Thursday, August 21, 2008

Asymmetry in teacher-student selection

I haven't made a post here in a while either, so I thought I'd start again with something that's a bit more controversial. It's well established that, unless a certain course is required for a plan of study, a student is free to refrain from taking courses from a certain professor. However, the opposite is not true. If a student is not required to take a certain course, a professor generally cannot "opt out" of having the student in his or her class. Now of course if a professor is just allowed to prevent students from taking a course carte blanche this would be a very bad idea. The opportunity for discrimination of many kinds is very present, to say nothing of professors summarily refusing students to keep grading loads down or professors refusing students who know more than they do in order to avoid accountability to the class.

But we've all had students who go through one of our courses that aren't outwardly disruptive but are certainly corrosive to the course. I figure we should be required to have those students the first semester they take our courses. It's such an unpleasant experience for all involved that it's hard to believe anyone would want to repeat it. And yet, bafflingly, sometimes the name appears on the next semester's course roster. Just when one is ready to start with a clean slate and forget the previous year's trials, there is the whole problem threatening to repeat itself.

I'm pretty sure the answer here is that the potential for abuse far outweighs giving professors even a curtailed right of "repeat refusal". But there are cases that make me want others' input, like very vocal students who do none of the work or do it very poorly, plagiarism cases, or students who walk the disruptive/disrespectful line with great skill. And these problem students can loom very large when one has new or deserving students who need a slot in a full classroom. Thoughts?


  1. Adam, I agree that giving instructors a right of refusal would be very problematic. It seems to me that the best thing to do with students who've proven corrosive in the past is to sit down at the beginning of the term and lay out your concerns and the relevant ground rules. I've done this once or twice. It also helps to have a colleague present so the student appreciates that these issues are not simply about your relationship.

    Also: I'm a believer that it's possible for people simply to rub one another the wrong way. I'd be apprehensive about a right of repeat refusal for that reason. On the other hand, my colleagues and I have sometimes found it necessary, for students are repeatedly disruptive, to adopt such a policy for all the department's courses.

  2. Hi, Adam,
    The fall semester still seems new, fresh, and full of limitless possibilities, so I’m reluctant to entertain any thoughts of unpleasant students right now, while the honeymoon is still on.

    However: out of curiosity, I broached this topic with my Dean a few years ago. Her reaction made me glad that I already had tenure...

    An easy answer is that if you want to be able to choose whom to NOT teach, then you should work as a private tutor. But that's sidestepping the heart of the question, which I take to be whether "firing" a student ought to be one option, among others, for dealing with students who have proved "corrosive" to a class in the ways that you've mentioned. Some instructors do, I think, already exercise that option when it comes to students who ask to work with them on independent studies or thesis projects. I think that it should be a last resort in that context, but I do think that it should be an option.

    When it comes to courses with more than one student in them, I again think that the first thing to do is to talk to the corrosive student face to face (with a “witness” present, as Michael suggests) and reach an accommodation. And one way to deal with the fear of abuse of power is to limit the chances to exercise that power. For example, many jurisdictions in the US allow a very small number of peremptory challenges, by both prosecution and defense, when juries are being selected. Perhaps likewise, an instructor would get three peremptory “refusals to teach” that would have heavy restrictions. (For example – no more than one per calendar year; once they’re used up, they’re used up; they’re not transferable to a new teaching job elsewhere; etc.)

  3. Vance and Michael,

    Great points about putting in some checks and balances. And sitting down and talking is absolutely the best way to deal with this first hand.

    But just out of curiosity, what do you think about students who commit acts of academic misconduct in one's course enrolling in one's other courses, particularly when the misconduct rises to the level of cheating on an exam or trying to pass off a clearly plagiarized paper? (For the record, this hasn't happened to me and I hope it never will.)

  4. Maybe I'm crazy Adam, but would a student you caught cheating really enroll in your course in a subsequent term? That would take a lot of ... testicular fortitude.

  5. Michael and Adam,

    Such cases do happen. A few springs ago, I caught a student plagiarising a paper in one of my courses. Per the syllabus, I failed him for the course. The course was a required GE course, and the student was a senior. At my university,a student can 'walk' at the graduation ceremony only if he/she has completed all graduation requirements or has signed up for the last course or two during the summer term at our university. The student's parents had already purchased plane tickets to come to the graduation ceremony from their home country. The only person teaching a course that summer which fulfilled the same GE requirement and thus would allow the student to walk in May, and graduate in July, was me. I asked, and was not allowed to drop the student.

    And yes, Michael, it did take a lot of "testicular fortitude."


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