Dear Captain Awkward,
I am a Theater Geek. I recently got a short term, temporary job teaching Theater to budding Theater Geeks at a university. My contract is for one semester; I’ll be done here in May.
It’s the tradition at this university to have a party after the closing performance of each production. Cast, crew, staff and faculty all attend. Little speeches are made; thank-you gifts are given. After the cast party for our latest production, the director — a faculty member, and in fact the department head — sent an email to the stage manager (a student) and insisted she forward it to the entire cast and crew. The email in question expressed the fact that the director was disappointed with his thank-you gift, and felt that the amount of thought and time that went into the gift were insufficient. The stage manager did as she was instructed, and forwarded the email to everyone.
The stage manager and another student came to me. They felt uncomfortable. Embarrassed, and “a little scared.” They thought the director’s behavior was inappropriate and petty. They felt someone up the chain of command, namely the director’s boss, should be told.
I told them that I wanted to support them. That they should document all the emails, responses, and responses to the responses. That they should tell me right away if anybody threatened violence to anybody or if the situation otherwise escalated. And that I needed to think about how to proceed.
Captian Awkward, I agree that this director’s behavior was inappropriate. I think he’s being petty and overly critical. (A thank-you gift is not a right, dude!) In my short few months teaching, I’ve leaned that students sometimes disappoint, and I do know how that can suck. But 1) as the “more adult” person in the situation, it’s my job to suck it up and deal with it and 2) it’s not about me, it’s about them and their education.
My big question is, do I talk to the director about this directly, or do I go over his head to his boss? And if I talk to him directly, how do I broach the subject? In essence, this guy is guilty of not behaving like an adult, but he’s easily 20 years my senior.
Furthermore, while my position here is temporary, I would like to teach in a university setting again, someday. And to make that happen, I’ll need a good reference. Guess who I’ll need to approach about writing that?
Help me have this oh-so awkward conversation.
~Befuddled Visiting Lecturer in Theater
Dear Befuddled Lecturer:
I have a very cynical answer for you today.
If the director is a full-time professor (did you say he was the Department Chair?) his colleagues and superiors already know that he’s a big jackass crybaby and have decided that they can live with it.
The university has a code of conduct, I imagine, and if the students can show that something in the email violates that code of conduct (if he was acting like a sexually harassing or racist jackass crybaby, for example, or they could make an argument about a hostile learning environment, or if the behavior escalated), they could maybe take the email to his superior – The Dean? – and make a complaint. Without reading the specific email, the part that stands out to me as being the worst is where he insisted that the stage manager share the email with everyone – she has the biggest claim to an actual grievance.
If there are a ton of documented cases of him acting this way, and a ton of people have made similar complaints, who knows….this could be the straw that gets him….a strongly worded letter about being more polite to students? Maybe he’d be forced to make some kind of grudging formal apology?
The students would gain a sense of justice done and an enemy for life.
If your name comes into it anywhere, you would also gain an enemy for life. A petty vindictive shitty emailing enemy for life. And a reputation for being “difficult to work with.”
This is probably not a hill that you want to die on, young adjunct instructor.
It’s totally unfair and crappy and he is in the wrong, and someone will probably come along and make the argument that if you all let him get away with it, well, that’s how stuff like this is allowed to happen and goddamnit someone has to make a stand! But honestly, the stakes just aren’t that high and the advantages are few. It’s not the first time you or your students will meet entitled assholes in show biz (or academia). I realize you want to make the world a better place for your students and help them speak truth to power. If they’re up for it, they might get far more impact and far more of a growing/learning experience by responding to the guy directly: “Hey, we’re so sorry and troubled that you didn’t like your gift, we really valued working with you and certainly didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
Then the email chain is Him = asshole, Them = polite, direct, and professional. If he responds rudely or gets vindictive, then they clearly and legitimately have something to take up the grievance chain. Think of it not as giving in, but as baiting the trap with sweet, sweet honey. The way to to present it to the students is “You’re right to be upset. I understand that you want to report this to someone, and you are welcome to do that, but there is a lesson to be had here in handling yourself politely and professionally even when someone is unprofessional and rude. He only made himself look bad – you didn’t do anything wrong, and nothing about his actions reflect on you.”
You did the right thing by asking them to document it, and you are right to be protective of them if things escalate, and I understand the temptation to sock it to a bully and save the day for your nice students, but you did the smart thing by holding off. The likelihood is that a) This will all blow over soon b) They’d probably get far better justice giving him a mean nickname (May I suggest “Evita?”) and posting it on PassiveAggressiveNotes.com and RateMyProfessors.com (though obviously your students didn’t hear that from you).