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Dealing with age?

Graduate Students

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1warrick1830
Sep 27, 2007, 4:57am Top

One of my friends just had a horrible encounter. She's an anthropology grad student and she's 25. Still pretty young. And she had a student come to her office hours and rail at her for being young.

She's shaken up about it because she didn't expect it and had no idea how to respond, but it was a returner student who is in her mid-40s and was upset at the grade she was given on her last quiz. She accused my friend of being ageist and said "what do you know, you're just a stupid kid."

And the student stormed out. My friend contacted the professor she's TAing for and told her what happened. But now, my friend is upset.

I have no idea what to say to her. I mean, once when I was TA-ing, people thought I was messing around on the first day when I walked into class and started writing on the board and lecturing. But I guess because I look pretty hostile, they got the point that I'm the TA.

Any advice for what I should tell my friend? Any advice for anyone who's afraid of getting into that same situation as well?

2timspalding
Sep 27, 2007, 5:01am Top

I don't think there's a real issue here. Students will grasp at anything sometimes. Sex, of course.

3philosojerk
Sep 27, 2007, 8:40am Top

The age thing is actually an issue. I'm almost 30, but I look pretty young (I quit smoking in January, but before that, I was still getting carded any time I bought a pack). It makes trying to generate respect from a class difficult, especially when you've got students who are far older (although even 18-yr-olds will try and take advantage).

One trick I've picked up is to focus on wardrobe things - while profs don't typically dress very "professionally" in my field (jeans and a blouse usually get the job done), I wear a suit for at least the first few weeks of any class, until I've got their attention. I also wear loud heels - for some reason, students respond to the "clack clack" of shoes across the floor during a lecture. Confidence in general also tends to command respect.

As far as the specifics of your friend's situation, I think Tim is pretty nail on the head. I've had students accuse me of grading them badly because they argued for a position I disagreed with in their papers, when unbeknownst to them they were expressing exactly my opinion. A big part of the instructor learning process is coming to grips with the fact that you're always going to have students who freak out about things. All students have other stuff going on in their lives - stressful jobs, overbearing parents, scholarships which depend on their grades, etc. I've found that one way to address a student who goes off on me is to wait a day or so (so they can calm down), then simply ask them what's going on to make them so upset, and how can we work together to try and iron these things out? Often they're taking things out on you that in fact have very little to do with your class. Even if you have no intention of changing a grade, you can engender some appreciation in a student by showing a willingness to help them in the ways that you legitimately can.

Best of luck to your friend, and I hope she doesn't stay too upset. These things will happen, but its important she know that this isn't her fault.

4buchleser
Sep 27, 2007, 8:54am Top

I am in concurrence with Tim and Philosojerk, Warrick. Some people perpetually try to find fault in others so that they won't have to look at the fault in themselves. In this case, the student rationalized that "The TA gave me a bad grade," not "I earned a bad grade." Yet, if the student's test had been scored high, you can bet the response would have been "I got a good grade," not "The teacher gave me a good grade!"

Moral of the story for your friend: As we like to say in guitar class, "Fret not."

5scottja
Sep 27, 2007, 11:26am Top

I agree with the previous advice. I also would make it clear to the student that I won't tolerate being called a "stupid kid," or any other ad hominem attacks, ever again. I'm sure that violates the student conduct code at your university, and there will be a disciplinary process in place.

6timspalding
Sep 27, 2007, 2:13pm Top

I'd go easy on the mention of a disciplinary process, and give them space to apologize.

Just to be clear, I'm sure age can be a problem. Sometimes, however, I think people just lash out, and age is an easy one to focus on.

There is a flip side to this. Age and inexperience can also be a good thing. A student will often open up to a TA the way they wouldn't to a prof.

Without being confrontational, I want to raise the idea that there's something artifical about trying to erase age—or any other ascriptive attribute. I'm not seriously going to argue against the idea of dressing up to seem older, but take the point farther. Would we recommend dressing particularly manish to underscore that sex doesn't matter? Doesn't that just show it DOES? And how about race? Dressing white anyone?

If this had happened to me I think my response would have been—Yeah, I wear punk t-shirts, have pimples and I'm your son's age, but I still know Latin and you don't, biatch.

7brlb21
Sep 27, 2007, 7:08pm Top

It really sucks when students even older ones can't take responsiblity for their faults and bad grades. I have kinda been a little paranoid about a similar thing happening to me, and next week after I am finished giving out zeros to athletic students who don't think that deadlines apply to them, I am sure I will have a better idea of how terrible that experience was, and maybe a story or two of my own.

I had a similar problem when I worked with teenagers in a psych. hospital. I look fairly young, and they just didn't feel that I was an "authority figure." I think confidence and sticking to the rules is an important issue here, not just trying to dress or act older. If they see that you mean business and are not easily manipulated then all should be well.

I definitely wouldn't take it personally though. This student might be used to getting her way with younger TA's just b/c she can pull the age difference card.

8philosojerk
Sep 27, 2007, 8:02pm Top

There is a flip side to this. Age and inexperience can also be a good thing. A student will often open up to a TA the way they wouldn't to a prof.

This is very true. While I'm actually the instructor for my classes, and not a TA, I do think many of my students actually take to me precisely because I seem close to them in age. When they see that I talk like them, can relate to the same types of pop culture they're into, etc, it makes me more approachable. BUT - and I have to qualify this here - I don't feel its appropriate to even try and develop the kind of relationship you're talking about with a student until they are already clear on the fact that I am the instructor. The flip side of this, too, is that you can't let students become too accustomed to thinking of you as "one of us" or a friend - or else its likely to blow up in your face when some of those students, as nice as you've been to them, still receive a bad grade at the end of the term. (Which is usually inevitable. Only in the very small summer courses I've taught have I ever had a class in which no students received low grades.)

Re: your other point - I guess I'm not sure what "dressing mannish" or "dressing white" would mean? I use dressing professionally as a means to visually reinforce the idea that I'm the authority figure in the room, because students often have a hard time grasping that if I look just like them. I guess I'd say it's not so much about erasing age, but trying to underscore the idea that my age is not what is important in that room. Or if that's not quite right, trying to overcome the idea that because I appear to be close to them in age, that implies I'm also close to them in depth of knowledge and experience. It is something of a gimmick, and I get that, but in my experience, it works, and I only have to do it for the first few weeks each semester. This week, I wore jeans to teach in, but by now I've had ample opportunity to demonstrate my expertise to my students. Now that they know me, and have seen that I'm the expert in the room, that I do know what I'm talking about, I no longer have to worry about them thinking I look too young, or too female, or too anything.

>7 brlb21: I have to agree that confidence is a huge part of commanding respect. The first class I ever taught, I had students walking all over me, including one girl who literally cursed me out in front of the whole class on more than one occasion. I blame it on myself, and my nerves. On the first day of class, I was so petrified my voice was shaking (because I was). I actually came home and cried after a few meetings of that class, but in the end it was a (valuable) learning experience. We get over it, and we move on.

If this had happened to me I think my response would have been—Yeah, I wear punk t-shirts, have pimples and I'm your son's age, but I still know Latin and you don't, biatch.

That's just fabulous. I wish I had the guts (and the job stability) to be able to say that to some of the smart-ass students I've encountered.

9Sniv
Edited: Sep 27, 2007, 8:57pm Top

Depending on the sort of class your friend teaches and how much control she has over the course, she might try including a grade dispute policy on the syllabus. The one I use (which I "stole" from my course director) requires students to wait 24 hours to talk to me about it and to write a short memo specifying why - according to the assignment requirements - they deserve a higher grade.

So far, this has worked really well for me. It doesn't guarantee that I'll change the grade, but it does make students feel like they have some democratic process of appeal.

It also gives you something to say when a student accuses you of being unfair for whatever reason. You can just respond, "Well, write me a paragraph telling me why you deserve a better grade, and we'll talk about it in my office hours tomorrow." That way, you both have time to cool down and reconsider the situation.

10StarGazer72
Sep 28, 2007, 4:31am Top

#6 - believe me, when I start teaching (haven't started yet, but plan to sometime in the next 3 years), I am going to have to dress up, even if dressing to 'erase age' is artificial and also works to point out how young I am.
For me, it's not about trying to seem older so much as trying to seem my own age. Being the size of a twelve year old girl is REALLY disadvantageous in trying to set up authority.

11MysteryWatcher
Sep 28, 2007, 12:34pm Top

Try telling your friend that sure, she's young, but man, she's YOUNG. She'll miss that when it's gone.

I'm her age and no one tends to be confrontational with me because I can be a cold and haughty bitch when I want to be. That works a treat.

12PDExperiment626
Edited: Oct 4, 2007, 12:06am Top

Honestly, this comes down to demeanor. Unfortunately, if you are young and unsure of yourself; that will come across to the students and some will try and take advantage of that.

Case-in-point, I just turned 28 and have been doing tutorials, lectures and whatnot since my second year of undergrad. I usually end up teaching to groups of engineers or science students as I specialize in differential equations. The thing is, I usually look like a skater punk when I'm teaching. My hair has been blue for almost 7 years now; I dress casually (shorts, sneakers, t-shirts, etc.) Even though, my choice of appearance has nothing to do with academics; I understand that it can be misinterpreted by students.

Even though I look out of place teaching a maths course, I have never experienced a student showing me disrespect directly or indirectly. I am laid back with my students, but I also make sure that they know I am their teacher and they are the students. I do this by knowing what I'm teaching inside and out (I rarely lecture with notes and do many random examples at the board). And while I encourage students to point out mistakes I make at the board; I do not allow them to get the impression that they know the subject better than I do (which obviously has nothing to do with their intelligence compared to you).

I treat every student with the same level of respect as I would hope to get from them. I don't care how 'smart' or 'dumb' they may be in a subject; as long as they are willing to take responsibility for their actions as students, I'm happy. For example, a student complaining about failing a test when they haven't done any of the homework isn't to be tolerated. I do not tolerate inappropriate remarks directed to myself or other students. Only once did I loose control of a class that I was subbing for. A quick look of anger was sufficient to subdue their raucousness; but that's something I've never had to do for one of my own classes. I take my teaching seriously; I also have fun teaching; I respect my students; and I don't take flack for who or what I am outside of the realm of teaching. If you can genuinely convey this to your students by respecting them and acknowledging their efforts (saying it does little), then you should have a more successful student-teacher relationship.

Think of it this way... if a blue-haired, tattooed punk can teach differential equations to future scientist and engineers without being harassed, then anyone can do it ;)

13natalieinjeans
Oct 4, 2007, 9:06pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

14brlb21
Oct 4, 2007, 11:39pm Top

I think I mentioned in my last post here that I was sure to get drama when I handed back papers with huge zeros on them. Luckily I only got one angry email. The student said that I was unclear about the due date, and should not be so harsh. I kindly reminded her of the email "PLEASE READ CAREFULLY" that explicity set out the time her assignment was due. You know what she said? "Oh, I guess I didn't read that one."

Need I say more?....

As for advice, some people swear by chocolate, but I haven't gotten that desperate yet. Oh and don't be afraid to wait out a silence. They will get tired of it eventually (this only applies I suppose in a discussion type setting).

15warrick1830
Oct 5, 2007, 6:00am Top

Well, an update on my friend. She talked with some of the other grad students who had TAed in the department for a while and she was talking about this incident. Apparently, this student had made her rounds through the department insulting and attacking each TA, and you guessed it--as #2 said, she picked on random things to just accuse the TA of being instead of owning up to her bad grade.
So according to this student, the entire department is filled with sexists, racists, people who are young and stupid, people who are old and senile, whores, bigots and so on and so on.

So my friend filed a report to the academic and student disciplinary offices after not receiving a response to email sent to the student about sitting down and talking to her about her behavior.

So it is working itself all out.

I start my TA position in a department that I'm not in, but am very familiar with, so I think that should be fun. (I'm a creative writing grad student and I'll be working with philosophy)

16StarGazer72
Oct 6, 2007, 1:16am Top

#15 - Good that everything is working out with your friend. Some people just can't accept their own failures.
And that's awesome for your TA position. Congrats. How'd you manage to get put into a philosophy class?
(P.S. You know what this means, don't you? Road trip! So what days are you teaching ...? ;-D)

17warrick1830
Oct 10, 2007, 5:18am Top

Honestly, I have no idea how I got it. I got turned down to TA for CRWT 56, so I was a little bummed. But I got a phone call from the Philosophy department asking for me to TA, and I was a little stunned. How they got my info, I have no idea.

And I TA right before my poetry class, so I'll be making a great impression by being exhausted each poetry class. Ha.

P.S. We still need to roadtrip down to see you.

18Timi
Oct 10, 2007, 11:19am Top

it's quite annoying when people jugde your performance based on your age, but my advice....smile, vent elsewhere and then, get the person in question and try to resolve the issue. In this case, " Why, apart from my age, do you think i made some sort of mistake?"

I have never lectured, taught or coordinated a class. Sadly, patience is not my strong point. However, I have been in leadership positions at work where I was in charge of older people...what did i do when they pulled stunts like that? I yelled back or cried in the bathroom.

:-) I should take my own advice.

19gallifrey
Oct 20, 2007, 5:53pm Top

I was 21 when I entered grad the first time, and I had a few students who were vets, "empty nesters," etc., but I had only one who said something negative about my age. He was from a male-dominated nation and at least 20 years older than I. We had a brief, polite talk about this difference between cultures, and he was very polite to me thereafter. Another useful tool in this situation is to borrow lessons from management training regarding dealing with difficult employees. This would help the TA sort out the student's feelings from facts. As others have said, some people will find fault with everything. The workplace is absolutely no different. Sometimes, it is necessary to take the person through a remedial process, and sometimes, it is best not to.

20MissTrudy
Oct 23, 2007, 11:08pm Top

I am an older grad student with plenty of young TAs as friends and colleagues, and I think--from my personal experience and observation--that young TAs do have a bit of a disadvantage in the sense that they might not be perceived as "authority figures" to the extent that older instructors are, and some students will use that. In general, the classroom places instructors in a sort of "parental" role and many students come to expect and behave as if one is a sort of parent. I think it is unconscious. So a younger instructor might create a sense of "unbalance" for some insecure students. There are different ways of dealing with this. Also, irate students will grasp at anything in order to justify their failure (she/he has "issues", she/he "hates me", she/he is "too young" etc.), so don't take it personal. I recommend you don't forget that the worse thing to do when a student lashes at one is to lose one's cool. The fact remains: WE have the credentials and the trust placed in us to grade, period. We must not abuse it but as long as we know we have honestly graded to the best of out abilities, we should feel confident. I have been accused of being unfair, of reverse racism (I am Latina) and all sorts of inaccurate things by disgruntled students, to my face and behind my back. It used to bother me. After a while, it does stop bothering and one finds it even humorous.

21nmelcher
Nov 3, 2007, 5:33pm Top

Your friend did the right thing by explaining the situation to her professor. It's in their hands, now, and if they don't do anything about it, your friend should decide it she wants to take additional steps.

In the meantime, this student sounds like a blamer. If they're blaming her for their bad grade, they're likely blaming people for other unfortunate moments in their life. This is likely not an isolated incident, so your friend can chalk it up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time for this student's behavioral issues.

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