach it might be to task X number of breakout rooms with class discussion topics and then have each group present an overview of the discussion to the entire class, thus precipitating a whole class discussion. At both a psychological, personal and group interest level, I think you might end up finding that sort of structure useful.
posted by Violet Blue at 12:01 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]

Have you talked to them one-on-one at all? Like, a clear convo about what your expectations are around participation, debate, etc? Or even something like "Zoom has made communication really tough to parse, so I want to make sure I'm understanding you clearly, please come to office hours so we can discuss." And then hear the students out! Diffuse everything with benign curiosity; it's possible they have something interesting/important to say, and it's getting warped because of the environmental context, or their ideas are lousy or half-baked or underinformed or whatever and you can say "well if you're interested in that topic, I really recommend reading ____ and ____, where those ideas get fleshed out."

I also think Zoom makes everything sorta feel like social media, when it's not. Certain kinds of rigid thinking/"with us or against us" questions are pretty normal on, say, TikTok or Twitter or Instagram, but it's not how most people interact in the real world. Zoom kinda blurs that, and it can be tough for everyone to readjust IME.
posted by Charity Garfein at 12:02 PM on January 21 [5 favorites]

Wait, I just looked at your former posts, are you still not in the US? Because it makes a lot of difference. I understand if you don't want to disclose your location, but your rights are much stronger at almost every college in Europe than in the US, even if you don't have tenure. That should take off at least some of the burden.

On the other hand, European higher education varies a lot across borders. For instance, I know student activists coordinate activities throughout the Scandinavian countries. If you were in Scandinavia, your students might be coordinating with mine and reading the same literature. In Greece, there is a whole other agenda, naturally more economic in nature, and I feel they are more aligned with Italian students (I've had students from both countries).
posted by mumimor at 12:26 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]

I can't tell whether its just two or three outliers who need some kind of intervention or the whole class is just "not on my side."

Honestly, you need to care less either way (so maybe do call up that therapist). You have procedures you want the class to follow; it's not happening. You must re-set boundaries and expectations, acceptable and not acceptable.

At my U, I have the power to eject students. I've never had to, but I know I do. It's likely in your U's code of conduct. So I'd do the exercise of setting up a code of conduct collaboratively in class, but I'd also mention that you are the backstop, and can eject people if they're too disruptive, or disrespectful of you or the rest of the class. In your case, one of my boundaries would be that students cannot correct me in class, because that's rude and disrespectful to you as the instructor (it is). They can pose a question, but corrections are not welcome, unless they want to take over teaching for the rest of the class and expose themselves to correction as well. Telling other students they aren't interesting isn't welcome, either. If they just want to talk, they don't need to be in class. Set limits, where rudeness and harm are not tolerated.

There will definitely be students who are silently thanking you for shutting down bullying. And from what you've said, taken together, they are bullying you, or at least giving it a good shot.

The pandemic means these are students who have not learned how to behave themselves in a class group discussion since they were juniors in high school. That's a big gap in development. They need more guidance from us. I'm finding this to be true in different ways in my own classes as well. So in a sense, one of the problems is indeed that this is year 3 online. You could even directly say this to the class.

The advice to talk to your chair about it is a necessity, since you mentioned "jr profs", so I'm assuming you're pre-tenure.

Every class is different. This is a bad one, or at least a bad start. You'll get through it.
posted by Dashy at 12:37 PM on January 21 [4 favorites]

They raise their lil zoom hands to correct me in lecture about things they are wrong about, ask whether I am a "liberal or radical feminist" ??, they interrupt class exercises designed to get everyone to speak and tell me they'd rather just have the opportunity to talk, they say their classmates' perspectives are "not interesting" and that they "expected more from this class."

I have been in classes with students like this, and have taught classes with students like this, and I absolutely guarantee that the other 47 students in your class would love for you to shut this down. Perhaps it will help if you think of it as making space for the rest of your class, rather than as defending yourself. Like, just thinking about the way that when I was in college one of my classes turned into "this one dude vs the professor" is making me full-body anxious.

You don't have to call on them every time they raise their hands, and if you ask a group question and they want to answer, you're allowed to say "someone else." If they tell you during class that they expected more from the course, you can say "let's save the meta-discussion for after class." If they say that their other classmates' ideas aren't interesting, you can say "that's not an acceptable way to talk about your classmates." This is not High School where they're being forced to attend - if they're unhappy with the course they can drop it!
posted by Ragged Richard at 12:37 PM on January 21 [28 favorites]

I was a women's studies major and I now work in higher ed, and I'm the parent of Gen Z enby currently enrolled in a a college gender studies 101 class that's happening over Zoom. My kiddo wants to talk all day about capitalism, gender, political history, and you know what I would love? I would love for kiddo to be able to hang out with other kids his age and talk about this stuff with other people who are also deeply into figuring this all out right now (as opposed to, as a friend of a mine put it, their moms, middle aged women upset at how Elizabeth Warren was treated).

Gen Z is pushing us forward in how we think about gender and sex, just as we Gen Xers did to Boomers (I do not know what millennials did but surely it was something I wasn't paying attention to because I had little kids). This is fantastic. It also seems likely to be tough to be teaching to, especially since they have just about no other outlet for these conversations.

Can you give some time over to small group discussions in breakout rooms? Can you suggest some out of class meetings for students to dive deeper into these issues? Or could you assign a journal? Could you use an online bulletin board for conversation that way? Though, really, I do think it would be great if they could just talk to each other.

I just found the journal I kept as an assignment for my women's studies 101 class when I was a college sophomore. I didn't even remember this thing existed. I was still working through so many thoughts about gender, sexuality, and sexism. That class was so important to me, and I learned so much from it. I know you're exhausted. So are these kids. Just as they're on the cusp of adulthood, a bunch of older adults makes them all stay home and inside, away from each other.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:36 PM on January 21 [10 favorites]

Hand out your rubric at the beginning, and state this rubric is approved by "school x."
This is what you can expect to learn in this class, and the material you will be tested on, and the material you will write about.

This is a blank sheet of paper, put your name on it, and tell me what you would like to learn in my class. I will go over all points and make a list from most asked to the least and make sure we cover your questions. At the end of the semester I will check back with you to see if everything was answered. Many of you will have the same wants.

I have this job because I am an adept teacher of the material. I was not hired because of my religion, politics, or personal belief system. As questions arise in class, write them down and hand them in to me at the end of class. I will make room for discussion in our next class meeting. My personal life, is not part of "school x's" curriculum.
posted by Oyéah at 3:47 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I want to thank you all SO SINCERELY for these answers. Metafilter is incredible. I feel so lucky.

In case you are wondering-- a wall of responses:

I explicitly ID myself in the first class as trans-inclusive, and we start with Kate Bornstein.
Partially because the other gender studies faculty member is a vocal TERF, hence some of my judginess about fellow faculty and hence, probably, the class being so big (last year was 18 students).

The student who asked the rad/libfem question did so in the middle of a lecture on intersectionality. She claimed that intersectionality was a "branch of liberal feminism" and wanted to know whether the class would reflect "radical" views. I replied that we would study the history of 2nd wave feminism but that I would never support TERF ideology in class. Then a little "teachable moment" about the utility of labels in general.

I emailed her after class to give her room and just reach out. She responded a week later after again hijacking class. I think a separate but friendly Zoom meeting to give space for the small group is the next step, thanks for that idea.

They have a lot of structured peer engagement in the class I have set up to just talk and support each other. They write those exit index cards. I am pulling every trick out of my bag to create connection and engagement and thank you SO SO MUCH to those who suggested other classroom management ideas.

On a level, I am just glad they are engaged and passionate about the course material.

On the generational gap: part of the reason I find all this upsetting is that I am excited about the big shifts in gender and sexuality discourse. I do think Gen Z is revisioning the terms of the conversation in big ways, and I see myself as here to learn. I am concerned that these students might be taking space from shyer students processing gender stuff less publically.

Extra thanks to Allmightbewell for calling me in on this front, I am definitely trying to hide how straight-up annoyed I am at these kids and part of that is internalized misogyny and transphobia. I need to sit with that. The things they were wrong about were historical, though, or like very obvious textual misreadings. Also I am probably coming to terms with the fact that I, once a shouty queer, am now "a middle-aged woman upset about how Elizabeth Warren was treated." HA! I literally mentioned Elizabeth Warren in class.

One of these students also wrote that "class just repeated things I learned on twitter three years ago" so yes: my creeping anxiety that I am trapped in a Left Twitter LARP is exactly, exactly right. That class was about Woolf so I am like, really, y'all were talking about Modernism on Twitter in 2018 as 15 year olds?!

Anyway. Probably my brain wires are also crossed because this is the biggest "group" I have been a part of in years, my social life has dropped to zero, so hence the weird approval-seeking and confusing being-liked/hated with "running a successful learning environment for the majority of students." It's freaking me out but I am breathing deep today and moving on fortified by all these great answers. Thank you.
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:16 PM on January 21 [29 favorites]

You have gotten a lot of great advice here. I encourage you to also see if there are people at your institution with whom you can speak and perhaps develop a productive, meaningful relationship focused on teaching. For example, if you're in the U.S. or Canada, your institution may have a teaching center. Or perhaps you can bond with some faculty colleagues. I make this suggestion because it might be helpful to have someone with whom you can discuss this in real time with all of the interaction and follow-up that entails. They can also provide you with institution-specific advice that we can't.
posted by ElKevbo at 7:01 AM on January 22

Based on your follow-up, it sounds like you are doing fine (though I'd still speak to your chair just to be safe)- in my experience, there are some students who are inherently distrustful of authority of any kind, but these students can soften over the course of the semester.

I'd reframe your problem as more one of dealing with a class with a wide range of prior knowledge with the course material. I'd speak to this on the first day of class. Something I do regardless of whatever subject I'm teaching is on the first day, get students to talk about in groups how much they know about the topic, and what their sources are- this then opens up room to talk about the politics of knowledge production (who gets to produce the most 'authoritative knowledge'), of source analysis, and of making explicit that we learn a lot from non-academic sources like our family, religion, TV, etc. And it could also allow you to remind them that everyone is in class to learn, and sometimes the best way to learn is to help teach your peers or to re-read a text and discover something new in it.

You may also consider different ways to use the more gender-literate students to your advantage - again, your DEI office will likely be helpful here, but one idea would be to work in some space every class for students to present other readings (or Twitter threads) that they feel connect to that day's material. You could also have part of their grade be a class journal in which after every class they reflect on what they've learned, what about their ideas about gender/sexuality have been affirmed or changed. Basically, a part of their grade that will be an A for effort (which students like), but which will also remind them, even the more advanced ones, that yeah, they are learning here.

Finally, do you have access to Perusall at your school? It allows students to annotate the text together, and I find it soooo helpful to identifying where students are getting tripped up, plus they really enjoy it much more than discussion boards.
posted by coffeecat at 8:53 AM on January 22 [4 favorites]

I just want to say, I am a lot closer to your age than your students' ages, but I was a WGS major at a very progressive SLAC and I can't IMAGINE a WGS discussion-based class having 50 people. (Much less on zoom!) Even back then those classes were hotbeds of debate and fightiness. AND I was also personally devastated that I couldn't get into the one Queer Studies course because it was oversubscribed, so I really admire you offering this to every student who wants to be there. But agree with other people who say you probably need to find some creative ways to manage discussion.

Another thing that occurred to me: the professors who I admired the most (and who were the most beloved by students) had pretty strict classroom discipline around things like this, especially in terms of basic norms of respect towards them and other students. Obviously there's a generational difference there but we were fractious Xennials and also my school was full of students who sound very similar to the students in your class. I think most people will appreciate this, and the ones who don't, you can have conversations with.
posted by lunasol at 5:08 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]

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