This Spring I wrote a blog post for the University of Venus about Emotional Labor in Academe and this post is a follow-up and will hopefully continue the conversation, as we approach a new school year. Emotional Labor takes many forms for instructors. Some of us teach topics that are provocative or outright controversial and this can energize the classroom environment, but it also can offer the instructor difficult moments. Likewise, some faculty teach topics that are not necessarily controversial, yet the classroom environment can be influenced by strong student personalities. How do you manage these situations. If you’re teaching at an institution new to you, see if there is a Code of Conduct for the campus. You might find that there is nothing, mish mash of policies or a Student Code of Conduct. Check with the department that you work for and find out if faculty include the code or other wording regarding collegiality in the classroom in the syllabus. Having the code or some verbiage related to the classroom behavior is useful as the class contract.
I’m not suggesting that you plan for the worst to take place. No, instead I’m suggesting that you prepare yourself accordingly. You hope for the best, and prepare for those interesting situations that occasionally present themselves in a classroom. Encourage good behavior by ensuring that the classroom provides a supportive environment. Here, I also assume that you will treat your students with respect and foster a civil environment. When I’ve had one of those moments when a student has said something troubling, I will often repeat what the student has said (within reason), and just this act often gets most students to hear what was said and want to clarify. Then, I give the student the opportunity to clarify the earlier statement. Usually a wave of hands go up just as the student made the comment, and I have to remind the class that we’ll discuss the matter at hand in a respectful way.
The above is a composite of different situations. Now, I am not referring to those moments when a student has used Hate Speech in the classroom. That is different and in my experience requires a different sort of reaction. I have usually stopped the student and asked that we speak outside. Then, outside we will talk about what just took place. In some situations the student will apologize and apologize to the classroom. And, in some instances the student refuses to admit that there was a problem. In the latter situation, I have asked the student to leave the classroom. Then, the protocol is to have a meeting. The meeting could be with just the student or the department head, me, and the student. You should verify what the policy is in your department or campus, and you should document everything immediately. You should also find out what the university policy is regarding these outlier situations. Do you have to report the student to Public Safety or to another student office? Confer with the department, the faculty association or your union representative.
Once the student is out of the classroom, I normally make one statement to the class about the need to have a collegial or civil, inclusive environment and then I move on. However, in my experience you need to be prepared for students to weigh in about the occurrence. Some will feel violated by their peer’s statement and it’s important that you listen and explain what the protocol is. Essentially, you’re explaining that you’re taking care of it–that there is a process. I have found that most students really want to make sure that their learning environment is supportive and this means different things to different students. And, some students will feel violated by the Hate Speech or offending comments and might want to chat with you individually.
This Summer I cleaned and reorganized the home office and I found one of two letters of apology. The short story is that one of my male students left his computer email open and his roommate and another decided to send lewd and threatening emails via my student’s Hotmail account. They also changed his password and were able to repeatedly send emails over the course of two days unbeknownst to my student. I reported the emails to the Chair and to the Campus Police. My student was banned from the classroom until this was sorted out. He bumped into me on campus and explained the situation. He was quite embarrassed and contrite and I realized that this was all some cruel stunt. The other students (roommate and friend) were contacted by the Campus Police and Student Affairs and had to write letters of apology. The letter below is the better of the two. I’m sure that this student never pulled a stunt like this again. Overall, I was thankful for the Chair, Campus Police, and university support.
Hopefully my post will help you maneuver the tricky situations that faculty face on campus. You want your classroom to be a place of learning and not have some side dramas drop like little bombs. If you have these situations in the classroom with student behavior, deal with it immediately and by all means document, document, and document. Make sure that you have followed the university norms and confer with a trusted colleague about the protocol. Also, verify what the Code of Conduct states. And, remember that it is not always about you. Chances are it really is about the student who made the comment(s). Good Luck!