Saturday, September 20, 2008

Nerd Journal: Rant = "I Hate Everything" + The Semester's First Use of My "Gallic Shrug"

Oh, Saturday morning! It's been a BRUTAL week at Nerdworld (yes, a "Munch Scream" kind of week), so I'm now collapsed on the couch and contemplating what to do today while hanging on to a big cup of the Elixir of Life (more commonly known as "coffee"). Laundry needs doing, apartment needs cleaning, research needs footnoting . . . Oh, whatever. I just don't care. As a friend and fellow nerd-captive and I were saying a few days ago, by the time we drag ourselves home at the end of every campus day, we have no energy left. The only thing we seem capable of doing is sitting on the sofa in a glassy-eyed nerd-catatonic state and then maybe turning on the TV or CD player for some noise, all the while thinking, "I HATE EVERYTHING." Mind you, it's not that I hate anything in particular. It's that, surrounded by stuff that I need to do, there's SO MUCH STUFF that I don't even know where to start, the whole mess is really frustrating, and I'll just sit there and scowl at it. Unfocused rage is so unproductive, isn't it? What's worse, it's unsatisfactory. I can't even enjoy it, and that's pretty pathetic!

Still, all the emotional pressure cooker of teaching and learning has produced something truly horrifying to witness: an exhaustion that no longer cares about pretending to care. This finally happened in one of the classes that I teach. I handed back some quizzes, and one undergrad stampeded up to me after class. The kid wanted to dispute a question that I marked wrong. I looked at the answer, and it was clearly wrong. I told him that I wasn't going to change the grade and that the answer was still wrong. He proceeded to argue aggressively, and then I deployed my ultimate weapon: the Gallic Shrug. (Need a reminder of what this is?)

Actually, I was so annoyed at the situation that I actually employed the overkill tactic of combining the Gallic Shrug with a Moue and Head Tilt. (Hm, sounds like a "World of Warcraft"-like move, doesn't it?) There's no kill like overkill, frankly, and nothing makes a point like overkill. Well, Confucius say, do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from the forehead of your friend . . . but I wasn't seeing this. The student was being aggressive and even said a rude word to me to describe the unchanging grade. Disrespectful little . . . ! I was NOT going to let that go! I was seeing someone who needed to be put in his place, and I was seeing that his type of peevish, "I-deserve-a-better-mark, I can browbeat the teacher" behavior needed to be nipped in the bud right at semester's start. Besides, in my classroom, I am AUTOCRAT. You can dispute and debate as long as you are courteous and polite, but as soon as you are rude or disrespectful, I will administer a world-class BEATDOWN on you. Call me an old-school fossil, but I still believe in that old classroom hierarchy. I don't believe in the fancy new idea that somehow students are contributors of actual information in any substantive sense. I'm the teacher because I *know more than they do.* Students then discuss material and all that, but the fact remains that in the classroom, I am the authority both in terms of mastering information and leading the group. I am not their friend or peer or companion or parent-substitute or nanny or counselor or therapist. I am their INSTRUCTOR. And in the end, the almighty power of the gradebook lies in my grasping, blood-stained hands. Don't like it? Don't like my approach? Don't like me personally? Feel like I'm a despot who's oppressing you? Join another class. *Gallic Shrug + Moue + Head Tilt*

So there went the Gallic Shrug earlier this week, and it's so devastating that even the most stubborn, argumentative undergrad is forced to acknowledge defeat. The student, still angry, grabbed his quiz and slunk away. I hadn't thought that I would have to use the Gallic Shrug so early in the semester, but oh, well. There it was, and I have to say -- at the risk of sounding egotistical myself -- that I have great shoulder action for this! The other great thing about the Gallic Shrug (with variations) is that it's totally non-verbal. It's actually rather . . . subtle. The physical gesture is quite small in reality, but it conveys so much. It's like a precision-guided weapon in terms of gestures.

You know, what today's spoiled, selfish undergraduates do not understand is that the exhausted, frustrated instructors are not their servants. It is not our -- or my -- job to coddle them or inflate their already-overblown sense of self-importance or soothe all their little boo-boos or whatever. We're here to teach. We're trying to do a job and do it well while working under sometimes-ludicrous limitations of our own. We have a mountain of our own work to do besides teach, and it's not fun. I think I've told you before that to be a nerd peon instructor is often to face disdain and belittlement from two directions at once: on one side, some Nerd Lords who make us cringe and on the other side, some undergrad students who treat us like their servants. Neither side seems to respect us very much -- if at all, in some circumstances. Personally, I have been lucky with Nerd Lords; I have no problem with mine -- they're great people. Some of my friends, though, aren't so fortunate.

And what I ABSOLUTELY CANNOT BEAR is the phenomenon of students who think they can ARGUE an answer from being wrong into being right if the answer is clearly wrong from the beginning. Do they really think that they can launch into an assault of words and I'll simply cave in and give them points that they did not earn? Nobody "bewordles" me. I've been through years of the Dantean hell known as graduate education, and only supremely self-involved undergrads could possibly be arrogant, egotistical, and/or naive enough to think that they can browbeat me into submission. If Nerd Lords haven't managed to break my will after all this time, then no undergrad can. And that's the simple truth.

I won't uncork the "gender issue," though sometimes I wonder if some of these undergrad guys think that I'm easier to manipulate because I'm a girl. If they do, then they are in for a really rude awakening. I *will* smack you down if I have to, and I'm not afraid to do it either. Nice skirts and lip gloss aside, I am a relentless fighter (you have to be if you want to survive in Nerdworld), and I take garbage from NO STUDENT. Besides, the "I-don't-care" Moue is probably at its most devastating when deployed by a woman anyway.

Oh, and believe it or not, but I actually don't like doing this stuff. I prefer a happy-go-lucky, freewheeling classroom where students are comfortable and engage in good conversation about the academic material. Most of the time, this is the case. But every once in a while, there is a thorn among all those little roses, and then . . . This reminds of a recent comment from a friend who had cheerfully paid tribute to Nerdworld campus culture by telling me,"Eat a few freshmen for me!" Call me Nerdzilla.

OK, now I have to go grocery shopping.


Anonymous said...

The Gallic Shrug, and the Moue, AND the Head Tilt!!??? Gads! You're heartless!!

I think I love you!!!

*sigh* I, too, have joined the ranks of the nerdatonic. I've decided this year to study in cafes, though, so I can feel like I'm a listless poet in Old Europe escaping the Horrors of some unmentionable event in my mysterious past. You've seen the like, I'm sure. Do you think I need a beret? And a mustache?

Mad Minerva said...

Hmmm, hanging out in cafes a la Euro-trash . You'll certainly need to have all the proper accessories! I think you'll need an all-black wardrobe, a beret, a mustache, some vile cigarettes, a supply of absinthe, and a dog-eared copy of Sartre's "La Nausee." Or something like that!

Pat Patterson said...

The first day of class I would always add to the notes on the board a reminder that it was not a very good idea to argue with the guy that makes up the tests and subsequently grades the tests and the one term paper they had to do.

But there was always some pre-Law or Biology student(a future plastic surgeon) that would never figure out that the warning applied to them as well as the hoi polloi.

cathy said...

I like it -- it's the Triple Dog Dare of dismissive gestures.