tv-friendly prof (warning: this is long)

As per my usual late-night TV perusals, I happened upon the Channel 11 station (usually the E! Network) playing the local CHCH News show “Live @ 5:30”. I notice that they’re talking about the phenomenon of female bosses and the different effects it may have on men and women. They have 2 guests on the show: one is a female VP of a corporation, and the other, a sociologist.

Wait. I know that face. The glasses, the blah haircut, and the slight way he speaks upwards instead of straight-on….my 2nd year stats professor, Scott Schieman (I’m not going to try and hide his name, since he was publicly on TV).

Usually, I’m quick to forget my past profs unless they’ve had an impact on me, good or bad. Prof. Schieman was a mix of both: he actually had me kind of understanding stats, and he once referred to me as an “idiot in a lecture hall of over 200 students in my program.

Now a film studies major, I am no longer in the sociology department, but at the time, I was, and my sociology buddy had dropped that class, so I was sitting alone in a class full of the peers I saw from class to class, week to week.

I can’t clearly remember what the exact words were, but his comment was prompted by me trying to answer a question he had put out (and no one was putting up their hand), and I got it wrong. He, as every good professor does, promptly said “No.” and then added in a joke that “…in the old days a teacher might call you an ‘idiot’ for that answer.”

Awkward chuckle from the class.

I precisely remember feeling oddly numb from his response and wanting to run out of the classroom and hide. But I resisted that urge and joined in on “the joke” and smiled nervously instead. I rode out the rest of lecture quietly and walked home replaying what had happened over and over in my head.

I had never thought such unprofessionalism could come out of the mouth of such a smart and put-together person. Was it his ego? No, it didn’t seem like it. Either way, I wanted to let him know how I felt. So I sent him this sternly worded email:

Hi Professor,

I just wanted to let you know that I felt quite attacked when you unknowingly called me out as an “idiot”, and that it was really uncalled for and incredibly unprofessional. I realize that it was done in jest, and just trying to lighten up the class’ atmosphere, but it was really unfair that you chose to pick on me because I felt compelled to participate in class discussion. I know that you felt really bad about it afterwards as well, but I just thought I would let you know personally that you did cross the line.

Especially in a subject where I see the same students in other courses, I felt incredibly embarrassed and ashamed. I tried to ignore your comments during the lecture time because I didn’t want to extend my embarrassment, but it doesn’t forgive the fact that you did what you did. This is not a request for an apology or anything, just a reminder that I think you should be more careful next time.

-jenny

And after sending that – which at the time was quite cathartic for me – I was so over the situation. I didn’t want his apology or even to bring it up anymore, I just wanted to learn my stats. But he must have felt bad, because he sent this email in response:

Hi Jenny,

I apologize for the comment. But, I really didn’t mean the comment the way it came across. It wasn’t meant to be personal to you–I defintely by no means was referring to you as an “idiot”–I would never do that. I was referring to the NPR narcissism media clip that we listened to in which they were referring to people being praised in school even when they don’t perform well (“the extra stars even if a student fails” example we had used as an illustration). I was actually trying to refer to that by saying “in the old days a teacher might call an incorrect answer out in a harsher way.” Anyhow, I fear it came out the wrong way and that was why I immediately clarified by saying how it wasn’t directed at you and the tricky nature of the ANOVA material.

I always do my best to respect students. I care about teaching and students’ learning in an environment that is comfortable…so I’m very sorry that my comment came across that way. Again, though, I must stress that it wasn’t meant as a personal comment to or against you. I have appreciated your contributions in prior classes and hope this won’t discourage you. And, I apologize and will apologize publicly to the entire class after the next test.

Regards,
Professor Schieman

The next class was a test week, so there was no public speaking to the students by the prof. I was glad, I didn’t want to be distracted. Then he sent an email a couple days later, saying he wanted to have a meeting with me instead, because “There is a positive learning opportunity in this experience that I’d like to express to you: It is about reading and interpreting other people’s intentions.”

Umm…OK. He’s implying I have issues in interpreting his intentions. Did he not read my email? I clearly said I knew it was innocent joking, but being in his position of authority, his comments were completely inappropriate. Was he trying to dump the guilt on me?

It was a crazy time of year – I had a full class schedule, plus work, plus extracurriculars. I honestly didn’t have the time to meet up with him, so I offered him my private number for him to call me, since he explained that what he wanted to say to me was hard to express through written word. He must have been busy too, because he responded a long while later with this:

Hi Jenny,

I’ve been swamped and haven’t had a chance to respond. I was only going to underscore to you two things that I’ve learned over the years: 1) it is often a good idea to delay sending emails when emotions are high and 2) that I suspect that most profs (including me) have good intentions when they interact with students during class. Of course, with public speaking comes the risk of misunderstandings. In this case, no harm was intended.

In any case, I think we can move on from this. As I said before, you’ve made good contributions to the discussion in class–this hasn’t gone unnoticed. So, I hope it continues in the last two lectures.

Regards,
Prof. Schieman

WTF. I HAD moved on. I told him I didn’t need an apology, but he kept bringing it up. And what right does he have in saying that I was writing emails out of unruly anger? Was I wrong in letting him know about the low-blow he took at me? Wouldn’t an educator be glad when students take time out to give them feedback on the day’s lecture?

With this last piece of correspondence, he totally disregarded the fact that he did belittle me (albeit unknowingly) in front of my academic peers and completely make me (and others in the class, which I later found out) lose respect for him.

So here he is today, talking about the tricky relationships between men and women in the workplace when one sex has authority over the other. I was distracted so I wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying, but the issue of respect and boundaries must have come up.

Yeah, he’s so qualified to talk about the issue.

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One thought on “tv-friendly prof (warning: this is long)

  1. I thought that if he let it go after the first emailed response, it would’ve been fine.

    I agree that we as individuals continue to develop our skills for “reading and interpreting other people’s intentions,” but it’s also equally important to convey our own messages in a way that is clear with intention and a focused interpretation, if that is the point of the message — particularly in a classroom setting.

    That being said, the written word is interpreted by the reader and their experience, thus it tends to be beneficial to have an in-person discussion (or very least on the phone) rather than email correspondence. Given both of your circumstances, obviously email was the option of choice.

    Even though you expressed that you didn’t want an apology, I feel that it would have been even more unprofessional as an educator not to address your email and/or apologize, if warranted.

    Having said all that I would say instead of focusing on each of the three individual emails as separate entities, read them all as one. So things you were looking for in the third email might have been addressed in the first email.

    Now, I have no idea who he is and didn’t see the interview, but we all know that some people are good talkers but don’t show by example. You might find that given his academic knowledge and experience he actually projected many good points about gender-based workplace behaviour. And for the most part for an on-air interview, what you see and portray on camera is what is important to the audience.

    I know those types of people. Some of them are good at getting their valid point across, some of them are terrible at it, and some of them simply disregard their audience.

    I would admit that I might have reacted similarly if a situation like that came up around me. At least you wrote the letter in the first place to express what you thought. Having been an educator for a number of years, I encourage everyone I work with to provide me with feedback whenever anything comes up – good and bad. That’s the only way I will know where to continue working on and to ensure that what I perceive as my “message” is coming off as expected.

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