Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia Perimeter College

Seriously, You Don’t Have to Be a Jerk

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Never mind the headline of the recent Chronicle advice column—"Be Hard to Get Along With," by Scott Hippensteel—which left me wondering what kind of person would be intentionally hard to get along with. (I think we all know the answer to that.)

It was the tease that caught my attention: "Growing problems of classroom decorum mean faculty members have to get tough or sacrifice learning for all students." Really? What exactly are these "growing problems of classroom decorum"? I've been teaching college students for nearly three decades, and I can honestly say that they're not noticeably different now, in terms of behavior in class, than they were when I started. Only the specific distractions have changed.

I'd like to speak specifically to new and soon-to-be faculty members. No doubt many of you have been following the exchange between Hippensteel and Anthony Aycock (who wrote the piece Hippensteel was responding to, "Don't Be Hard to Get Along With"), and wondering who's right and what you should do.

I'll acknowledge up front that I tend to side with Aycock. In fact, in 2011 I wrote what might be considered a precursor to Aycock's piece, "The Rules About Classroom Rules." Like him, I was pilloried for allowing the barbarians through the gates.

But I'm not going to waste time trying to persuade experienced colleagues who are set in their ways. If they want to be hard to get along with, so be it. No doubt students need to learn to deal with people like that, since they're going to encounter enough of those folks in the workplace—especially if they go into higher education.

Just leave me out of it.

Because the truth is, you don't have to be a jerk or a hardass to be an effective teacher, and I want to make sure the rising generation of college professors understands that and is not misled into trying to become something they're not.

Remember, as I've written elsewhere, that the key to being an effective teacher is to be yourself. If you are by nature a little hard to get along with, then okay—within reason, be hard to get along with. That's who you are. Students will adjust.

But most of us aren't like that, and faking it is both stressful for us and unfair to students, who are quick to pick up on pretense and can easily become confused. Ultimately, being a good classroom teacher has less to do with "getting tough" and more to do with being confident, competent, and engaging.

In 29 years of teaching, I've had only a handful of classroom behavioral issues, and only one that required any action on my part outside of class. The rest I handled easily right there in the room.

That's because maintaining classroom discipline is all about attitude. It's not a matter of making a bunch of rules, most of which you can't even enforce (even if you think you can), but of letting students know up front that a) you expect them to behave like adults, and b) you intend to treat them that way. You also have to know what you're talking about and, more importantly, act like you know what you're talking about, projecting an overall air of authority and no-nonsense good humor as opposed to arrogant nastiness.

And of course you have to be engaging. If students aren't paying attention, that's your fault. Yes, they have smartphones and iPads to distract them. But a generation ago they would have been doing their calculus homework or reading pulp fiction or playing hangman with their neighbor. Heck, I did those things as an undergraduate when I found my professors boring. But I can't remember ever not paying attention in my best professors' classes, which is largely what made them my best professors. (They also, incidentally, weren't hard to get along with.)

If students aren't looking at you, then do something to make them look at you—like changing your vocal inflection, for instance. Or mixing in some discussion or small group work. Or putting something interesting on the big screen to draw attention away from the little screens. Remember that teaching is performance art, and if that doesn't come naturally to you, then you might need to work on your approach.

You just don't have to change your essential personality. If you're a nice person (as I'm sure most of you are), then be a nice person. You can be easy to get along with and still be rigorous, still have high expectations, still assign people the grades they've earned. To whatever extent students need to be exposed to jerks, in order to help them learn to cope in "the real world," well, don't worry: You have plenty of colleagues to pick up your slack in that regard.

Never forget that there are also many nice people in the real world, thank goodness. Because what would be the point of going to college and pursuing a career if every single person you encounter along the way is hard to get along with?

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College.

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