I’m reading a wonderful book at the moment, called The Learning Game by Jonathon Smith, and it’s all about the author’s experiences as a teacher and a student. It is so beautifully written, clear and warm and funny and wise, and if I can’t actually marry Jonathan Smith then I rather wish I could be taught by him. I’ve just finished the chapter where he talks about maintaining discipline over a class, and it brought back so many memories for me. University isn’t the place where you expect to spend your time on crowd control, and given that the majority of my teaching is in twos or threes, it would have to be one determined miscreant who could wreck those sessions. But keeping one’s authority over students is every bit as important, and as taxing, for me as any other teacher.
For instance, we have a one-year taught M.Phil programme with a lecture course on critical theory. I take the feminism class, which means a one hour lecture followed by an hour of questioning, and it’s probably my biggest pedagogical challenge. The graduates have hopped over that first degree barrier and are ready to try out their skills and take you on. Often it’s a lot of fun, but it’s also the kind of situation where some back row smart alec will start rambling on in all earnestness about the influence of the Hegelian dialectic or the Lacanian Real or some such irrelevant nonsense that he figures sounds just fab, and I, the designated smartest person in the ring against all contenders, will have to do something with that, and something that isn’t giving in to my impulse to say ‘Whatever are you talking about?’ It’s all about the balance of the class at that point. I could swat that student down, yes, but then 90% of the class are going to go ‘Ooooh, scary’ and shut up, and the ten percent left will be the have-a-go heroes who will spend the rest of the hour trying to trip me up. Some academics thrive in that kind of atmosphere, but I really don’t want us all to sit around and behave badly, and the temptation to do so is only ever half a sentence away. I know that I’m not at my best when I’m uneasy; it doesn’t suit me. For instance, a few year’s ago, taking this same class, there was a student whose face unfortunately fell in repose into a sneer, and he had a bit of a reputation as an unhelpful subversive (there is in fact a helpful kind). When I arrived that day I was not in the mood to be messed with. I’d had a ‘flu jab 24 hours previously where the nurse had rammed the needle into my arm and wiggled it about a bit. Catching the look on my face (sheer horror) she said jauntily ‘Got thick skin, haven’t you?’ which is not true at any level of that phrase’s meaning. Then she took it out and plunged it in again. I was still a bit traumatized, and worse than that, I had the ‘flu. So, walking into the class I just sensed trouble from this student’s corner of the room, and I was not in the mood to take it. I think I must have delivered the most menacing lecture on feminism that the walls of the lecture block have ever absorbed. As it turned out, there wasn’t a peep out of the student in the whole two hours, and walking feverishly away I reckoned there probably wouldn’t have been anyway. I hadn’t really needed to go in with all guns blazing.
It’s not like I haven’t had experience of proper class situations. When I lived in France I taught at both a college and a lycée, so that means a range of pupils from 12 to 20 or so. I can recall very few disciplinary problems as most couldn’t be bothered to take any aggression they felt out on the English lectrice. I found it quite natural then, as I do now, to try and control a class with humour. I find that if they are laughing, they’re not thinking up alternative ways to have fun. I remember one class, a class of quite young pupils at the college, they can’t have been more than 12 or so, and there was a little boy who was a right cheeky one. He had a whole range of attention-seeking behaviour which he lobbed at me from the back row. After a lesson of this I knew I had to do something about it, and so the next time we were together and he started up, I began to tease him. I said to him ‘I think you want to come and sit right up close to me today, no?’ and I winked at him and gave a proprietorial pat to the empty desk right under my nose (that’s the one that’s always empty). And the next tiniest hint of trouble I did make him move, with the same teasing manner, and whilst he sat there I stayed close and threw him a lot of smiles, so that he should know I meant him well. In subsequent lessons I was prepared to pat the chair without forcing him to swap seats, but he usually came quite willingly. By the end of the term, he’d moved places permanently. But that’s the joy of French boys as opposed to English ones. You can tease them with womanly wiles and they love it. Here in the UK, I’d probably be up before a court of law for less.
Funnily enough the worst discipline problem I ever experienced was with one translation class. Generally I love my translation students. I have 12 at a time and mostly the problem is that they are utterly cowed by the level of language skills required of them, and the whole faintly competitive class situation. Just the fact that they have to call me Doctor sends a chill through their hearts. Generally they cling to the back of the class and hope to get away without saying anything. That’s fine; I sit on the front desk (in the spirit that they can run but they can’t hide, I’m going to teach them, whether they like it or not) and make them all speak and encourage them all to encourage themselves and each other. But this particular year was bizarrely and unpredictably different. The very first class went fantastically because I had an entire group that was ready to speak up and speak out. I was delighted at first, but very quickly they threatened to get out of control. I had too many strong characters all together and they egged each other on and wound each other up. Every hour I was struggling to keep order and I absolutely hated it. I had to psych myself up before I went in and really the whole year passed without my ever getting properly to grips with them. I kept wondering whether I should give the whole class a talking to, but I was afraid it wasn’t the right tactic, and so I kept just churning out the translations and making them work. I have never before or since been actively glad to see the back of a class, and when they left for the final time I realized the huge difference in our relationship. I felt that I didn’t much like any of them, and I was forced to realize how much, generally, I simply and genuinely like students. I like them, I want them to do well, and I’m on their side. Under those circumstances, no one need ever think about discipline.
The issue in the university is far more often to do with disabled or unstable students. But what you need to do there is more clear-cut. When I had an autistic student in my translation class, I received clear guidelines from the university disability center as to how to deal with her. It’s tricky because you can’t say to a class, ‘this is our autistic student, please be nice to her’. So I knew the first few weeks I just had to hold it steady while they fought the temptation to giggle and tease. And in fact that class bonded beautifully and worked well together without a hitch for the entire year. Give me those situations any time rather than an ego-driven student with a taste for anarchy. When I told my husband I was going to write this post he said to me kindly, ‘You’re good at dealing with the mad people and the difficult people. You have an affinity with them.’ I rest my case.