Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Sizing Them Up

“Don’t smile till Halloween.” An old saying among teachers.

On the first day of class, you walk in with all the authority you can muster, whether you have any or not. You take a moment to size up the “boots.” Will this be the class that gets it? Or will they be a frigid bunch of stiffies who go strictly by the book and grub mercilessly for grades? Or will they, please God, be a fun group who doesn’t mind the occasional conversational sidetrack into pop culture dish and celebrity gossip? Each class has its distinct personality. You hope for the best.

On day one you look around the room as they straggle in the door and find seats. I play a game to myself as I take the roll, trying to read the students by that blink of first impressions.

You all up front, yeah, pretty sure you’re going to be the blatant suck-ups and chatterboxes, the ones who waggle a hand with a comment or question, oh, about every 13 seconds. Who else sits up front on the first day? Yes, I see you. Yes, I know you know the answers. Let’s give the others a chance now, shall we? It never fails. The suck-ups sit up front. Suck-ups can save you on a slow day.

Farther back, the Ashleys and the Brads occupy an entire row. The clone rangers. Girls, if you’re all going to wear your hair in identical streaked ponytails, if you’re all going to don the same tiny yellow sorority tees and cookie-cutter Seven Jeans, then don’t be upset if I can’t tell you apart. You’re a blur of blond, a little army of thin but fluffy fembots. And, um, about those jeans. It’s lovely that you’re a wee size 2, but when you sit down in your chair like that, you reveal several inches of thong above your back waistband. Hike up the pants, ladies. I’m not a sidewalk inspector. Don’t show me cracks.

You there, Brad 3-of-7. No ski caps in class. No sunglasses either. This isn’t a methadone clinic. Sit up straight and try to stay alert. And you, handsome Brad between the two giggliest Ashleys. That’s a nice pair of Polos you’ve layered one over the other – black over pink, very bold. Your collars are starched so hard and popped so high they could slice an earlobe. But you also have a spotless white sweater tied around your shoulders. And you’re so tawny, you must be a regular customer of the spray-on tannery down the block. No, you’re not fooling me, dahling. Nuh uh. You haven’t told your parents, your Ashley-ettes or your fraternity Brads that you’re a friend of Dorothy, have you? But your outfit has just announced it to me. Behind your Blink 182 and Coldplay CDs, I’ll bet you’re hiding the soundtrack of Rent. You used a sorority girl as your beard to go see the road company of Mamma Mia! at the campus auditorium, didn’t you? Knew it. It doesn’t take Carson Kressley to suss you out of a crowd. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe. But you really should reconsider the Topsiders if you’re going to stay in the closet much past junior year.

OK, moving on. Back rows, you there, freaks, stoners, X-abusers and tweakers. Your row was napping before I’d finished the L’s and M’s on the roll call. Not good. And do you think we don’t see you digging into the pocket of your filthy denim jacket to retrieve chili-cheese Fritos and pop them into your jaws? Honey, from here I can tell your body musk reeks stronger than a 1970s “be in.” A quart of patchouli couldn’t mask the fact that you stayed up all night smoking spliffs with your roommate.

Wait a minute, what’s that? You, yeah, you with the fuchsia chunk in your black hair and the “Buck Fush” sticker on your backpack. You I like already. You’re not afraid. Your short but colorful life story probably includes some hard times, a few semesters at community college, maybe an alcoholic parent or a brother who’s in jail for dealing. You keep a journal and write in it every morning before your shift at the telemarketing job. You regard the Stepford teens all around you with a well-honed sense of irony and black humor. I like ya, kiddo. We’re gonna get along fine. Bless you and the used Honda Civic you drove in with.

Hmm, you with the tummy bulge. Preggers? No wedding ring? You look about six months along, meaning you’re going to pop over the fall break. We’ll work it out. The unwed mother is a regular sight around campus these days. Usually one in a class of mine per semester. They keep going, launch the baby and make it to finals. Don’t know how they do it but the unwed mothers are some of the best students I get.

A late-comer wafts in the door on a cloud of Chloe. She’s so late she’s missed most of the opening act. And you are…? “Um, I was thinking that maybe I’d like to, uh, add this class, OK?” she says, scanning the room with big doe eyes. I don’t think so. Buh-bye. She fades out the way she came in. The class laughs together. Good sign. We’re all on the same side now. Even the stoners blink back to consciousness. That little interruption has made us co-conspirators. You’re all right, I think. I’m going to like this bunch.

Try as I might to resist, I usually do like them. By the end of the term, I will know more than I ever wanted to about them. I will know which ones are funny, which ones lie, which ones have what it takes and which ones excuse themselves four times an hour to sneak to the bathroom for a toot of party powder or a binge of self-induced vomiting. I will even know which ones are responsible for getting me fired from my job.

On these first days of class, I look at all of them looking back at me and just hope I can answer their questions and maybe click the on-switch in their brains once in a while. I always hope this won’t be the class that kills it for me. I hope a lot of things.

All of this goes through my mind. But I keep it to myself.

What I actually say is, “Let’s look the syllabus. Assignment No. 1, dramatic moment essays. Due next Tuesday, no later.”


Blogger still life said...

oh how i miss fall and all that goes with it.

i think that i sat in the middle, closer to the side. sort of like orchestra right.

hwmtzi = how mitzi
adverb used for displays if idiocy

1:25 PM  
Blogger still life said...

oops sorry meant "of idiocy"
hhmmm could use a mirror about now.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous sarah m said...

Thanks for paragraph 8. That made me and my Honda Civic feel good. :)

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Mel said...

What about the shy, unattractive-but-sweet-looking girl who sits "toward" the back and makes "A's" but would consider dropping the course if you made her share her ideas in class? The one who laughs quietly with her hand over her thin lips at all of your intelligent jokes. Or does her kind not exist at schools like SMU?

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Judging a book by its cover… dangerous. I am an attractive person (was a model among many other things to help pay my way through college). I am intelligent (3.3 GPA – Finance, in spite of having obsessive-compulsive disorder which requires multiple medications). I dress well (work like hell to blend in with others so no one will ever suspect my mental illness — the kiss of death). During my college years I sat in the back row to the side for many reasons, but mainly to try and be invisible. I never met with instructors, I just did my work and earned A’s and B’s.

On the surface, many would judge me as a Brad. Not hardly. I am an actor in reality. I act as though I am normal and do an excellent job of it based on my appearance and socio-economic standing in this capitalistic society of ours. Inside my mind, however, I am constantly multi-tasking a tremendous amount of bullshit so that I can pay attention and converse with someone.

Hey Prof, can this count as extra credit? It seems like there should be some kind of fringe benefit to being fucked up.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Mr. Lee said...

I always wondered what my professors were thinking on the first day!

One of my favorites back in school (four months ago...) was a prof who was a total asshole the first day in every section. He would announce amounts of required reading that would slay even the most bookish among us and demand close reading analysis of obscure passages and wayward vocabulary words from every bit of it. He is reputed as a terror.

And then, without fail, as soon as drop/add was over, he'd dramatically scale back his syllabus and work closely with the class to ensure our understanding of all the material we took up. He managed to turn our perception of political philosophy from dusty tomes to the world around us. And if anyone plans on attending Washington and Lee in Virginia, let me know and I'll recommend his classes.


4:06 PM  
Anonymous Very Old Prof said...

To Anonymous:

Phantom Professor just gives the first step here. Each day in class you refine your initial snap judgements of every student in light of further observation. Also, as the years roll over you, you get better and better at "reading" your students.

Phantom Professor is still starting out. As the years roll over her, she (like many an old professor) will find herself "reading" her students so thoroughly that by the end of the first week she will accurately know some student's deepest secrets: even how this student was nearly killed; how that other student carelessly caused the death of a friend; and even worse ... This is a sad and terrible business, but it becomes second nature with time. After some years one stops seeking confirmation of what one has "read." It is more comfortable to pretend to oneself that one cannot "read" others so deeply, that this apparent deep knowledge of others is nothing but a bad dream after all.

Few young people will have enough skill to hide their secrets from such an old professor. Nearly all of us, old or young, wear all our worst secrets boldly emblazoned across all our clothes and our bearing and our words. In the company of other oldsters, we look away, and hope that they have extended us the same courtesy. Who can endure such self-disclosure?

[Phantom Professor, I tell you for a fact that this will prove to be the very hardest part of the craft you're beginning to master, and also its greatest burden. Deep knowledge is a source of great pain.]

Of course Phantom Professor will still keep all this to herself. Instead she will continue to say to her students, as I have done, "Now let's go over the syllabus ..."

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot how all the kids in the front row wear hoodies from schools they've been rejected from!

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Hillabeans said...

I like seeing it from a teacher's perspective. I guess it's great entertainment and good gossip material to read people.
Frankly, I'd be the burned-out student being forced to take the class to satisfy a requirement. Too tired and routined.

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Erp! I always sat in the front row (or occassionally second), but I never thought of myself as a suck-up. It's easier to pay attention there. The only time I ever sat in the back was if it was a class I already knew the material for, so paying close attention would merely be boring.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Gene said...

in one of my random daydreams, in an academic year long since forgotten, I mused what would happen if The Prof made us switch one day .. row 5 moves to row 1, 4 becomes 2 and so forth.

you'd have the stoners up front and the suckups in the rear (each pissing and moaning, for opposite reasons).

5:36 PM  
Blogger Red River said...

I sat up front because I am deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other. I need to be able to read lips.

Later I learned to sit in the front middle so I could hear my class mates as well.

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the college I went to there were a lot of students from Asian countries and the lecturer once asked us if we were racist. When everyone replied they weren't, he pointed out that all the international students sat on one side and all the local students on the other.

Even within my course there was a lot of variation with some people taking it very seriously and the less serious students up the back (they still got very good results though.)

I had some trouble in my third year and almost didn't make it through. Having to deal with a mental illness during college is very difficult.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

I'm curious, what do you think of the students who sit in the front, and seem to pay attention, but never participate in class, and rarely come in for office hours? What category do they go into? (Or do they not exist at your school?

6:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was always located as far to the side of the class as I could get. I think I found comfort in the walls or something. I was a good student, but really had to work some courage up to say something. Sometimes, I felt like my professors hated all of us. Those were the worst classes. Those were the classes I scooted closest to the wall. Sometimes, I felt like the students hated the professor.

7:41 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

Love the comment by Old Prof. Yes, "reading" them becomes easier each semester.

All your comments are great. I sat in the front in some classes (I recently finished my master's after three years of night classes) because the profs didn't speak above a whisper. Sat far away in another because the prof had terrible breath! (Altoids are a teacher's best friend sometimes.)

May sub-categories of where people sit. At this school, it also depends on the over-active a/c vents. Some rooms are like the arctic zone. Others are stifling hot.

I'm enjoying all of your observations. Thanks for writing!

7:48 PM  
Blogger War Bride said...

Me: first row, all the way on the left. I've learned not to be a wise ass anymore- I don't speak unless I have to, or it's speaking exercise.

I used to be stuck up, but now I'm just attentive. :P

9:51 PM  
Anonymous ... said...

I sit near the back. I'm short so my legs often don't quite reach the floor, the back offers extra chairs I can use for ottomans. I try to answer any question the rest of the class isn't. I know what it feels like to teach a bunch of slugs...and I also know how it feels when at least one kid has the nerve to speak up. It also cuts back on pissed off profs handing out extra reading to quiet classes.

10:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And if I sported a "Huck Fillary" sticker?

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Frances said...

I find this observation very interesting, because I see it in the high school classes I teach, but not so much when I attented uni myself. Mainly we started in the middle (front rows were only occupied in the big auditoriums). The stoners simply didn't attend -- Belgian system doesn't require attendance, lest it be a workshop or other. (So a writing class would probably require attendence, but not what we call hearing classes.)

Now what would you see in the big auditoriums I went to? The first students that start filing in of the couple of 100 that attend a hearing class would occupy the middle seats: you don't draw attention unto yourself there and can easily follow anything the prof says. The talkative bunch would sit in the back and the late comers occupy the seats in the front, because the rest is taken.

As a teacher I'm still learning to "read" my students. And yes, I hate the thong.

4:02 AM  
Blogger alg said...

New Rule; You can make any political comment you like, but it has to be original. No more repeating something you think is clever. It's not, we've all heard it twenty or thirty times before, and even the ones who laughed the first few times they heard it think you're an idiot to keep repeating it.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous WordSalad said...

Great post! So very very true.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Ragman said...

Heh, I sit in the front row because I hate having to look around someone else's head. Unless the prof thinks that the best place to stand is 4 inches in front of my desk. It happened this summer in an auditorium - he "chased" me up to the fourth row by the end of the week.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like my classroom, but you missed a few students:

*** Very intense, nearly angry Asian girls. They are usually first-generation immigrants from Laos or Thailand. They are sure that everyone else will think they can't do the work. They carry huge backpacks and get worried about the format of the first paper.

*** Small Asian boys, whose backpacks weigh more than they do. Their English skills aren't so great, so they never say anything in class. They also are more interested in work or hanging on their girlfriends than doing the work and often drop the class when they realize that there is a lot of work involved.

*** The one African-born older woman. She has a thick accent, but understands every word I say. She comes up after class and poses challenging questions she would never ask our class of 50.

*** The nursing and criminal justice students. They are looking for a way to pay the bills and my ethics class is a requirement. The first day of school they are defensive, they don't think they belong in this class or that the homework is really going to help them in "the real world". They often wear hospital scrubs or t-shirts that say "security" on them -- not as a fashion statement, but because they just got finished with their shifts at the nursing home or as a 'rent-a-cop'.

6:32 AM  
Blogger Beltane said...

Wow I have to admit that the blatant labeling is pretty rough. You just cannot judge every book by its cover, no matter how much they might fit a stereotypical mold.

That being said, it's wonderful you're a teacher. I could never be one, I'd piss everyone off in the first day and get fired immediately. I can't control my sarcasm :p

12:13 PM  
Blogger Ludovic said...

So where did you sit, Professor?

8:05 PM  
Anonymous lucille said...

Huh, wow. Wouldn't have guessed about the "intense, nearly angry Asian girls," but that does explain some strange vibes I've experienced with students.

But here's the great thing about students: they change. I love seeing the sweet scared freshman turn into the big feminist on campus, or the people-pleasing athlete realize he likes philosophy, or the pre-med who 5 years later thanks me for saving her from med school by introducing her to modern poetry.

12:13 AM  
Anonymous Fielding said...

What does it mean if you can't remember where you sat in class? Great blog!

5:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I forgot a student above..

### The older female student. She is married, often with grown or teenaged kids herself. She feels out of place, carries her books like someone is going to snatch them from her and comes up after class to tell me how she feels out of place and thinks she should drop the class. I ask to make sure he placement scores for reading and writing are in the college level and tell her that if she thinks she can get the work done, she should stay. What she doesn't know is that she's going to be one of the top three students in the class. Her life experience will help her to fully understand the course like most of her classmates won't until they are 40. She also doesn't know that she's my favorite and that I root for her every time I see a paper or exam, hoping it is an A.

One of the challenges of a two year school is that students come and go so rapidly, you don't get to see the long-term changes.

7:31 AM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

I agree that students change. While I've never seen a tweaker move all the way to the front row, I have seen some of the clones start to break away from the pack, typically in their senior year.

Where'd I sit? In undergrad school, I was a second-rower. In grad school, I was one of the front-row chatterboxes, I'm afraid. But that position was also a result of my failing eyesight. Even with the "near/far" contact lens combo, I have to squint to see those PowerPoints sometimes.

You know you're getting old when you tell your students to print everything out in 12- or 14-point type. Sigh.

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anya said...

I'm a front-row kid. I suppose it's partly as a measure of respect--a way to tell the teacher that "I didn't come here to slack off or pass notes in the back" (I'm still in high school, and most kids are only there because they have to be). Besides, I'm easily distracted, and the front row forces me to stay attentive. I don't usually draw attention to myself unless I actually have something to add.

I don't see this as sucking up; to me it's always been a question of politeness.

10:36 AM  
Blogger PowerProf said...

Sure you're not teaching my classes? All those Ashleys and Brads, oh-my! You crack me up; great blog :)

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I move around each classroom to get a diferent perspective, meet more people, and screw with people's assumptions of seating. I like people's confusion when I force them to sit in a different spot and start a chain reaction.

Untill it get's cold. Then my skinny ass is right next to the radiator.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, "professor", I'm very impressed with those psychic powers that provide you with detailed insight into the most minute aspects of the lives of complete strangers, but I have just one question: if you're so smart and can read people so well, why weren't you able to keep yourself from getting fired?

Maybe you need to spend a little more time trying to understand yourself and a little less time patting yourself on the back for supposedly being able to write the life story of someone just from a glance.

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Ragman said...

[quote] if you're so smart and can read people so well, why weren't you able to keep yourself from getting fired?

Maybe you need to spend a little more time trying to understand yourself[/quote]

No, to avoid being fired at all, you have to understand your BOSS. You also have to be willing to betray your own principals to appease management so that your boss wouldn't want to fire you. In other words, she'd have had to become something she despised in order to have kept her job. Standing your ground, even if you're absolutely right, is a good way to get fired, depending on your boss's personality.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Very Old Professor said...

To Anonymous (again):

Were you referring to me and to my earlier post about "reading" students? If so, the powers in question are not "psychic" at all. The skill is what stage conjurers call "cold reading." There are some good articles about the skill in _The Skeptical Inquirer_ by James Randi and by Ray Hyman. It is, I think, an essential skill for any aspiring professor

Moreover, I was never fired, but retired full of years and honor, despite having derailed my university presidents' and provosts' ill-advised plans more than once. If you can read your university administrators skillfully enough, you can do this and not get too badly harmed in the process.

If you were referring to Phantom Professor, then your comment is just a piece of mean-spirited snarkiness. She's still just starting out.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous misslynn said...

you could have been describing my undergrad.

for all i know, you were ;)

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Lee said...

Mr. Lee said:

"One of my favorites back in school (four months ago...) was a prof who was a total asshole the first day in every section...."

This is an old dodge--run the slackers out & get the class size down. The profs. who engage in this quite often have strong slacker tendencies themselves. Geez, if I could run out the Brads & Ashleys, the ball-cap people, the terminally confused, the grade-grubbers, etc. I would have a great class--all two or three of us.

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting insight. I have had the pleasure of being a military flight instructor in the classroom and the air. Everyone wears the same uniforms, but there's still great variation among students. Some of my best students were totally silent in the classroom, other than a very insightful question now and again, and machines in the plane. Some of my worst were cocky funny guys in class who turned into mush in the airplane. One of those whiners even reported me as being "dangerous" in the air. He was wrong of course, just scared. I never could read them very well in the classroom, but get them in the air and I could tell how things would go in the preflight briefing for the most part.

5:37 PM  
Blogger BranV said...

As a former underachiever, return to college at 32 and pray to God your ass makes it past those rows of tiny little desks without knocking out an 18 year old Barbie doll, I definitely feel unrepresented :)

My first day back to school, I tried to sit as close to the door as possible when those frequent "hell, my bladder is aging even faster then I am" occur. One class in particular, I found I absolutely had to move closer to the front so that I could hear the professor. *Shudder*

I speak up...ok, perhaps I speak up ALOT. I swear to God I make every attempt to give others a chance, but feel a need to rescue the professor when she asks a question and is met with the blankest stares this side of a lobotomy. Uncomfortable silences...I'm plagued with them in my classes. So alas...I guess I have become the front row suck-up, even if I am three rows back. But as stated above, by now I've learned that interacting in class can make all the difference btween a 3.75 and a 4.0. HAHA, at last some benefit to aging other then lower car insurance rates.

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

In high school I rarely remember having much choice of where to sit. (Though in one class we got to pick our seats on the first day, and by the end of the first week my friend and I had gotten moved to opposite corners of the room. Mr. E. was a great teacher (English), and he warmed to both of us eventually, but no matter how many times students' seats changed, we stayed on opposite sides of the room. :) )

In undergrad, I almost always sat in the back, and rarely spoke up in class. Just shyness, really.

Interesting post and comments, everyone...

10:05 AM  
Anonymous milo_went said...

"I will even know which ones are responsible for getting me fired from my job."

Yeah, they must be the losers who appear from the time to time in these comment threads.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was pretty much a front-rower, but that was the result of being beaten up or at least harrassed regularly by the back row kids when I was in grade school.

I'm now a prof.

I don't quite make the "snap" judgements on the first day, but I will say that when I see someone who looks "older" in class, that makes me happy - usually it's the "nontraditional" students who work hard, and care, and get good grades because of it.

I also find I have a soft spot for the dorky or nerdy looking kids - the ones who wear the SpongeBob t-shirts (in college) or t-shirts that reference some obscure band (or are "band nerd" t-shirts). Often they are also good students who care.

What I find happens more often than not, is that my judgements of a person develops as the class proceeds - the people who constantly ask for extra credit, who tell me they "need" to leave early on multiple days, who sigh and roll their eyes and complain when they're asked to do a more-than-one-page homework - I see them as the Professional Victims.

There's also the Unengaged - the ones who only show up spottily, or only on test days, who fail to hand in the regular assignments that are the bread and butter of the course, the ones who take their D and are happy that they don't have to repeat the course (and then, some of them, inexplicably, come to me asking me to fill out recommendations for them).

There's the Workmanlikes - the solid students who get B's and maybe A's but who aren't particularly original in their work, and who often shut down when you ask them to come up with an independent project.

And then there are the Stars - the people who make teaching worthwhile. The ones who ask the tough questions in class, sometimes questions you never thought of yourself. The ones who seem to live for lab, who love doing the research, the ones who come by your office not because they're having problems, but because they want more information on that.

I guess I tend to judge people more on behavior than appearence...

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only a neophyte "professor" (whose bitter diatribes mark both arrogance and inelegance) and a retired "expert" (whose field and better days have long since passed him by) could so boldly claim prescience based on nothing more than membership in the academe.

Cold reading indeed.... I sense nothing more the a sniff of a claimed superiority and self-imposed marginalization.

The skills you claim are utter nonsense. While first impressions are helpful, there are nothing more than that...first impressions....and cloud your judgment as you pigeonhole those poor folks all the while spouting your eloquence in the name of "academic freedom."

There is no mind quite so prejudiced as those who loudly trumpet how unbiased they are in the face of everyone else's bias.

5:59 PM  
Blogger mattbrodie said...

Online Psychic Readings. Simply, with your computer keyboard ask the reader your questions and the truth will be revealed, Online Psychic Readings

4:46 PM  

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