While I have taken “That Guy” as my subject matter this week, I want to emphasize that the person about whom I’m speaking might actually be a member of either gender, it’s just that other phrases don’t have quite the right connotations. We all know That Guy: the person who interrupts at an inopportune moment to ask what seems like an obtuse question. In social settings, this person is the conversation killer, whose commentary elicits awkward silences while standing around the water cooler or sitting down for dinner. You know, the one who interrupts a lively conversation to share a depressing and highly awkward anecdote about their ex or something? In terms of teaching – or any form of public presentation for that matter – this is the person that breaks in right when you’re building steam towards your brilliantly witty finale. Perhaps they have an important insight or a truly probing question? Nope, they want to quibble over how many miscarriages Catherine of Aragon had, or to correct your pronunciation of an exotic place in order to prove that you are, in fact, an idiot.
The question is: how does one deal with this person? The power dynamic involved in the situation – which is what often seems to elicit the interruption in the first place – means that you can’t return the favour and engage in some good, old-fashioned, verbal sparring. If you want to both maintain your authority and protect the classroom as a safe space where students feel free to share their opinions, you’re going to need to find other ways of deflecting the assault. Personally, I like to try to cut it off before it happens. My infamous 4-inch stilettos help with this (very few people want to mess with a woman wearing 4-inch stilettos, particularly in an environment where other authority figures tend to wear granny shoes). My general demeanor and organized presentation also help put me on firmer footing. But I think the most effective way of warding off snarky responses is simply faking it until you make it.
Intellectuals and professionals routinely end up in situations where we have to act as the authority on something outside our precise field of expertise. When this happens, imposter syndrome sets, especially because we have spent decades learning precisely how little we know about any given phenomenon. The result is that sometimes we can project our anxieties through our body language and tone of voice. But for the love of all that’s holy, if you are standing in front of 150 people, don’t let this happen! Regardless of how half-baked your own opinions might seem to be, formulate an argument and own it. This isn’t to say that you can’t accept legitimate criticism – I’ll get to that in a minute – but anyone who’s a performer or whose job depends on making presentations will tell you that you’re not going to sell the material, no matter how accurate it is, unless it looks and sounds as if you mean business too. This is easier if you remember that getting something wrong will not result in the end of the world. In fact, there’s a good chance that those listening to you talk won’t even notice a minor error. Channel your inner Saturday Night Live, and remind yourself that if you make a mistake: “So what, who cares?”
Unfortunately, however, preventative measures don’t always work. So what do you do if your best sales pitch still doesn’t deter That Guy? There isn’t any one single answer, and honestly, you mostly have to think on your feet, even though every time it happens it’s a bit of a cold, hard, slap in the face. The hardest I was ever hit was my first day of teaching a year-long seminar, ie: that day that sets the tone for the next eight months of your life. We were talking about religion and society in the sixteenth century, and it was going pretty well when we got to the topic of witchcraft. While I was explaining the reasons why early moderns burned witches, someone put up their hand: “Excuse me, but are you justifying the Catholic Church murdering people?!?!” As this is a real story, let me assure you that a simple “that’s not what I mean at all, let me rephrase” won’t cut it if this happens to you. In the moment, I was frustrated and more than a little annoyed. In retrospect, however, I have to applaud the kid who did it. He forced me to explain why anachronism is bad and to flesh out the history. Because I didn’t panic – ok, there was definitely a little internal panicking going on, but I held it together on the outside – I was able to shift the discussion towards something more productive, and the class was given 20 minutes to debate the issue of historical relativism. I guess what I’m trying to say is that even if a student outright accuses you of being a bloodthirsty, un-evolved failure of a human being, it is possible to use that as a teachable moment… you just have to get a little creative.
[She’s a witch!]
There are also other, less abrasive, versions of That Guy. Some interrupt, even in very large classes, to ask about the smallest of details, to offer historical trivia that they feel is important, or to call you out when you mis-speak. Your internal reaction to these people is not going to be great in the moment either, particularly if you are already feeling like an imposter that day. But if you can handle the situation well the first few times, interruptions will become less frequent and you will maintain a better control of the room. If you feel knowledgeable enough, elaborate on why you neglected to mention a particular detail and re-emphasize the narrative. Or, if you mispronounced a term or mis-spoke on an issue, just acknowledge that and explain that your expertise lies elsewhere. Although I wouldn’t do it more than once a week, it is also OK to say you don’t know something. Even better, if you don’t know, but it may be useful information, have students Google it; most classrooms are now wifi equipped and many students have laptops.
Moreover, it’s important to recognize that although it always feels like That Guy is just trying to call you out, sometimes students behave in this manner because a) they’re genuinely engaged and curious or b) they’re autistic or have special needs which cause them to focus on minute details instead of the big picture (that said, autistic students will often wait until after the lecture to quiz you). The more you give people the benefit of the doubt and accept that their behavior may not be hostile, the better your response time and reaction to it. I’ve encountered all sorts of reasons why students might publicly test my knowledge during my time as a teacher. Ultimately, the hardest part of all of this has been not reacting with hostility myself – no matter how confrontational a student might be, I try to remember that respect is my governing pedagogical principle. If you can keep your cool, the rest is easy.
Finally, always remember that whether you have 20 students or 200, you can’t please them all, so some are going to push back and that’s OK. Different people have different tastes and different preferences for learning. I often quiz my students 3 or 4 weeks into the semester and ask them about their favourite and least-favourite readings, activities, or lectures (depending on the class), as well as what I’m doing well and what I’m doing poorly. Without fail, the most beloved and the most detested thing are the same. Actually, I highly recommend offering your students just such an informal survey, both for your own peace of mind and in order to present the inevitably incompatible results to the class later on. When students see that it’s not just the teacher with whom they disagree, but their peers as well, they often become a little more conciliatory.
I’ve pretty much covered my own experiences and ideas about how to respond here, but I’d love to hear from readers about what sorts of seemingly confrontational behavior they’ve encountered, and what strategies they use for diffusing it. It’s a difficult problem, and I’m always open to new approaches!