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Leadership in the Classroom

2009 March 31
by Richard N. Landers
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I’ve been following a recent exchange over at RYS.  For those of you that don’t know, RYS is a sort of sounding board for disgruntled academics, created in partial response to, referred to on the site as “The Site That Shall Not Be Named.”  It seems to be primarily inhabited by humanities professors – or perhaps, humanities professors simply complain the most – or perhaps, humanities professor are just more likely to write in.  It’s hard to tell.  In any case, it is an often entertaining and enlightening look into the minds of academics.

One on-going exchange has caught my attention.  First, Nila writes in to talk about what she calls the “The Male Student Egomaniac” archetype, describing a common kind of student: a smug, over-confident, argumenative jackass.  I’ve had these students before – I find it best to simply ignore them.  But Nila says “As someone new to teaching, a woman, a minority and being short-ish, I feel like I’m under attack.”  I’m not sure why being any of these things makes one feel like they are under attack, but since I am none of these, I suppose I will never really understand the perspective.  So I will just take her word for it.

Next, Suzanne responds that “It’s well documented that (tall) apparently white, apparently hetero men speaking unaccented English embody many students’ image of ‘college professor’.”  I am unfamiliar with this research, but again, I will simply assume this is true.  She says that conforming to this image as much as possible is the key to respect in the classroom, adding, “I always teach in professional dress, which appears to me to be best exemplified by a blazer, slacks, a shoe with a heel, minimal jewelry. I wear makeup because I look a little younger without it. I’ve found very comfortable shoes that have (non-stiletto) heels – height conveys authority. Slacks convey masculinity in a sense. Costuming is vital.”

Frankly, reading this makes me a little depressed.  But again, I am male, so perhaps I simply can’t relate.  But it seems that I am not alone.  Racquel responds to say that she neither costumes nor has problems with student behavior.  She says, “According to traditional advice this combination is a recipe for disaster. I have very few problems in my classes. I do lay out the rules the first day of class and I am a hard ass. They get that the very first day. I don’t put up with shit. You are disruptive, inappropriate or whatever else, I kick you out of class for the day.”

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Why does Nila cower under the assult, Suzanne recommend costumes, and Racquel stand strong?  I think the answer is one of leadership.  Racquel proactively sets firm guidelines and establishes authority over the class.  Nila only reacts; the students “assault” and she responds.  And Suzanne is somewhere in the middle; she dresses to look like what she thinks a classroom leader should look like.

A window into Suzanne comes later: “I have to be honest and say that I rarely (any longer) get the sort of student you describe, mainly because he is not at all drawn to the subjects I teach, so I am a little out of practice in dealing with the Male Student Egomaniac. But I used to get him and his cousins all the time, when I was younger and felt less of my own authority (nothing like earning tenure). They whipped out everything on me: standing while in my office so that he towered over me, clearly a dominance move, complete with pounding on my desk; threatening me with reports to the dean, the chair, the president of the college; email whines and rants; nasty course evals about me being a “feminazi” (highly original); making sexual comments about me to other students, covertly, during class, as a way to demean me and try to put me in my place, and on and on.”

I think the reality is that this kind of student is still in Suzanne’s classes.  But as time has gone on, as she has become more confident in her teaching, this confidence has shined stronger and better controlled the atmosphere of her classes.  Perhaps the clothing helped; perhaps it hindered.  But the real difference is attitude, as a result of, in this case, experience.

As an instructor, you must lead.  You are not there simply to spew knowledge all over your students.  A book can share knowledge just as easily as you can.  You are there to provide a living model of scholarship – someone who has dedicated their life to “knowing,” and whose job it is to share that experience – not just the knowledge itself.

Professorship is a profession that people have historically respected.  I remember reading a report recently that the only title that people had more respect for than “Doctor” was “Professor.”  But will this continue?  It seems more and more students graduate having experienced many of their professors cowering from them.  Is that how it should be?  Or should the ivory tower be filled with living examples of the value of lifetime learning – instructors brimming with confidence in their ability to understand the world around them, inspiring their students to do the same?

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