what does one do about a nasty student?

So in the pile of papers I collected today on my last day of class I also got an anonymous note from a student. It was written up as a mock paper, with the name, “Hugh Jass”. Get it? The note is produced below. Warning: it contains foul language.

I will begin this paper with one of the fundamental questions of sociology: what the fuck? I mean, could you think of a more piece of shit branch of whatever the hell sociology is a branch. What does a sociologist hope to accomplish with a lifetimes worth of work on how people feel about shit? Probably more than they actually can. Although, that gets me thinking: Why hasn’t there been a study on how people feel about dropping the deuce? I’ll leave it up to you to answer that question, as well as conduct the study.

Yeah, I’m pissed. Fuck! You wouldn’t believe how pissed I am. One might say wasting a whole semester on a class just to figure out that I never want to take a sociology class again is a waste of time.It is. And I just did it.

Oh, and I assume a TA is grading this. First off, I feel bad for you. Just visit shamuskhan.com to figure out why. Yeah, yeah, did you go there? Mmm, you can really taste the dick. The jolly fat man likes food and is a self-proclaimed elitist. Well I never!

In conclusion: fuck.

—End of “paper”—

What does one do about something like this? I don’t know who actually handed it in. And given that the class is over I can’t really address it in class. I’m actually quite secure in my own teaching. And I know that, in general, students really like my classes. So I’m not posting this for sympathy or reassurance. I’m really am curious how folks who have more experience teaching would deal with something like this.

Let it go, is probably the best advice…

21 thoughts on “what does one do about a nasty student?”

  1. I am appalled, absolutely appalled. I’m sure I’d be obsessively looking for the same font, paper quality, or typos or something, but I think maybe you’re right and this is related to CD’s recent post… let it go, certainly before you have to sit down and grade all those papers.


  2. What to do is to let it go. Of course, if you are psychologically cut from anything like my own cloth, this is many orders of magnitude easier said the done. (And obviously, I agree with Jessica that it’s an appalling note.)


  3. My first reaction would be to cry. This isn’t a helpful reaction, but it’s honestly what I’d do.

    Honestly, the very first thing I thought of upon reading this was a series of statements I heard during conversations where people said how much better teaching was going to be at your new (private) college, since your old (public) university was full of ill-prepared yahoos who’d rather goof off and be jackasses than learn. Insert terse, snarky rejoinder here.


  4. I don’t know if I agree with the “let it go” crowd. It seems threatening to me, especially given the incidents of racism at Columbia recently. I don’t know what the right answer is, but if security is competent there, I think I would be taking in to put on the record in case it matches up with other stuff they have (or future things). Campus security is often far from competent, however, so this is a big “if.”


  5. I totally agree with Tina. Administratively, I would at the very least share it with your dept chair, and check with him or her about how such incidents are handled.

    Emotionally, of course, you should try to let it go, and know that lots and lots of students are resistant to sociology for reasons completely NOT having to do with you.

    Must dash to talk with student, but thinking of you! (Nice web-site, by the way.)


  6. In chatting with Ang, one thing she noted was that this was, in part, a question of (and I hate to write this hackneyed word, but…) power. Where students can often feel emasculated or without a voice in classes and lash out at teachers. I’m not trying to feel sorry for the student. It’s just interesting to me. A professor whose class I admired at Wisconsin used to do weekly feedback cards. I did these for a while too. They were useful at letting students not build up resentments. But I stopped doing those because eventually it turned into a weird dynamic with the students, where their comments revealed more of a consumerist approach to the class.

    I actually got negative feedback at the halfway point of this class from one student who was angry because I said, “It’s not my job to make you happy. I don’t care about that. I care if you learn something”. This student stated that it was in fact my job to care about whether or not he was happy. Apparently he’s not the only one who feels that way! (Or perhaps its the same student!).


  7. “It’s not my job to make you happy. I don’t care about that. I care if you learn something”.

    Interesting. I certainly agree that it’s not a teacher’s primary, or even secondary, job to make students happy, but I wouldn’t say teachers don’t care. In fact, great, inspiring teachers I’ve known or heard of are all caring and nurturing above and beyond being intellectually stimulating. A sense of connectedness goes a long way in guiding and motivating students (or anyone for that matter) to become efficient learners. (Truthfully, how hard is undergrad sociology?)

    There are of course whining students sometimes and telling them “It’s not my job to make you happy; grow up! you’re in college!” is perhaps well deserved, but in general, I would hesitate, actually, I would definitely refrain from saying that in class or individually, especially since it’s often not true if also not enabling.


  8. p.s., what i said above is not a criticism since it’s out of contexts — i don’t know you or your interaction with your students. i was commenting on the idea delivered in that quote.


  9. Our blog just got called out on another (rather bitter) blog! And then the person seems to have lost their nerve (as the link was removed…) but still. I’ll think of this as “no such thing as bad publicity”…


  10. Well, wow… that was mean! Not that this is a consolation to you Shamus, but seeing that mean-spirited missive serves as a reality check for those of us who enviously long for a position at more selective schools. I often trudge back to my office after 90 minutes of battle with students who strike me as bored with, indifferent to, and sometimes hostile about the material we’re addressing in class (though the modal student at my institution is bored and indifferent, not hostile). My self-pitying inner monologue laments my existential place in the grand scheme of things. “If only I were at some place selective, where the students are engaged, the administrative bureaucracy makes sense, and the office coffee tastes good… oh, then my life would be better.”

    On the substance of that note, two things strike me:
    (1) The quality of the writing is indicting of the student. If you’re going to anonymously shame your professor, at least try to maintain the rhetorical high ground with college level writing! Seriously, that prose could have been produced by any number of *my* D students.

    (2) If I were the recipient of this, I’d have to wonder what I did to provoke this student in such a vicereal way? Is this student articulating something that is being thought or felt by less brazen members of the class? If so, should I care? (That is, is this telling me that students were misinformed as to what the course involved, or that certain pedagogical strategies aren’t working, etc). I’d try hard not to dwell on it (though, like Jeremy and others, I have a hard time shaking criticism like this). But I would try to see if there’s useful feedback in it.

    Teaching undergraduate students is much more difficult than I ever imagined. I think we collectively have similar experiences, despite our appointments in vastly different types of institutions.

    –Caveat: I love my job and generally like my students. For the scatterlings (or whatever y’all call them) my comment should not be taken as a rant against students, academic employment, or the awful coffee in my departmental coffeemaker.


  11. Well, that sucks. My advice is to focus on your Irish heritage, and in particular the ancient celtic wisdom expressed in the phrase, “Fuck the begrudgers.”


  12. I agree that this should be turned over to your department chair. I hope that literally getting rid of the “paper” can serve as a means of psychically getting rid of it, as well (yeah, sometimes the Californian in me comes out clearly…).

    BTW, I’m going to be working with Peter and Molly at ISERP for much of the weekend (Saturday 1-5, Sunday 9-1). Please come by and say “hello,” if you’re on campus.


  13. contrary to the prevailing wisdom in the comments that this is potentially a threat and should be reported as such to the campus police, my reading of it is that this was a one-shot insult and the student plans to have no contact (criminal, academic, or otherwise) with either professor khan or any other sociologist. i say that in part because i remember taking classes as an undergrad where i could easily imagine writing such an anonymous note (though i never actually did) and i never had any inclination whatsoever to follow up with assault or vandalism. perhaps i’m unusual, but i think it is much more likely than not that the evident sarcastic bitterness is completely detached from rage.
    i can see why professor khan is offended (and others are by proxy), especially since he sounds like he conscientiously avoids the pitfalls of bad sociology teaching, but i just don’t see this as anything more than an insult.


  14. I agree that that you hand it over to the department chair for the record (as improbable as it is that anything would come of it). And your task is to try to let it go as soon as humanly possible. Maybe there’s some purging ritual you could do, like burning a copy, paired with lots of cussing.

    But this has got me thinking. And I think Ang is right here. This probably reflects the author’s (feeble) attempt to assert some power and/or control over a situation within which he/she feels hopeless. And so (after getting angry for their offense), I sort of pity this person b/c this is all they could come up with to reassert themselves relative to the world, Columbia, academia/sociology, the class, Shamus, or whatever the offending source is perceived to be. It does really reflect weakness in so many senses of the word.

    (Shamus – this is in NO way to imply that you should pity this person. Au contraire. I’m just thinking about this as an outsider, not the object of the attack).

    And, yes, do come see Sara, Peter & I tomorrow afternoon or Sunday morning.


  15. I’ve been too busy to blog but you all beat me to what I was going to say. Turn it over to the chair and probably even campus police just in case — my instinct is that this is a one time act, not a threat, but the evidence can be useful if it is part of a pattern involving other people not just you. But don’t fret about it and CERTAINLY do not take it personally. You are in transition from student to faculty. Faculty have power over students. Students engage in acts of resistance. Some students have problems with mental instability that comes out as hostility. As you move into a position of privilege and power, you have to accept all of the responsibilities of that position, one of which is that other people will resent you and try to get back at you in mean ways because they cannot do it directly. That students are more likely to pick on the members of the faculty that are relatively weak (female, minorities, new) is part of the politics, too, and it is worth having a detached but critical view of this pattern. Keep in mind that truly unprivileged powerless people are much more likely to be subjected to insults than we are.


  16. This is offered in the spirit of “detached but critical thinking.”

    I think it`s interesting that it can be hard to let go of such nasty feedback, but easy to discount or underweight equal but opposite praise as ingratiation, etc. I noticed this reading evals, where the sting of a bad one lasts longer than praise. Prospect theory refers, I suppose, or something more akin to the dominance of negative information…


  17. I am sorry you had to deal with this – Just last week I had to deal with a series of prank calls from one (or a couple – hard to tell) of my students. At first some of the things they were saying hurt. Now I just feel sorry for them – to be in college and think the way to have fun is to prank call your prof and tell them, among other uncreative things, that they are a bitch. I did talk with my department chair about it, but then have let it go. I definitely did not address it in class – I did not want to give them the satisfaction. I do have to say that I am glad this semester is over – the Osmonds were wrong, sometimes one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch :)


  18. I agree with those who encourage turning a copy over to others. It’s probably not a threat. But if some troubled person is doing things like this in several classes, the pattern is only clear if multiple messages surface.

    Our (small, non-elite) dept realized that several faculty members were receiving a variety of dispiriting and disrespectful messages and behaviors. At first, we simply consoled each other or brainstormed responses to individual incidents. We’re now shifting some items in our syllabi that could invite a consumerist attitude.

    I’m sure you’ve thought of the possibility that your course probably challenged stereotypes and beliefs of this student, which s/he is now protecting.


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