Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Teaching Tips for Newbies: The Heckler

I had a lovely email from one of you out there.  Its that time of year again...here they come...the student hordes.  And for some of you out there, its time to start teaching them.  So I was asked for advice in teaching the Cultural class, especially in the conservative areas of the big old U.S. of A.  Deep in the heart of Texas, home of Govenor anti-evolution, anti-science, dumber-than-a-box-of-Good-Hair, there is no shortage of teaching trauma.

So, I will tap into my pompous know-it-all streak and attempt to give a series of posts where I pretend I have some answers.  Be nice when you correct me, though.  No one likes there soft, wibbly bits exposed for public ridicule.  And feel free to join in with your tips, show us your wibbly bits.

We will start with general classroom management:  worst case scenario.   The one difficult student who seems to hate you.  (Truthfully for me, its probably a slightly older white guy who arrives suspicious of our entire discipline and with a penchant for listening to Rush is Reich)  Do not fight with that one difficult student.  You will lose.  You are never going to win with the close-minded.  Ever.  Don't try.  Here is why: many of those students sitting in that class are on your side but they aren't going to say anything.  They are the "Richard Nixon silent majority".  They want to learn.  Yes, they do.  They don't want to witness a fight.  It  makes everyone uncomfortable.  Heck, it makes you uncomfortable.  Try to remember:  that one difficult student is just one difficult student.  Teach the crowd.  Develop a repetoire of useful phrases even if they are dorky (freely admit that they are dorky).  Say "we are putting on our anthropology hats when we walk in the door.  You don't have to agree but you do have to learn to think like an anthropologist".  Then repeat that simple mantra in various forms throughout the semester.  "Well, anthropologists say...."  Well,  that isn't really acceptable in the discipline...."  "That interpretation doesn't work for anthropologists...."  Use these phrases with that one difficult student rather than allow them to pick a fight about an issue you have not chosen to discuss.  Don't be weak.  Learn to redirect, instead.

Say for example, that you are discussing languages and the heckler loudly proclaims that it is just fine if all the languages of the world become extinct and we all speak English.  Respond with, "well, you do realize that that would be a problem for anthropologists don't you?  After all, we study people, and culture, and languages, and we kind of like them, you know."  Now, I know you want to intellectually (and maybe literally) rip the heckler's arms off and beat him/her to death with the bloody nubs but really the class doesn't want to witness that.  (Despite their alarming propensity to know far more about those Grand Theft Auto games than is healthy for them.)

Keep the class on your side and the heckler will flounder against the rocks of universal disapproval.  Pretend that you are Sandra Bullock and take the high road.  Pretty soon your ex and his tattooed girlfriend will have their T.V. show cancelled but you will always be rich and beautiful and beloved.....Its a fantasy people, work with me here.

Truth be told, you will probably have many happy classes without ever having to deal with the heckler but you need to be ready, just in case.


Matt said...

"Does anyone else have another idea..." is a good way to defuse the one-on-one encounter between a heckler and prof and open it up to the classroom at large. If you give them the opportunity to speak out, often other students will step in to correct their peers.

spawn of anthro said...


I am not really a professor but I am a student of Anthro (commented here before using a different name). I guess teachers should let the student voice out his/her opinions out of respect. But if the opinion is beyond reasonable, Matt's comment above is the best way to do it. Open a debate. Usually students would speak up when they're nudged or when they're given the chance to take the floor and lay down their arguments. And it's a good intellectual activity.

Anyway, to professors with "heckler" students, good luck. And as we say here in the realm of the internet, do not engage with the trolls (which is what those hecklers are mostly like).

Kert from Spawn of Anthro

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Anonymous said...

This is probably a personality thing and a product of my white/male privilege, but I love the heckler. I feel like no class is complete without (usually) him. S/he keeps me on my toes and I feel like this is my chance to directly respond to things all my other students have heard before but are afraid to broach. I'm exceedingly polite and always willing to say, "I don't have the facts on that but I will get back to you."

What gets to me is what I call the "prisoner of conscience" who just looks sullen for four months and never speaks up unless it's to argue about a grade...

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Ashkuff said...

Personally, I like the loud angry students. Why? Because they're actually contributing. Which is better than a bored student just trying to fill a GenEd humanities requirement.

Mischievous question, though: if somebody says "it's fine if we all speak English and the other languages all die out," does he really have to be wrong? If cultural currents somehow led toward unification, hopefully through peaceful and practical means, is it necessarily anthropologists' job to enforce division?

--- Ashkuff | http://www.ashkuff.com | Bored with reading about others' adventures? Burning to venture out yourself? Let this applied anthropologist remind you how.

twaters said...

Hey Pamthropologist--you've disappeared from the blogosphere! What gives?

13 said...

Eh... My university professors don't always disagree with students, but when they do they respect students' opinions.

But you're proposing totally different authoritarian approach ie. "teacher has always right, so sh*t up and think like an anthropologist because it's my class and I am the King and you're stupid".

In high school or middle school - maybe it works but still... it's so repressive, foucaltian, I guess.