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Case #4: Sam Gold
As he stood under the fluorescent lighting of the chemical engineering laboratory where he taught a sophomore course, Sam Gold did not know what to say. A dark expression passed across his face. He knew that his university was known as a "party" school. The students could be rowdy on Thursday nights... but this was too much!
Sam liked to use humor to bridge the divide between himself and his students. While most of Sam's students were from rural families in the Midwest, Sam had grown up in New York City. His political beliefs were considerably more liberal than those of the professors he worked with, as well as those of his students. Because of his considerate behavior and sense of humor, Sam got along well with his professors and the other graduate students.
"All right, everyone, let's get started," Sam had said loudly, as his students settled noisily into their seats. "Today, we're going to talk about catalysts."
With some encouragement, the class had quieted down. As Sam began describing the role of a catalyst in a reaction, he heard one student say, "We could blow the Arabs away with that shit, huh?"
Most of the class had laughed at the joke. "Yeah, we'd turn Iraq into a dust bowl," said another young man who had a brother in the Army.
"Show those ragheads what we're there for," a third had chimed in.
Sam felt frustrated. However, he knew that the professor he worked for would probably not have been upset by these comments. He generally adopted a "boys will be boys" attitude towards students' shenanigans.
"Am I being too much of an idealist?" Sam wondered. He was the authority in this room, but his political views were unpopular at the university. He turned back to the blackboard. "Let's stay on topic, all right?" he said, as he resumed the lecture.
The students who had spoken could tell that Sam was irritated, and looked at each other in surprise.
Before you read the sample analysis for this case, you may want to consider the following questions.
1. What issues does this case study raise?
2. What questions for group discussion come to mind as you read the case?
3. What could the instructor do in this situation? Generate several possible responses.
4. What might be the consequences of these responses?
An Example Case Analysis
Some Issues Raised By the Case:
Sam's students have raised controversial educational issues through their classroom behavior. How does a teacher who is in the minority in some way maintain his or her authority with students whose beliefs may represent the view of a vocal minority or of the majority? What if these beliefs are expressed using language that is derogatory towards other cultures? Sam feels himself to be in a tenuous position because he is a TA rather than a professor and does not agree with the professor's methods. Because of this situation, Sam hesitates to express his point of view.
This case raises the question of the appropriateness and relevance of political discussion in STEM classrooms, where the focus is usually on technical topics. It also brings up the issue of controversial language in the classroom. Students bring their backgrounds with them to class, as do professors. How does one maintain a respectful atmosphere for all students when controversial issues arise? How can Sam let his students know that their behavior is unprofessional?
Possible Discussion Questions:
- What are the best ways to handle disruptions in the classroom?
- What are the best ways to handle students who test the limits of their instructor's authority?
- What level of professional behavior should be expected of our students?
- To what extent should instructors try to "bridge the divide" between students and themselves?
- To what extent should issues like politics be brought into a STEM classroom?
- What is the professor's role in dealing with all these issues?
- When is expressing emotion appropriate for an instructor?
- Is the problem the perspectives of the students, or the way they are expressed?
- What are some possible consequences of Sam's silence?
- How might a student with a Middle Eastern background have felt in Sam's class?
A Possible Set of Responses and Their Consequences:
1. Response : Do what Sam did.
Consequences : Sam got them back on topic, but that did little to address the underlying issues of this incident.
2. Response : Improve TA training in class management.
Consequences : This appears to be a case where, with each subsequent comment, the students were trying to be ever more outrageous. As a result, Sam quickly lost control. With better training, he may have been able to reclaim his authority after the very first comment, or even before it. However, any training comes with a certain expense in time and money.
3. Response : Introduce concepts of professionalism and ethics earlier in the course. Make it clear in the syllabus that this is a Chemical Engineering class and, as such, appropriate behavior is expected and unprofessional language or actions will not be tolerated.
Consequences : Although this strategy does not solve Sam's immediate problem, it does suggest an institutional response to the issue of classroom management. Hopefully, by understanding that clear boundaries of decorum exist in the class, students in future semesters will be better prepared for their professional lives. At the very least, providing more structure would give the next TA the authority to actively address the inappropriateness of such disruptions and let the class know that they have passed the limits of proper behavior. Such actions by the TAs may, though, increase the divide between the students and the TAs, and that may have negative consequences for teaching and learning.
4. Response : Use this as an opportunity to draw connections between Chemical Engineering and other societal issues. Sam could have stopped the disruption and then, rather than simply returning to the lesson, he could have suggested a meeting outside of class to discuss Iraq, politics, the use of chemical engineering in military applications, or other controversial real-world examples.
Consequences : While the disruption was inappropriate, and one might question the place of politics in a STEM classroom, the students did get excited about catalysis. An outside discussion might be a better way for Sam to "bridge the divide" between himself and his students. It might also give other students in the class a chance to present their views. Sam might meet students with more liberal views than he expected. Both Sam and the students might benefit from an exchange of political views. Unfortunately, the time devoted to these political discussions may be time away from Sam's research.
5. Response : Despite Sam's assumption that the professor would not have been upset by these comments, Sam could have informed him of the problem and asked for his help. Similarly, the professor could recognize that divides also exist between faculty and TAs, and establish a clear mechanism for involving faculty in these issues.
Consequences : Sam might find his assumptions to be at least somewhat inaccurate; the professor may offer some welcome assistance now or in the future. Of course, in bringing problems like this to the attention of the professor, Sam might find his assumptions to be well founded and be labeled a complainer. Likewise, informing his professor of the exchange between the students could cause his standing with the students to suffer. This may have negative consequences in terms of teaching and learning.
6. Response : Sam could turn this event into a learning opportunity and make clear that he is concerned about negative language being used in the classroom. He could initiate a short discussion about this issue in which all viewpoints are valued. This discussion could be an opportunity for education about derogatory language, or it could become a political discussion. This last situation may be somewhat volatile ground for Sam, considering his feelings on the matter.
Consequences : The students may feel defensive and accusatory. Sam would need to handle their emotions with care and treat all students with respect. It is best if he can deal with the problem during that lab session, rather than postponing the conversation until later. Since this topic is highly controversial, such a conversation would require skill, emotional neutrality and tact on Sam's part.
Reaching All Students: A Resource Book for Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
- Planning Considerations
- Getting to Know your Students
- Facilitating Discussion of Sensitive Issues
- Dealing with Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom
- Common Disruptive Student Behaviors and Possible Responses
Diversity Institute Literature Review
- Cabrera, A. F., & Nora, A. (1994). College students' perceptions of prejudice and discrimination and their feelings of alienation: A construct validation approach. Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies, 16, 387-409.