Dear Captain Awkward,
I am a woman who is a graduate student. One of my fellow students, a man who I’ll call Nigel, takes up a lot of space in seminar. He speaks over people, interrupts, makes noises while other people speak, and doesn’t wait his turn. If unchecked, he will dominate seminar and prevent nearly anyone else from speaking. Nigel doesn’t seem to interrupt other men, but only other women of all ages, including our instructors. Multiple female professors in our department have noticed this behavior and taken steps to correct Nigel. Multiple women and men in our department notice and have commented on this behavior. I know of at least one occasion where one of our peers has said something to Nigel about this behavior. None of this has had an effect on Nigel, and he continues to run roughshod over his peers whenever he is able. The only professor who doesn’t seem to mind Nigel’s constant interruptions is his adviser, Dr. John Smith.
What I am struggling with is a recent turn in my relationship with Nigel. While in the past I’ve managed to hop over this missing stair, things have come to a head and I’m not sure what to do.
Nigel made a point in seminar last week that was incorrect (not to mention offensive). I spoke up, noting the factual error only. He told me that I was wrong, and something in me just couldn’t let it go, so I didn’t. This point applied broadly to my research, and was entirely unrelated to his. In the two classes we have had since this time, he has interrupted me each time I have attempted to participate. Every. Time. This has made it difficult for me to participate, and other people are noticing, which is embarrassing me. I really despise conflict, and I hate to think that this is becoming a ‘thing’–being professional is important to me. At the same time though, I refuse to let a rude dude prevent me from participating.
Today, in seminar, we came to a head–he said something, I disagreed, he told me I was wrong, I disagreed, he attempted to explain something to me, I told him that the issue wasn’t with my knowledge and that I didn’t appreciate it, and Dr. John Smith (his adviser) asked us to ‘agree to disagree’. I feel like instead of seeing the issue with Nigel, Dr. Smith thinks I’m the problem. I was harsh–my exact words were “I don’t need a lesson on this, I have google”. That wasn’t ok for me to say, so maybe I am? He also told me I didn’t know what I was talking about–how do you respond to that?
Captain Awkward, I don’t know what to do. I’m tired of having to learn around Nigel. I’m not sure there is much doing if the professor of this class doesn’t mind or notice that the missing stair is missing at all. I’m frustrated that I am being antagonized, and I’m frustrated with myself for taking the bait. I’m frustrated that I seem shrill or antagonistic. It feels to me that this is much more an issue with Nigel’s professionalism than mine, BUT it has affected mine as well and I’m upset with myself about that. I’m not afraid of letting it be awkward, but I do not want to develop a reputation of being ‘difficult’ in my department.
I am too close to this issue to see straight, so I’m reaching out to you. Any scripts, advice, or suggestions for living with Nigel and managing my own responses to him would be very much appreciated.
Thanks so much,
Grad Student, Interrupted
I can relate to your worry that your relationship with Dr. John Smith is possibly hosed. Just realize that if it is hosed, it’s because of his inability to run a discussion in his classroom. It is a completely false equivalence to treat a student’s constant interruption and condescension as being somehow the same as a refusal to tolerate such behavior. So write this down somewhere that you’ll remember it when it’s course evaluation time: “Professor Smith is knowledgable in his field but he has trouble moderating discussions and creating a respectful environment for all students. Perhaps some training in classroom management will help him make future seminar-style classes more inclusive and productive.” If all the female students write variations of the same thing, he may pay attention to it or he may not (one never knows with tenured folks) but at least that way it will be on record somewhere.
That doesn’t solve your problem now, and it’s impossible to solve sexism in academia in just one semester or one course. If this gives you strength (rage can be strong) then trust: Nigel is not worried that other people see him as “shrill” or “difficult.” He is not worried even though he has clearly been receiving direct feedback from many of his profs that he needs to cool it. Nigel is used to other people (including some professors) hanging back and letting him Nigel it up. He thinks it is his right. It sucks that you not only have to deal with him but that you also have to find strategies for doing it that don’t paint you as the difficult one for not putting up with it.
Let’s be clear also: Many grad students of many backgrounds can be Chatty Cathy in a seminar experience. It is the nature of academics to
pontificate about, erm, enthusiastically share their ideas. “Here’s my anecdote about how women do that, too, sometimes” doesn’t cancel out the way that sexism comes into play when a male student only interrupts & talks over women, and nobody says anything about it. When people expect the women to just take the bad behavior and smooth it over. When women who speak up about mistreatment are treated like they are misbehaving and adding tension to the classroom. When women fear defending themselves for fear of being seen as “difficult” and therefore cut off from career opportunities. Intersect this with race and it becomes a total clusterfuck, where a white person talking over other students is just seen an enthusiastic intellectual in an ancient tradition of debate, but a black person saying “Hey could you not do that?” is automatically seen as the “angry” aggressor.
One of the reasons this can all be 1,000 times more frustrating in academic settings is that many professors and students see themselves as open-minded liberal sorts “who don’t see race/gender” and who labor under the illusion that they labor in a meritocracy free of the world’s tedious stereotypes and systemic problems. It is also full of people who think that their personal intentions and situations matter (“If I am not personally racist, then my department, class, institution can’t possibly be racist” mixed with “I worked hard to get where I am and a system where *I* am doing well is obviously a meritocracy” fallacies with a dash of “Even if racism or sexism is the most obvious answer for what is happening, let’s immediately interrogate any instance of such from the standpoint that it is surely not those things aka Occam’s Big Paisley Tie). So not only do women and people of color in academia get squashed when they do speak out about unfair treatment, they also get gaslit into seeing the problem as their own personal failing instead of something systemic and sick.
Now that I’ve made myself unhire-able, let’s talk specific strategies.
Strategy One: Short Sentences That You Repeat
- “That’s incorrect, Nigel.”
- “Do not speak when I am speaking, Nigel.”
- “Do not talk over me, Nigel.”
- “Please cite your source for that fact, Nigel.”
- “This is unproductive, Nigel.”
- “Let’s move on from this topic, Nigel.”
Brief, direct, naming the behavior, repeat like a broken record. If possible, keep your tone very flat and even. It won’t necessarily stop Nigel or kickstart an oblivious professor, but naming the behavior can be good for you and for others in the room.
Strategy Two: Act As If Nigel Has Not Spoken
When Nigel makes a bad argument leave it sitting there like a turd. Use your speaking time to call back to a good, valuable, interesting point that someone else made. You can get your friends & allies in the class to help you with this, or lead by example.
- “Hrm. Well, getting back to Ravi’s point, what if…”
- “Interesting. As Michelle said earlier, couldn’t we look at it through the lens of…”
- “Actually, I want to back up for a minute to Dr. Smith’s lecture – isn’t it true that…?”
I know, Someone Is Wrong In Seminar!!!! It’s supposed to be a place for testing ideas and practicing forming arguments, so it is going to feel very unnatural to let Nigel’s comments go without challenging them, like he is winning, like you are letting him win. Resist the urge. Treat his points as if they are completely uninteresting and inconsequential to you, and redirect the discussion to other students. It will infuriate him and he won’t know why, exactly. Let him bait you. Treat his bait like it is unworthy of acknowledgement. See if you and your classmates are able to have a constructive discussion.
Strategy Three: Speak to Dr. John Smith
“Dr. Smith, I am unhappy with the way the discussion went the other day. I can hold my own in any academic argument, but I rely on my instructors to moderate the discussions and prevent one student’s rudeness and disrespect from poisoning the experience. If Nigel talks over me in the future, or doubles down on an argument that is factually incorrect, how do you recommend that I handle it?”
In all probability, Dr. Smith doesn’t know what to do about Nigel and is hoping that your natural lady good manners will work it all out for him. Get him on the record in some way, and try whatever he recommends to see if it gets better. If he already sees you as difficult and shrill, there’s nothing you can really do to correct that, so you might as well seek his advice directly. I don’t think it will make things any worse than they are.
Strategy Four: Find Your Mentors Among The Faculty Who Get It
Women in leadership positions, women in the classroom, women mentoring other women, a variety of female perspectives = your letter is just one reason that representation matters.
If you are a professor facing down your very own Nigel, especially a younger, female, untenured professor who is hired on semesterly contracts and who can’t afford poor course evals, here is some acknowledgement that it can be exhausting and just as difficult for you to know where to start. Here are soothing pets, tea, kittens. Here are some strategies:
Strategy One: Channel His Nigelness
Nigels want to be important and get special recognition for how smart they are. They often thrive as your unofficial TA. Nigels are the perfect people to task with a) keeping the discussion on time b) recording side-questions in a “Parking Lot” for further research c) being the in-class fact-checker – “Nigel, can you quickly look up the exact date/quote for us?”
Strategy Two: Link Respectful Behavior To Grades
In a private conversation:
“Nigel, as you know, 15% of your grade is class participation. The points are not assigned by volume or quantity, since participation also involves engaging respectfully with the perspectives of others. I’ve observed you talking over other students, interrupting them, and making condescending noises when they speak. I want you to work on your listening skills with your colleagues, and not use the time they are speaking to think of what you are going to say next. Please work on being a more respectful discussion perspective starting this week so that your grade is not adversely affected.”
Give him a midsemester participation grade based on behavior so far: “If I were to grade your participation right now, it would be a 4 or a 5 out of 15, because of the behaviors I’ve just mentioned. If I see improvement, I am happy to restore some points.” Document this and your conversation in case of a grade dispute later.
If Nigel claims not to know what you are talking about, I hope your university has some “social skills” coaching that can help him. Send him there.
Strategy Three: Publicly Check Him & Amplify Other Voices
- “Nigel, we’ll listen to your point in a minute, but right now, Saeedah was speaking. Please continue, Saeedah.”
- “Nigel, Emily says that your point about x is not correct. Instead of arguing back and forth with her, why don’t you research the question and come back with a cite next week.”
- “Nigel, glad someone did the reading! Crispin, what did you think?”
- “Nigel, I see your hand, but I’m afraid we don’t have time for more discussion today. Why don’t you post your thought in the online forum and we can discuss it at leisure?”
- “Nigel, I can see you are passionate about this topic, but it is not okay to interrupt other students. Deedy, I apologize for the interruption. Please continue.”
Strategy Four: Define A Structure For Class Discussions
From the excellent thread on running meetings, one strategy for moderating a discussion is to give everyone two tokens that they “spend” when they speak. When everyone has used one token, you can use your second token. This makes it less personal to Nigel and more about finding a fair way to handle class time and more about bringing quieter voices forward.
Strategy Five: Have Some Fucking Mercy At Group Project Time
If possible, pair the assholes up with each other. Yes, everyone has to learn to work with others and even work with difficult people, but trust: The nice people already know how to work with others, including difficult people. The assholes need a taste of their own medicine. If you only have one Nigel, privately address his behavior specifically in terms of group projects. “Nigel, one side effect of your rudeness in class is that I am reluctant to pair you with anyone. In this collaborative field, I worry that your good ideas will not achieve the reach they deserve because of your difficulty in working with others. On this project, I expect you to be professional and kind to your partner. Show me that you can do good work and be a part of a team.”
It can also be a good idea to have the class generate a list of ground rules for group projects and expected behavior for collaborators – responding to communications within 24 hours, dividing work equally, being on time to meetings, running drafts by each other at set dates, etc. With some guidance from you, a class can generate a pretty great list of standards independently and hold each other to those standards.
Strategy Six: Let Nigel’s Victims Know That You Know What’s Up
I’ve had some subtle and not so subtle bullying behavior go down in my classes before. Transphobia, homophobia, sexism, racism, ableism. Some white selective deafness when black students are speaking. Some sea lioning about people’s lived experiences, like wealthy students trying to make the student pitching a documentary about food deserts ‘prove’ that those are real during her pitch. Sometimes the right thing to do is to address the behavior publicly and swiftly, i.e. “Food deserts are real. If you don’t know about them, look them up, or help (student) brainstorm some ways to visually inform you about them on screen when we ask for comments & questions. Please, Student, continue your pitch.” Sometimes the right thing is to pull the offending student aside and gently say “I’m sure your intentions were not to cause harm/I’m sure you were acting out of ignorance, but what you did there was not okay, and I need you to understand that so that you can make sure not to do that really embarrassing (for you) behavior again in class.” See also “Don’t apologize to me. Work on making it right with the other students and being more aware of your behavior, and that will clean the slate.”
Students who do jerky stuff are my students, too, and while I won’t let them continue operating at the expense of others sometimes the best way to get through to them is to help them save face by doing it privately and not calling even more attention to the awkwardness & pain of those they hurt. In those cases, telling the victims, “I saw what that person did, it was definitely not okay, I am sorry. I’ve addressed it directly & privately with the student, please let me know if it happens again” goes a long way toward making those students not feel alone or like they need to suffer in silence.
Mostly, realize that it is your job as a teacher to make sure that classroom discussions are fair and respectful and to teach people how they can behave in your courses. Students will take their cues from you how to treat each other, so if you never call on women or people of color, or never seem to hear a point unless a white man makes it, if you let men talk over women and white students talk over nonwhite students unchecked, or if you feel the need to top or “clarify” everything certain colleagues say while letting white men’s points be “agree to disagree” points, if every reading you assign and every example you name and every clip you show is All White Men, All The Time, then you become part of the problem.