Students are intentionally challenging the instructor’s authorityIn some instances, students act rudely to test the instructor, to flex their own intellectual muscle, or to show off to classmates. This is most likely to happen if the instructor’s authority is in question, for example, if s/he is timid or does not seem in command. It may also happen in contexts where the student body is particularly aggressive or demanding, for example in some professional programs where students have considerable work-world experience and insist that courses have immediate practical utility. Some students may also seek to challenge the authority of (or outright bully) particular categories of instructors, for example young, female, foreign, or minority faculty. This problem can be especially pronounced in some professional and graduate programs where the students may be older than the professor and have considerable experience and expertise themselves.
Think about how you can dress, move, and speak so as to present yourself with professionalism and authority. The best way to dress and behave will depend on the culture of your department (business schools, for example, tend to be more formal than art departments) and on your personal style. The key is to find a mode of self-presentation that works for you in the context of your own course.
Far more important than how you present yourself physically is for the course itself to be well designed and meaningful. Students will be considerably less likely to challenge your authority if they see how the pieces of the course fit together and feel that the education they are receiving is valuable. Also, if the majority of students perceive the course as useful to them, they are more likely to exert pressure on rude classmates to stop engaging in distracting, disruptive, or discourteous behavior.
If you do not want students to be aggressive and argumentative, be sure not to model these behaviors yourself. In addition to avoiding behaviors you do not want students to emulate, model the behaviors you do want to see, for example, by voicing disagreement respectfully.
In your syllabus and again on the first day of class, clearly outline the scope and objectives of the course, so that students approach it with realistic expectations. Students will be less likely to challenge you about what the course does or does not include if they are given fair warning. Additionally, make it clear where your expertise lies and invite students to share their own expertise if it falls outside your area of specialization. (For example: “My expertise is in cultural anthropology, so I can speak to how cultural anthropologists would analyze this question, but not to all the intricacies of physical anthropology. If any of you come from a biology background, please feel free to bring your own knowledge to bear on these issues.”)
To be an effective instructor, you need to have a solid grasp of the subject matter, but you need not be perfect. There may be times when a student knows more about a particular subject area than you do and challenges your expertise. If so, rather than get flustered, admit the limitations of your knowledge, or cheerfully tell the class that you will look into the issue further and get back to them (“This is an interesting issue and you raise some excellent questions. Let me do a little research and let you know what I find out”). It’s important for students to know that instructors, like their students, are learners.
It can be disconcerting to have a student challenge your authority in class, but try not to overreact. Hear the student out; be respectful of her opinion and acknowledge good points, but also ask her to explain her rationale and provide evidence to support her views. If you approach the interaction as a teaching opportunity, rather than react defensively, you may be able to both defuse the particular situation and strengthen your credibility with the class as a whole. For example, if a student challenges you publicly, it can sometimes be helpful to ask the rest of the class: “How do the rest of you feel about this?” Often, aggressive or posturing students will back down if they know they do not have the support of their classmates.
While it is important not to react defensively to rude student behavior (if at all possible), it is important to respond immediately. Letting unacceptable behavior slide will only erode your authority in the classroom more. How you choose to address the problem will depend on the nature of the behavior as well as your individual style. Upon encountering rude behavior, you might choose to address the class as a whole, delineating what is and is not acceptable for your class (e.g., “My T.A. has drawn my attention to some inappropriate laptop use in class. Here is my policy concerning laptops…”). If the problem stems from one or two individuals, you might respond in a number of ways, beginning with a gentle admonition (e.g., “Manish, would you mind putting away your drink until after class?”) and then, if the behavior continues, addressing the problem more forcefully. Some instructors might choose to take the problem student(s) aside after class to discuss the issue. Others might opt to address the behavior publicly by stopping what they’re doing and directing a hard look or pointed comment at the problematic student (e.g., “Wendy, I’d appreciate it if you confined your comments to the material being discussed”). While it is important to respond immediately and consistently, how you handle the matter will depend very much on the nature of the problem, the student(s) in question, and what feels most comfortable to you.
If you have a student or group of students who is belligerent or chronically disruptive, and other strategies do not work, consult your department head or Student Affairs for advice.
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