Almost every semester, I have a student whose behavior or activity in class throws my teaching off its balance, more or less significantly. Some of these students dominate class discussion, others fall asleep during class, and yet others are consistently late to class. As a teacher, I like the “challenging” situations that these students create because, at least in hindsight, I realize that they create the opportunity for me to become a better teacher: when faced with those situations, I have to come up with new/better ways to address the issue, and the solutions often add significant benefits for the class as a whole.
But there is another, unique type of students that I like even more than the “challenging” ones! I like students who implicitly or explicitly counter their disruptive counterparts. Usually, the class as a whole resists the disruptive behavior/activity, but they do so in subtle ways; in relatively rare cases, one or more “honest” students just decide to put up an explicit, intellectual fight against the disruptive student in class.
One of those rare and memorable cases involved a student who taught another student–and in doing so, the entire class–a good lesson, because she was fed up with a classmate whose behavior and ideas she couldn’t stand anymore.
In a writing class a few semesters ago, there was a student (let’s call him Dennis) who said he didn’t like being in college. For several weeks, as the class discussed readings on higher education (which was going to be the general subject for the first writing assignment), Dennis continued to hammer on how terrible colleges are, how useless degrees are, and most significantly, how much money people who enter certain professions earn “right out of high school.”
That was until one day Samantha (also pseudonym) decided to respond. As the class started discussing an essay that situated higher education within the context of the American Dream, Dennis had just started repeating his favorite example about how much some of his friends started making right out of high school. Samantha stopped him before he could finish his first sentence, saying, “But that’s not why we are in college, are we?”
Dennis used to quickly take over the conversation in earlier classes, but this time it was somehow different.
“Let me tell you why I am in college,” said Samantha, raising her voice noticeably. “I am not in college because I can make more money than someone who decided to take a different path. In fact, I know that I am not going to make a lot of money by getting the degree that I’m planning to get.”
Dennis tried to stop Samantha again–to no avail.
“I want to be a scientist. I want to get a PhD and do research. I want to explore new areas of science. I want to make a difference in the world by discovering new phenomena or developing better solutions for problems in society. And in the process of trying to get there, I am happy to sit in a dismal-looking lab in the basement all day, for years and years. . . .”
Until that class, Samantha was a gentle student who only occasionally used her soft voice to share one smart idea in a long while; she seemed to participate actively but silently. When she spoke out that day, I thought that she showed the hidden side of her personality and talent; she shared ideas and perspectives that I thought the class would never know if it was not for Dennis stoking the fire.
After that class meeting, I thought about the lecture that Samantha gave Dennis, and I realized that she had actually summed up some of the best ideas about the value of higher education that the class had read about— framing those ideas within her personal views and ambition about higher education. She wrote the following paper on a different subject, but her lecture that day was worth an interesting essay!
I remembered the incident at the end of the semester because I thought Samantha’s lecture as a small but significant turning point in the class which Dennis had been adversely impacting. Dennis remained an active contributor to class discussion but he stopped constantly challenging other students, disagreeing in ways that seemed to have no other purpose, and taking up too much class time.
And I remembered that incident today, many months since it took place, as a catalyst for this blog post.
Challenging students should keep coming!