Wednesday, March 07, 2007

I've been meaning to write something related to this topic, but when I started yesterday, I got interrupted. Then today I had to write a midterm for one of my classes (and for some reason it was an agonizing experience this semester). After that I had papers to grade from my other class. It seems lately I mean to write about things here, but never get to it.

Actually, what I want to write was sparked by the linked topic, but really has nothing to do with it. The story reminded me of an incident when I was a doctoral student.

I was taking a required class one semester. As I recall, the class was rather large for the doctoral program (maybe 20 students?). I never had the professor before (or again), but he was nearing retirement, and although very nice, he was not very inspiring. One day he was reading out loud from a text - it was something on
organizational theory (or it may have been Weber), and he used a fake German accent. I was surprised; I thought it was a silly, tacky thing to do (and I also thought reading the text verbatim was a boring method) but what happened next was way worse.

Perhaps encouraged by the ridiculous reading, a student in the class raised his hand and made some disparaging remarks about southern Europeans, and people of southern European descent. It had something to do with how they don't care about educating their children. At a prior class, he had made some negative remarks about women. I'm sorry that it has been so many years that I can't remember exactly what he said.

This guy was always the fastest hand in the west, constantly participating. Today, as an instructor, I know how much that is appreciated, how you'd do anything to cause a ripple in the sea of blank faces, but my recollection as a student is that students who are loud mouths tend to stifle other, less glib students. That was the impact this guy had on the class atmosphere. I remember looking around at the few classmates I knew well (this was when I worked full-time and took one class per semester, so I was something of an outsider) and if they cared, or were even listening, it wasn't apparent. Now, or even then under the right circumstances, I would have taken him on, but having had this guy in several other classes I didn't want to mix it up with him. I believe I and maybe one other woman spoke up when he made the derogatory remarks
about women, but I think I let the southern European descent ones slide. Regardless, our protest was meaningless - he became very animated, angry and even louder when challenged.

I do remember suffering through the first three or four classes of the semester with
him always having something obnoxious to say, the professor allowing him to dominate, and leaving class when it ended, feeling offended. I also recall that I knew a woman who was not in the class, but was in another required class with him that semester (that I had already taken), and that we commiserated about how awful he was behaving. As I mentioned, I'd already been in a few classes with him before, and he always had something to say in those classes too, but if it was particularly offensive or inflammatory, I didn't notice.

After several classes, I concluded that the weekly aggravation wasn't worth it. My job was very demanding, and I was at a very low point in my interest in the doctoral program. I went to my advisor, and informed him that I intended to drop the class. During the conversation that followed, he tried to convince me not to do it and I explained that I just couldn't take sitting through the excruciating comments for the
rest of the semester. But he asked me to give it another chance, and so finally I agreed. (I now know how much risk there is when PhD students take a break...they may not come back.) And the offending student never made another remark like that again. I assume my advisor spoke with the instructor, who then counseled the student. Or maybe my advisor spoke directly with the student, but that wouldn't be the usual academic protocol. Regardless, I have always been grateful to my advisor for saving me from running out the door.

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