How to Survive: Students attempting to ‘freak’ you out

Students really enjoy trying to freak their tutors out. I think it probably makes them feel cool or smarter or better about themselves or whatever, and variations on this theme also seem to involve trying to make their tutors feel old, inadequate or poor. Of course, we are almost always all three. Anyway, I think at these moments, however stunned you might be (and I am usually pretty stunned) it’s important to try not to look like a fuckwit (thereby denying the student their jollies).

Recently, I had a student bail me up, and tell me that his bestie (who was standing beside him, grinning) was a poetry major, who delivered his performances via telepathy. This was supposed to mean he held a microphone to his head for three minutes while performing, and thought his poem for an unsuspecting (open mike?) audience. My student insisted the rustling coming from his microphone was his “synapses firing” rather than very obviously, his hair. In this instance, I went with it, grinning, and asking when and where he was next doing a reading, while being coy enough to not appear gullible. Or in other words, fight petulant irony with petulant irony.

Undergraduate students often think they’re being super original and fascinating when they’re not. I can forgive this of those who are straight out of high school because they’re young and silly and it’s all fun and games until someone loses a theorist. However, on occasion, as a tutor, you will be required to teach someone who is as old, or older than you. This shifts the teaching power balance in a pretty significant way, especially if that student notices, and decides to make an issue out of it.

When I was an undergraduate student, I witnessed a classics tutor in his late 20s being called a “young upstart” by a rather mature age student in my class. She was a retiree, doing the class for the novelty, and was upset by being failed for handing in half a page of dot points, in the place of a 1500 word essay.

One of my students recently told me she was old, but not as old as me. Which was a fascinating calculation considering she’d been in and out of university for several more years than I, thereby making her significantly older. Regardless of the mathematical situation, she felt like we shared a special ‘oldies’ bond that gave her license to giggle inappropriately and disengage from any theoretically rigourous discussion by observing that it was “stupid”.

Another variation on the freak out, where you really need to keep your head, is when your thesis supervisor or some other tenured member of faculty tries it. Usually, they will slip something along the lines of “when I was sunbaking nude on the weekend…” or “while I was snorting coke in the toilets at the conference…” into an otherwise tame conversation. This is a test. It is essential not to let your face register any affectation of shock, no matter how outlandish the original comment was. Otherwise, you will be considered puritanical, conservative and as dull as the undergraduates.

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