Thursday, November 02, 2006


I can’t believe I’m saying this, Miss Mary Sunshine that I am about my students.

One of them – a great student – is really getting on my nerves. Who would have thought an exceptional student could bug me so?

She is the Golden Child (henceforth she will be known here as GC) of this department…my colleagues have been gushing about her to me since my first week here. She is in my theory class on Wednesday nights. And yup, she’s good. The level of intelligence and calibre of discussion are high in that class to begin with – and she and another student are far and away the brightest there. Until last night, I was really appreciative of her presence (and I still am, to some extent). She’s the very model of an engaged student; it’s hard not to love that. She is also very sweet and kind.

GC sits right next to me (it’s an around-the-table kinda deal). And she has the most irritating tendency to interrupt me to take exception to many of the things I say. I am absolutely fine with people challenging me – there were people who disagreed with the reading I was giving of one of our readings, and that was just fine; it was a great class. But for christ’s sake, let me teach the goddamn class already, GC! Yes, you’re damned smart – probably brilliant, probably way smarter than I am. But it’s my class. Why can’t you just take your turn with the other folks?? Why do you have to sit there policing me? (Some of it did feel like policing – once, she corrected me when I used the word “of” instead of “for” in the name of an organization! And then smiled, self-deprecatingly, sweetly. Argh!!)

I felt as if she was this irritating elder-colleague presence. As if I had invited some senior person in to watch my teaching and she ended up inserting herself and her freaking wealth of knowledge into every nook and cranny of the content. I shouldn't feel that way with a third-year student, for goodness sake!

GC also seems to have some sort of encyclopaedic knowledge of the biographies of every fucking theorist. So sometimes others have asked specific questions about the life stories of people we’re reading – and she’s on it, boy. She just jumps to answer them. And that’s fine – I don’t have a monopoly on this stuff. Frankly, I don’t care all that much about the life histories of some of the people we’re reading – that’s not why we’re reading them. So if someone’s asking, share your wealth, GC. But last night someone asked a question about one of the folks we were reading, and I started answering. And there was GC trampling right over me, talking as I was talking. And ending with a quiet aside to me about one of the things I’d said about said theorist. ("To be fair," GC said, "she apologized for [famous, evil thing this theorist said].")

Shut up, GC. I know she freaking apologized - it wasn't the apology that mattered!!

Now I feel mean and grody. But ugh – she’s getting under my skin in a big way.


Dr. Crazy said...

I don't think you're being mean and grody - I think you're right. I suspect that people have always been so enamored with GC that they've let her get a false sense of her own authority in classroom situations, and I'd suspect that some other students find her behavior annoying as well. If it were me, I might have a little talk with her about how much you value her contributions but that you're concerned she's not getting as much out of the class as she might because she's so interested in contributing to the conversation that she's not really processing and internalizing what others (including you) are saying. That might help, and I don't think it would crush her spirit totally.

Rhea said...

It sounds pretty darned annoying. Maybe that book about getting along with difficult people might help. Or maybe not.

Hilaire said...

Very good advice, Dr. Crazy! You're right - I just may do that.

And Rhea, yes, a book about difficult people sounds like just the thing I need..

Flavia said...

I'm totally with Dr. C--although, frankly, GC sounds less-than-delightful to begin with; there's something completely tone-deaf about this behavior. Even if she's always been the smartest student in any given room, she should have greater awareness of proper social behavior (don't interrupt people, even if they're jackasses; especially don't interrupt your teacher unless you're really too excited about something to contain yourself; etc.).

So, with that impression, I don't know that I'd actually be as careful about her feelings as Dr. C is advocating. I think I'd interrupt her right back a few times, with a pointed-but-not-unkind, "Excuse me, GC, but I hadn't finished," or, "why don't you let me complete this thought, *before* you react to it--then I'd love to hear what you have to say."

You're still being polite, but you're schooling her--and the rest of the class, who I'm betting ARE rather irritated with her--in how to have a spirited but courteous exchange. Because whether she realizes it or not, she's undermining your authority with the rest of the class, and I think it's only proper to reclaim that authority, however mildly, in an equally public way.

Hilaire said...

Well, Flavia - I might agree with you that this would be the way to go, actually. Hmm. I like Dr. Crazy's idea too - but I wonder if this might be easier on our ultimate dynamic (I mean GC's and mine). And it's a better alternative than me blurting with hostility (as I was fantasizing about doing, yesterday) "Why don't *you* teach the class, GC??!"

Also, you're right about the authority thing. I don't run a terribly hierarchical classroom, and I have reasons for that. But GC is the only student who's ever felt like she's pushing that too far. There is, after all, a limit, in my mind. To pretend otherwise would be denying reality.

Mimi said...

Yes to authority in that case. From my present situation, I can tell that it is both annoying and that it creates a seminar atmosphere where less experienced students loose slowly but surely confidence in their own capacity.Clearly, she knows much more but the point should be to learn not to demonstrate you have in the past...
Does she have good relations with the other students ?
I understand it is a real challenge to find a balance in this context but I'm also suprised that I never had the chance to see an professor find a good way to deal properly with this kind of situation.
A frustrated nerdy grad student!

Hilaire said...

Yes, Mireille - this is a good question, about the effect she's having on others. Actually, she has an awful lot of friends and allies in that classroom - close friends. Nobody seems terribly bugged by her - and she doesn't seem to be shutting many people down - the participation rate in that class is about 75%, which is remarkable for such a course. But I do think that for those quiet, tentative ones - the ones who might be edging themselves toward saying something - she probably acts as an inhibitor.

I was in a PhD program where talking like this was actually really psychically damaging to me as a student - so thanks for chiming in with the perspective of a grad student!