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Difficult Students: Public Court of Opinion

Lots of academics have been immersed in conversation about the NYU student’s outburst against her professor. The student ended up writing letters to the NYU President and went so far to repeatedly threaten her professor and the university. She wanted to take the issue to various papers, where she has family and friend connections and the court of public opinion.

Of course, the university cannot really respond openly, as it is an issue of the student’s privacy. But, what the student did was make her various diatribes public. These letters have been made public and have really made her look terrible–like a petulant, self-entitled young person. I have not used her name and I won’t. But, what I will respond to is the fact that she was unhappy with an assignment and contacted the university president to get her professor terminated! One of her diatribes also accused her professor of being only a “spousal hire.” Obviously this student has no idea about hiring in higher ed. Even if this professor was a spousal hire–she would still have to be qualified and a good fit for the department.

There is even a blog that includes many of the student’s alleged Facebook status updates and they display more of the same sort of outrageous statements. What this makes me think of is the difficult students that instructors have in classes. These students usually make up a small percentage of the student population, but at time they can actually take up more time than all the other students combined.

Some of us on Twitter responded using the hashtag #difficultstudents and my Facebook feed was full with friends in and outside of academe responding to the incident. The discussion that I would like to have is two-fold: acknowledge that some students are difficult and that faculty need to balance protecting student needs, protecting the integrity of the classroom and more so for contingent and pre-tenure faculty protecting your reputation/job.

This is part one of this discussion. What are your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Difficult Students: Public Court of Opinion

  1. I think that one of the most difficult aspects of this issue is the fact that this student (among other difficult students) brought up the idea of money, namely that because she paid for her class she should get what she expected out of the class. This has been a point of contention in many of the classes I have taught. Luckily, in most cases I have had supportive senior administrators backing up my decisions, but students (and their parents) continuously bring this aspect up when they do not agree with their professor on an ideological level. It begs the question: Why do many students not understand the value of an academic education and the inherent discord in ideologies that is necessary in debate? And why is a vaguely economic question of so-called value for money the only one that seems to matter for many parents these days?

  2. I don’t know the details of this case though the term petulant never sounds good! That said having had an academic frustration of my own recently I will share my personal perspective, though I hope how I dealt with it wouldn’t have put me in the difficult student category.

    I think what really get students riled up is when things start to seem unfair. Whether we’re talking about subjectivity, differences of opinions and grades or signing up for a class that is suppose to be about subject x only to hear about the professor’s spiritual beliefs all semester (This is assuming the course is not about spirituality and is not meant to be disrespectful). In general if no one side is being extreme, I empathize with both sides of the equation, the faculty and the students.

    Recently I devoured Sir Ken Robinson’s material on educational transformation, and it leads me to believe three things about these types of situations:

    1 – If they are happening more often one likely reason is because people in academia, both students and faculty, are there for the wrong reasons.

    2 – For reasons of the rational mindset and the larger legacy of the enlightenment we give letter grades for things that really should not be measured in that manner.

    3 – As academic inflation continues, and more and more individuals’ go through the system, the process becomes more and more impersonal, and in extreme cases can lead to the breakdown of the community and the associated disfunction emerges.

    In this specific case it sounds like the student is in the extreme and therefore unlikely to court sympathy. But these types of situations are symptoms and not root causes. Socrates said “Education is the kindling of a flame not the filling of a vessel”. It’s curious to me that the creators of our current system of education, who idolized ancient academia, fell into the trap of teaching what they taught but not teaching how they taught.

    • Thank you for your comments! One thing that I’ve found with difficult situations is that there is always more than meets the eye. And, with students so many times it is not about the instructor or the class–it’s really about the particular student’s situation. But, when you’re the instructor it’s hard. You have to come from a place of understanding and compassion, but manage the class and the other students, too. Not easy!

      Well, I have no problem marking papers and assessing student work. I could do this like they do in UCSC and write prose or assess with a grade. Not an issue for me.

      Again, thank you for your comments! I hope that the discussion of difficult students and situations continues. It’s certainly not going to disappear!

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