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Using Their Powers For Your Good

This is a first – a post that gets classified under both “moron management” AND “role models”.
If you are a female professor who has ever had to deal with rowdy, disrespectful boys in your classroom, I urge you to read Susanna Ashton’s column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This must surely rank as one of the most clever examples of moron management I have ever heard of. Ashton had a class of 22, 17 of whom were men, and 11 of those were all from one fraternity – the wittily euphemized Kappa Wokka Wakka. The KWW’s were rowdy and disruptive, albeit in a fraternal, mutually supportive kind of way.

While attendance seemed better than average and a lot of the boisterous behavior seemed to keep things in an upbeat mood, the cheers from the class every time I praised a comment became increasingly disconcerting.
Me: “Good point, Sean. That’s very thoughtful.”
Class: “WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP.”
Me: “I like the way Eddie framed his argument there. Did everyone notice how Eddie termed . . .
Class (interrupting): “EddiEE! EddiEE! EddiEE”

In despair, she decides to manipulate them into behaving themselves. One day she asks all the KWW boys to stay after class for a little chat:

It recently came to my attention, I said, that they were all from the same fraternity. I told them I would like their leadership help. There were several transfer students in the class, as well as two international students and a very recent immigrant to the United States. I explained that since they were clearly taking such a “leadership” role in keeping a positive atmosphere in the class, I would really like their help in reaching out to the other students.
I suggested they scatter their seating around the classroom differently so they weren’t clustered together. I asked them to help me elicit participation from the other students by asking follow-up questions of one another in group discussion. I asked them to use the first names of other students in conversation — not necessarily to nickname them as they did with one another — but simply to make them feel part of the group. I asked the young men to put special effort into listening and responding to the other students in the class. Lastly, I asked them to help me keep everyone else on task. (That last appeal was especially disingenuous since they were the primary offenders on that score but I figured appealing to their sense of themselves as leaders who were skilled in group dynamics might work.)

What’s especially interesting is that her transformational strategy, begun in despair and cynicism, ended up transfor ing the teacher as well as the students.

As the weeks went on and I saw “my frat boys,” as I came to think of them, choose to pair off in partner exercises with the international students and transfer students, I saw a collective solidarity build in the class. I had exaggerated my sense of the situation in order to calm down the frat boys but now that I saw them purposefully including the international students and transfer students in everything, I realized that those students had indeed been marginalized. Our work became more focused and the rowdiness soon diminished significantly.

My prejudices against frat boys led me to sarcastically invoke their supposed interest in “leadership” skills in order to manipulate their little gang. And yet those same students forced me to acknowledge my own shortcomings in having underestimated them. Their genuine attempt to create a positive and more scholarly environment shamed me into respecting them and their efforts.

I have to admit, I’d have been just as cynical as Ashton, and the best I would have hoped for would have been to quiet the class down a little. I don’t view frat boys as leaders. Most especially I don’t view frat boys as leaders on diversity. They’re the ones always doing dreadful things like holding Cross the Border parties (ah, Duke – my alma mater is always making me proud). But her results are remarkable. They suggest that, when properly motivated, morons can be turned into diversity change agents. I consider what Ashton asked “her” frat boys to do to be a form of diversity work, and they took to it like…um…frat boys to a kegger.
Could it be this simple? Call them leaders, tell them how great they are, and ask them to do you a big favor that involves reaching out across difference.
Just don’t tell them they are doing diversity work.

  1. November 17, 2006 at 3:03 pm

    As a former adjunct at several community colleges and one university (the latter with a huge frat population), I’ve been guilty of the same anti-frat prejudice and it was brilliant to see it turned around in this post. One of the things I learned gradually as an instructor is that I got what I expected out of my students, for the most part. If I expected them to fail, they generally did. If I expected them to work hard and give me their best, they would, with a few exceptions. There are always exceptions, but it became a good rule of thumb. I think the key was not making the relationship an adversarial one, but a collaboration out of what was a competition for attention.

  2. November 17, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    Steriotypes and inbuilt prejudice. How surprising that these would negatively impact academic performance. We know it works for females – suggest they will fail or that certain subjects are inappropriate and they fail or drop out. It doesn’t surprise me that overcoming one’s intrinsic prejudice in any circumstance leads to more positive outcomes for all involved. Something I wish more people would realise.
    Still, it is a wonderful story and it highlights the point well: prejudging people based on appearance, behaviour, gender, social status, group or any other category is to sell everyone involved short.

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