High noon in the lecture hall

May 16, 1997

Young tutors should be trained to cope with students behaving badly, argue Adrienne Cutner and Isis Brook

More and more postgraduates are teaching and there seems to be little doubt that they are doing a good job. Students often find postgraduate tutors more approachable and willing to talk through difficulties that the student may not bring to a lecturer. However, this picture of bonhomie and shared learning can have a negative side. In our experience of training postgraduates it is very common for them to report teaching problems stemming from difficult student behaviour. This can range from students being uncooperative or surly to making threats of violence. Sexual harassment is notoriously hard to define, but instances that have been reported to us range from subtle forms of innuendo to touching or insisting the tutor looks through sexually explicit material thinly disguised as research.

On New Approaches to University Teaching, a course at Lancaster University, we use role play to allow the postgraduates to play out each other's worst nightmare and give them the chance to test out different strategies. The course is long, so by the time we reach this part participants know each other well and are happy to model extremely difficult situations, only giving up when the "tutor" has really convinced them of their ability to cope. In the past, postgraduates have played out for each other scenarios such as a dominant student taking over a discussion or a group who refuse to say anything.

Those who chose to tackle the areas of sexual harassment or blatant bullying or even dealing with a difficult head of department find that they need to develop and be comfortable with exactly the same kind of strategies in order to dispel the threat. In role play they may not be able to do this at the first or second attempt, but once they work out an approach, the words, that they can feel comfortable with - they are usually amazed at how simple it is.

This approach aims to draw out individuals' unique personal resources and encourages them to develop their own ways of dealing with difficult situations. In this way people are able not only to prevent many of those situations arising but also are able to deal with them in a manner which allows them to retain a sense of personal power and self-esteem.

Higher education is an arena which, perhaps naively, we feel should be relatively free from bad behaviour. So, why does it occur? Could there be a link with students' perceived status of the tutor, and are teaching practices relevant?

Many postgraduates are employed to teach seminar groups rather than large lectures. The relative intimacy of these groups allows students to exhibit behaviour that they would not risk in a larger group.

The increasing number of mature students means that postgraduates may find themselves teaching people who are many years their senior. This can be compounded by the previous work experience of the student - it may be difficult for someone who has been used to a managerial job to accept the authority of a 23-year-old. Insecurity in the new environment and ignorance of its norms seem to result in a recourse to old patterns of behaviour and the ex-manager uses strategies that were successful in the workplace, but are inappropriate in the context of higher education.

Postgraduates are able to relate closely to the student's experience and can be excellent at using student-centred practices. However, the breakdown of traditional power relations can mean that barriers other than those detrimental to learning can also be crossed.

Whatever the causes, the typical scenario that ends with the tutor feeling undermined, powerless and afraid always begins almost imperceptibly. We have identified three phases which we call the "I thought nothing of it at the time" phase, the "recognition" phase and the "I can't cope" phase. A particularly worrying feature is the change that can be observed in the behaviour of the person being intimidated. The difficulty encountered seems to chip away at the tutor's self-confidence not just in their teaching but in all aspects of life. If the student were to exhibit the behaviour of the last phase at the beginning the tutor would be bemused or even shocked and may be able to declare immediately that the behaviour was unacceptable. However, the gradual build up of the student testing the tutor's response to minor infringements of normal protocol wears away the power base and confidence of the tutor so that by the time they recognise what has been happening the situation is both out of hand and they are less able to cope.

Tutors often resort to keeping their heads down and gritting their teeth because it will soon be the end of the course. Although understandable, it is not a useful approach. It does not confront the student with the effects of their behaviour, the tutor's confidence remains undermined and there has often been a detrimental effect on the learning experience of the rest of the group. The classic advice of colleagues to "have it out with them" may work in phase one, but by the time the postgraduate admits to there being a problem they can be too undermined to be able to do that. For many postgraduates admitting the problem exists is tantamount to admitting that they have failed. In the murky procedures that surround the allocation of teaching in many universities they legitimately feel that it harms their chances of being offered more teaching.

Case studies often show that the tutor should have acted sooner. At the first sign of trouble they should have laid down strict guidelines, clarified their boundaries and reasserted their authority. They cannot do those things until they have recognised that there is a problem. Part of that recognition is seeing that their power has slipped away, that they are already on the run. Whether they can stop running, turn and face the protagonist and clearly state what it is about their behaviour that is unacceptable will depend on their personal abilities and resources.

The right backup from a department, institution or union helps. For example, being treated as a member of the teaching staff will go a long way towards making postgraduates a less obvious target for unacceptable behaviour and will give them the confidence to act from a position of authority

Policies, guidelines and procedures are only one side of the story. Research in social psychology has shown that targets of harassment succeed best in overcoming the difficulty not when institutional measures have been called into play, not when the issues have been discussed with friends and family, but when they have used their own personal resources in confronting the initiator assertively. Identifying the difference between a threat to the tutor's authority and a faux pas is a skill that tutors develop. Managing a discussion so that students feel encouraged to speak their minds without letting banter drift into sexist/racist or defamatory remarks aimed at the tutor or anyone else in the group is a skill tutors develop.

Institutional guidelines and controls which try to regulate behaviour can be a useful backdrop as can departmental support. But for those at the frontline in teaching, dealing with the full complexity of interpersonal exchanges and group dynamics there is nothing quite like being taught how to do it.

Adrienne Cutner is a psychotherapist and a lecturer with the department of continuing education at Lancaster University. Isis Brook is a philosopher with the school of independent studies and works for the Unit for Innovation in Higher Education at Lancaster.

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