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Adelaide9216

Intolerant student in feminist class

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Hello everyone,

I had a conversation with a current doctoral student who is teaching while working on her research. She teaches feminist theory. In one of her classes, she had an obvious anti-feminist student (he was male) who was trying to discredit her & her knowledge in front of her whole class. Hopefully, the rest of the group were supportive of her as a professor. But it felt like the student took her class only to be argumentative with her and not by real interest in her expertise. 

After my conversation with her, it left me wondering, how do professors and schools deal with these types of situations? Let's say you've got a student who is giving you back a paper in which there is obvious racism, sexism, hate speech in it, how do you deal with that as an instructor especially in terms of grading? I'm curious to hear what you guys have to say because I am applying to be a TA next year and I honestly do not know how I would handle the situation. 

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1 hour ago, Adelaide9216 said:

Hopefully, the rest of the group were supportive of her as a professor. 

Why? It is an instructor's job to handle difficult situations, not the students'.

Needing, relying, or benefiting upon/from the "support" of students may be helpful in the moment but actually undermines the integrity of the subject and the instructor. 

1 hour ago, Adelaide9216 said:

Let's say you've got a student who is giving you back a paper in which there is obvious racism, sexism, hate speech in it, how do you deal with that as an instructor especially in terms of grading? I'm curious to hear what you guys have to say because I am applying to be a TA next year and I honestly do not know how I would handle the situation. 

The response should be the same as a paper that has editorial comments that the TA doesn't find egregious. The paper gets downgraded for not fitting the guidelines for acceptable work that were established in the first section meeting and consistently enforced throughout the term.

IRT your specific situation, sooner rather than later, ask about the training you're going to receive before and during next year. Also, see if there are classes offered by the school of education that can help you get ready.

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Teachers can report hate speech in papers. I would deal with this by grading strictly based on the req's I've laid out in the paper, reporting if necessary, and keeping a thorough record of each correspondence with the student in question. Normally, hate speech isn't backed up through credible sources, making it very easy to grade down. Back up your notes and keep everything (honestly, even the students that don't cause issues in class might still raise a ruckus about grades later). As for trying to preemptively stop this problem, include something in the green sheet explicitly stating that hate speech will not be tolerated and students need to be respectful in their discussions inside your class. You don't need to agree with each other, but you should support your disagreements with fact and never devolve into attacking the other person. That gives the professor recourse to discipline the student if necessary (discipline here could mean reminding them of the rules and making them back off to kicking them out of the class for that period if necessary). Differences of opinion can be great for a class if the discussion of those differences is respectful, but it's part of a teacher's job (imo) to keep order in the class (and keep it relatively safe for those present).

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What @GreenEyedTrombonist said. Clear guidelines concerning your expectations for the class established early on, written and documented feedback pointing out problems with writing and behavior early on and throughout, and consistency. It's also often very helpful to seek advice from more senior colleagues if you encounter a student who you suspect might cause trouble. They may have dealt with said student (or similar) in the past, and may otherwise be able to tell you what policies and recourse are available to you *in your department and at your institution*. As sad as this is, sometimes you have to let them win, if you know e.g. that your institution or department won't back you up. 

Also, separately but not really, look up threads about dressing the part for women. Men seem to feel more able to be dismissive of young (or young-looking) female instructors. There isn't much you can do to change your age or appearance, but you can often dress up to stress the distance between you and your students. There are certain behaviors that you can justifiably not tolerate in your classroom, and that includes people who dismiss your authority or disrespect you.

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59 minutes ago, fuzzylogician said:

consistency.

Make sure that you're applying the same standards with the same level of rigor to all of your students' work.

Edited by Sigaba

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The best way to put out a fire is to starve it of oxygen. If there's a student trolling for attention (which it certainly sounds like this one is)...minimise the attention you give them. It sounds like the only reason this student has joined the Feminist class is to be edgy and controversial - not because they need the course/grades or want to learn about the subject. 

Deal with them the way you'd deal with a student who is dominating the discussions. "Thank you for your contribution, is there anybody else who would like a chance to speak?" As a TA don't get side-tracked into arguing with this student, and don't let the other students get side-tracked into arguing with them to the point where the class is derailed. Don't act like you're shocked or upset by what they say - thank them politely for offering their opinions and move on. It's possible this student doesn't believe what they are saying anyway...but if they are, you aren't going to "save" them through force of argument. 

Follow what others have said about grading their papers or dealing with hate speech. But understand what they're really after...and don't give it to them.

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This happens all the time, especially when you're teaching a subject like feminist theory.

As a TA, the best strategy is not to deal with it. When you encounter a problematic or vitriolic paper, you tell the course instructor about it and let them handle it. When you're the course instructor, what you do depends on just what you receive and what local laws look like. If you're in Canada and the paper contains threats of violence, or advocates harm to people in protected categories, you probably have to pass it up to the head or dean. But if it's not that bad, then you just ignore the fact that you vehemently disagree and strictly apply your usual grading criteria. So, you check to make sure it's coherent, that the arguments are valid, that it offers a charitable interpretation of its dialectical opponents, etc. And you make lots of suggestions as to how the paper could be improved. Cover your ass by taking a little more time to read and comment on it, and whatever you do, don't explicitly indicate that you find it offensive or stupid. The student is almost certain to come see you about it later, and you need to project absolute professionalism in that interaction. And don't attribute anything to the student, only to the paper. (So don't talk about what you say, talk about what your paper says.)

FWIW, whenever I've gotten papers like these they've been crappy rants. That makes them pretty easy to grade, and it makes it easy to explain why it got such a shitty grade: it's not because your views are stupid and you're a moron, it's because your critique of X is uncharitable, you haven't considered any counterarguments that might be raised by your dialectical opponent, the argument from P to C is clearly invalid, etc.

Edited by maxhgns

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On 12/1/2017 at 8:14 PM, Adelaide9216 said:

After my conversation with her, it left me wondering, how do professors and schools deal with these types of situations? Let's say you've got a student who is giving you back a paper in which there is obvious racism, sexism, hate speech in it, how do you deal with that as an instructor especially in terms of grading? I'm curious to hear what you guys have to say because I am applying to be a TA next year and I honestly do not know how I would handle the situation. 

Yep, happens all the time.

I teach a lot of fiction and non-fiction writing by women and African-Americans, and I teach at a predominantly white institution, so I occasionally run across very hostile racist/sexist students. More frequently, I run across students who are just not all that acquainted with minority perspectives, and they feel that by being made to study women's and African-American literature, they are being denied "real literature" or being force-fed an "agenda." Naturally, many students now feel empowered to voice these sentiments (and uglier ones) since last year's election.

In any case, I've found it helpful to really structure class and writing assignments very, very carefully. When it comes to material that might be dicey for them, I don't ask open questions in class, and I don't ask them if they agree with this writer or that writer on the topic of sexism or racism. First, I make clear that we need to meet the authors where they're at in terms of their experiences, and that we take seriously their writing about racism/sexism without trying to impose our own experiences. (In other words, I tend to view derailing comments like "so-and-so is just imagining racism where it doesn't exist because he's paranoid" or "As a white person I'm the victim of reverse racism," or "but white people have it hard these days because of affirmative action, and black people have it really easy," as off topic and irrelevant to the discussion at hand, and I steer students away from them.) I also ask them to focus more on techniques the writer is using; their tools of persuasion; their blending of personal experience with academic prose, etc. etc. I occasionally ask my own students to write their own narratives, and to pattern their narratives after the essays we've read by minority authors. I find that when we take the focus off "do you agree racism/sexism exists or that so-and-so is just making all this racism stuff up?" and put it on what and how the author is actually writing, we have more productive and focused discussions. 

Now, I teach literature and composition classes rather than women's studies or feminist theory, so my approach may not be relevant to what you're teaching. But in terms of writing, I also urge you to structure assignments very carefully. Again, in my own class, I ask very specific questions and guide them to doing a really detailed analysis. Or I have them use one essay as a lens for thinking about the other. And then I lay out very specific criteria for how I'm going to grade the piece. 

Honestly, this heads off most problems. But you are still going to have students who sit down at their computers and write their own anti-feminist or alt-right screeds. And these essays can be troubling to read. But you just read them and grade them as impartially as possible according to the criteria you've established. These students generally fail themselves. When they do this kind of editorializing, they're usually so far off the mark that it's easy to fail them on technicalities or shoddy argumentation alone. Last year, a student of mine chose to write a paper about a Derek Walcott poem. The assignment asked for a researched, thesis-driven explication. What he gave me was an eight-page anti-immigrant and racist rant that quoted Breitbart, among other things. Well, that was an easy call--he hadn't done what the assignment asked for (nor the proper research), so F. 

Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and xenophobia are such illogical and intellectually bankrupt belief systems that they fail all on their own. Still sucks to read that stuff, though.

Edited by Bumblebea

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23 hours ago, maxhgns said:

As a TA, the best strategy is not to deal with it. When you encounter a problematic or vitriolic paper, you tell the course instructor about it and let them handle it.

A pitfall of this tactic is that your boss's solution may not be to your liking. From a professor's perspective, it may be "easier" to give the paper a low, but passing, grade and to move on rather than to address the larger issues at hand. The WTF moment that follows can be unpleasant and nudge one towards a different path. Or so I've heard.

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1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

A pitfall of this tactic is that your boss's solution may not be to your liking. From a professor's perspective, it may be "easier" to give the paper a low, but passing, grade and to move on rather than to address the larger issues at hand. The WTF moment that follows can be unpleasant and nudge one towards a different path. Or so I've heard.

Maybe. But, look: if you give the student a bad grade and tell them off for their misogyny (or whatever), you open yourself up to a lot of unpleasantness that's well above your pay grade (complaints to the dean, to media outlets, a lawsuit [with near-zero chance of success, but still], etc.). Even if you just grade it as I suggested above, you can still be almost certain that the grade will be disputed. And that means an angry student coming to your office hours and being unpleasant (perhaps even aggressive, especially if he's a man and you're a woman), and then going to the instructor to demand a re-grade. At that point, if the instructor doesn't want to deal with it then they will give the paper a better grade and move on. But if that happens, then what little authority you have as a TA has just been significantly undermined. And that news will get around to the other students in the class, and make it into your reviews at the end of the year (especially if you're a woman): you'll get a bunch of comments about how you're a biased grader and don't know what you're talking about. So there isn't really any pitfall here: that could happen regardless of what you do, but if you let the instructor deal with it then you're safe from any potential negative consequences.

It's far better and safer for you, as a TA, to short-circuit that chain of events. If you get an egregiously offensive paper, send it up the pipeline. The instructor will then deal with it as they see fit, and you won't have exposed yourself to any backlash or erosion of your authority. My experience has always been that the instructor is on their TA's side in almost any dispute (for one thing, it's way easier for them to stand by their TAs). I'm sure there are exceptions but they're rare, they're not the norm. Besides, if you're teaching feminist theory or some other feminist class, the odds are really, really good that the instructor will have the exact same problems with the paper as you did.

Remember, you're a TA. You're paid to grade and to lead discussion sections (or whatever else is in your contract), not to change students' minds or ensure that justice prevails in the world. I know that doesn't sound glorious or especially attractive, but it's true. You're a university employee, and you have to cover your own ass. It's not worth the potential fallout to handle it yourself unless the instructor tells you to do so. 

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Something that hasn't been mentioned here is to have explicit conversations between yourself and the professor (or supervisor, etc) regarding how you approach this student with written documentation.  Tell your professor in writing that you have some concerns about student X, what you've tried, and what you intend to do. When they provide you feedback, send a written acknowledgment of that feedback and your intent to comply with it. 

In short, cover your ass.

These days, I follow a similar pattern with any student who looks to be tending into C territory or worse, particularly if they're NCAA athletes.

Addendum: if you have an office or associate dean of Diversity and Inclusivity, they might be of some help. Mine seems mainly concerned with not hurting the poor white boy's feelings when he says something racist, though, so YMMV.

Edited by telkanuru

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2 hours ago, maxhgns said:

It's far better and safer for you, as a TA, to short-circuit that chain of events. If you get an egregiously offensive paper, send it up the pipeline. The instructor will then deal with it as they see fit, and you won't have exposed yourself to any backlash or erosion of your authority. My experience has always been that the instructor is on their TA's side in almost any dispute (for one thing, it's way easier for them to stand by their TAs). I'm sure there are exceptions but they're rare, they're not the norm. Besides, if you're teaching feminist theory or some other feminist class, the odds are really, really good that the instructor will have the exact same problems with the paper as you did.

Remember, you're a TA. You're paid to grade and to lead discussion sections (or whatever else is in your contract), not to change students' minds or ensure that justice prevails in the world. I know that doesn't sound glorious or especially attractive, but it's true. You're a university employee, and you have to cover your own ass. It's not worth the potential fallout to handle it yourself unless the instructor tells you to do so. 

I disagree.

A boss saying "I'll take over from here" after running down the options with a professor is one thing. Handing off a task that you've been hired to do because it's distasteful or because one might get a negative teaching evaluation is another.

Also, I think that you're sending mixed messages about "absolute professionalism." Then you say "cover your ass" a couple of times. Then you mention "problems" with a student's "egregiously offensive" paper. What happens when a student with a contrarian point of view offers an argument that directly goes against your point of view and manages to check all the boxes for a very high mark?

 

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5 hours ago, Sigaba said:

A pitfall of this tactic is that your boss's solution may not be to your liking. From a professor's perspective, it may be "easier" to give the paper a low, but passing, grade and to move on rather than to address the larger issues at hand. The WTF moment that follows can be unpleasant and nudge one towards a different path. Or so I've heard.

Your "boss's" job in this case is to reach a solution, and it's not up to you to "go rogue" and handle a situation like this on your own. When you're a TA, you defer to the professor--especially when it comes to troubled, aggressive, or disruptive students. And when something like this is going on, you also need to involve the professor from the beginning. It's much better to let them handle the situation from the get-go than to handle it yourself, only to have your grading overturned and your authority undermined.

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1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

Handing off a task that you've been hired to do because it's distasteful or because one might get a negative teaching evaluation is another.

My understanding of the issue is not just that the task is "distasteful" but that the student is trolling the TA / the class. It's one thing for a student to be writing an argument you may disagree with but is doing so in good faith but another thing to deal with problematic and vitriolic papers. If the TA does not feel comfortable approaching the student alone about their paper, it is perfectly within their rights and the correct thing to do to call for support. Ultimately, a grad student has very little leverage over an undergrad student and it's not fair for a student to have to deal with a "troll" just to earn their tuition waiver/stipend. Just like any worker has the right to refuse unsafe work and to be in a workplace free of harassment, going to the instructor is the right first step if the TA feels an encounter with the student could go badly.

Note that the original advice was not just to "hand off" the task. Instead, it was to go to the instructor and let them deal with it as they see fit. This may include them saying "yeah, I'll take it from here" or it might include them working with you to figure out the best solution. Going to the instructor for help is not a sign of weakness or shirking your TA duties. Instead, it's exactly what a TA should do if they encounter a problem they don't know how to deal with: talk to your superior.

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1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

A boss saying "I'll take over from here" after running down the options with a professor is one thing. Handing off a task that you've been hired to do because it's distasteful or because one might get a negative teaching evaluation is another.

No. As a professor, I would want a TA to bring papers to me that have these kinds of issues. I also know that the professors I TA'd for encouraged me to bring questionable papers to them, and to keep them informed of students who seemed to be having problems. And while I and my former professors are not representative of everyone, I believe that most *good* professors have their TA's best interests in mind and also want them to become better teachers.

Remember that a TA is still a student, and a TAship is like an apprenticeship. You are not expected to be a full-fledged instructor at this point. You are still learning, and it is the professor's job to mentor you. Part of that learning process means taking strange papers to the professor and asking for their input. It is normal to ask for their advice, and it is standard (and expected) to involve them in disputes.  

1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

Also, I think that you're sending mixed messages about "absolute professionalism." Then you say "cover your ass" a couple of times. Then you mention "problems" with a student's "egregiously offensive" paper. What happens when a student with a contrarian point of view offers an argument that directly goes against your point of view and manages to check all the boxes for a very high mark?

I don't think you are having the same discussion that the rest of us are having. We're not talking about "contrarian" students; we're talking about students who express racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic views in their papers/in class, and how to handle them. And the way you handle them, if you're a TA, is to involve the professor at every stage of the process.

The professor is still the instructor of record for the class. A TA is a TA. The instructor of record ultimately decides how situations should be handled and what grades students should receive. 

Edited by Bumblebea

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1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

Handing off a task that you've been hired to do because it's distasteful or because one might get a negative teaching evaluation is another.

As others have said, you're not "handing it off" because it's distasteful. You're doing it because you don't have the standing to deal with it appropriately, and because going it on your own is likely to result in a number of bad consequences from your point of view. As a TA, you often have a fair bit of latitude. But that doesn't mean you're supposed to handle everything on your own.

 

1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

Also, I think that you're sending mixed messages about "absolute professionalism." Then you say "cover your ass" a couple of times. 

I don't see what the problem is. This is a pseudonymous internet forum, and grading (where the "absolute professionalism" applies) takes place in the real world. Obviously you shouldn't use coarse language in your comments on a student's work. I wouldn't have thought that needed to be said.

 

1 hour ago, Sigaba said:

Then you mention "problems" with a student's "egregiously offensive" paper. What happens when a student with a contrarian point of view offers an argument that directly goes against your point of view and manages to check all the boxes for a very high mark?

 

I would give that paper a very high grade. It happens all the time. Literally. Every single time I grade an assignment, that happens.

 

But as Bumblebea observed, that's not the kind of case we're talking about here.

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27 minutes ago, maxhgns said:

As others have said, you're not "handing it off" because it's distasteful. You're doing it because you don't have the standing to deal with it appropriately, and because going it on your own is likely to result in a number of bad consequences from your point of view. As a TA, you often have a fair bit of latitude. But that doesn't mean you're supposed to handle everything on your own.

I also want to say that involving the professor is not trying to "hand off" work out laziness. It takes a lot more energy and time to bring a paper to a professor than it does to just slap an "F" on it and move on. Bringing questionable papers to your professor is part of your job, and part of their job is to deal with undergraduates and oversee their TAs. If they rely on their TAs to deal exclusively with undergraduates, then they are not doing their job. 

Edited by Bumblebea

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35 minutes ago, Bumblebea said:

I also want to say that involving the professor is not trying to "hand off" work out laziness. It takes a lot more energy and time to bring a paper to a professor than it does to just slap an "F" on it and move on. Bringing questionable papers to your professor is part of your job, and part of their job is to deal with undergraduates and oversee their TAs. If they rely on their TAs to deal exclusively with undergraduates, then they are not doing their job. 

Absolutely!

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1 hour ago, Bumblebea said:

I also want to say that involving the professor is not trying to "hand off" work out laziness. It takes a lot more energy and time to bring a paper to a professor than it does to just slap an "F" on it and move on. Bringing questionable papers to your professor is part of your job, and part of their job is to deal with undergraduates and oversee their TAs. If they rely on their TAs to deal exclusively with undergraduates, then they are not doing their job. 

Thirding this. As a professor, I want to know about any unusual situation that my TAs are dealing with. It's a part of my job to manage these things and to guide TAs in dealing with difficult situations. It's also often the case that I'll have more resources available to me that the TA doesn't have access to, like access to the student's academic record and knowledge of prior similar behavior in other classes. Telling your professor and asking for advice on how to deal with a difficult student is not offloading anything and not shirking your responsibility. It is precisely what you are supposed to do. 

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16 hours ago, Sigaba said:

A boss saying "I'll take over from here" after running down the options with a professor is one thing. Handing off a task that you've been hired to do because it's distasteful or because one might get a negative teaching evaluation is another.

I wanted to highlight this because I think the subsequent responses skipped off the side of the point somewhat.

From how I read @Sigaba, it's not about the particular content of the paper. As a subordinate in any workplace, you should, as a rule, never simply dump a problem in the lap of someone higher up the food chain. That's not to say you never bring an issue you're having to a supervisor, but rather that you should only do so in a manner that shows you are competent, clear-headed, and have a handle on the situation. That is, you have a concise statement of the problem, a couple of well-formed thoughts on how to deal with it, and what you want from your boss is advice and guidance as to how you are going to handle the situation. Your boss may well say that this is above your pay grade and they'll take it from here, but they should be the one to suggest that. 

This is about phrasing, and about presenting yourself to your supervisor as a competent professional.

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