When Students get Surly


One of the most interesting differences between teaching and managing is that when you manage, you can often choose who you are working with. When you are teaching, you have no say whatsoever in who walks through your classroom door. I discovered this on my first day of teaching college when some of my students told me they didn't think that what I was teaching them was appropriate. I was teaching a web design class, and they felt that they shouldn't have to learn HTML since, "employers don't care about that -- all they want to know is that I'm a phenomenal artist.

Well, I disabused the class of that idea by pointing out that when I was hiring people like them, I wasn't interested in artists who didn't understand any HTML since part of the dynamic of any production is that coders and artists must work together, and have some common understanding between them.

The rest of the term didn't go much better. I chose to spend the 10-week term focusing on a single web project, and through that project, bring the students through all aspects of a production. The school was in Savannah, GA, so I invented a fake political office, Director of External Propaganda, who's job it is to entice people to move to Savannah, and I asked the students to develop a character, animal, or gang, who would run for that office.

Big mistake. The students responded, "I hate politics -- I'll never use this in my portfolio -- I don't care about the project."

At the end of the term, the students had to create an animation in Flash for their web sites and present that animation to the class. One student, who was particularly vocal and had chosen a porn star as his character, presented his animation dressed up in a white suit. He introduced his animation by saying, "There's at least one person in this room guaranteed to be offended by this piece.

The animation showed the student and the candidate in a bed together, with only their heads exposed, as the student complained to the candidate that he got nothing out of the class, he wasted his money, and even though he asked the teacher (me) to do a portfolio web site, I turned him down and insisted that he do a stupid political candidate's web site. During the presentation, the class oohed and ahhed at the directness and the brashness of the piece, and they were all looking at me.

One thing was clear to me. The student had stolen the show, and that if I responded in any way, right then, in the moment, I would lose. The first decision I made was to respond with laughter. I just watched the piece, and laughed along with everyone else. I planned to leave the class and think about the situation with time on my side.


What's your advice? Should I respond? Should I let it go? I decided to poll various faculty members. I showed them the piece, and got various reactions like, "I'd string 'em up." or "They have no respect for us at all." The main problem for me was, as a first term professor, I didn't want to establish a reputation of letting this kind of situation go without comment. The main problem for the faculty was that respect for teachers was eroding. It was clear that I had to respond in some way at the next class session.

The biggest problem was how to respond and not turn this student into a martyr.

My Solution

My main goal was to keep the students from creating a reputation for me. Instead of "stringing" the student up, I decided to pursue a more subtle posture. I decided not to rebut the piece at all, but to lead a group discussion about the student's animation. I prepared an agenda, and handed it out at the beginning of the next class. I started class by saying, "You are all at an art school. One of the responsibilities of the artist is to make comment on their society. Thanks to Bill (not his real name), we had a comment on school society. Let's analyze it and see if it was successful."

I asked questions like; What was the student's goal in making this piece? Who was the target audience? Did the piece meet its goal? What does the piece tell us about the author? Should the audience trust the message in the piece?

When I asked the student what he thought the other faculty's response was to being shown his piece, he said, "They probably don't want me in their class."

We actually had a good class discussion about the role of art and how to consider goals when creating a design. About half the class was in the student's camp, and half the class was in my camp. The student himself, who was quite smug when I started the discussion, became quieter and quieter and faded into the background during the discussion.


As I was considering what to do, a good friend of mine pointed out that I was teaching the class, by example, what to do when faced with confrontation. My answer is to deal with confrontation rationally, rather than with anger. By responding with a class discussion, I immediately eliminated the question of whether the student was right or wrong, and changed the discussion into one of critique and goal analysis.

I did not try to put the student down. Rather, I led the class in a discussion which led to the inevitable conclusion that the piece and its presentation were completely ineffective at addressing the student's goal, which was to point out shortcomings in the school's curriculum plan. By changing the subject, I disarmed the student, brought the discussion over to a set of issues that I chose, showed the rest of the class that I didn't have to berate the student, and showed them that they could solve difficult problems by being creative.

phone: 617-697-7527 — e-mail: ben@dubrovsky.name — ©2007, 2008, 2009 Ben Dubrovsky