Fear and Humiliation as Legitimate Teaching Methods

A researcher who studies World of Warcraft likens leading in-game raiding parties to teaching a class.

Raiding has taught me that being a good teacher requires laying down
strict guidelines while simultaneously demonstrating real care for your
students. The stronger the ties of trust and respect between teacher
and student, the more weight they will bear. In the past I’ve cringed
when my raid leaders cheerfully announced that we would spend the next
four hours dying over, and over, and over again to a boss who seemed
impossible to defeat. But I’ve trusted them, done my job, and
ultimately we have triumphed because they insisted on perseverance. The
visiting raid leader who took us through the Kael raid lacked that
history with us — he was too much of a stranger to ask us to dig deep
and give big.

A willingness to take risks can also be shored up by commitment and
drive. Our guest leader drove my guildies nuts, but impressed me with
his professionalism. Does this mean that after graduate school even
generous doses of sadism seem unremarkable? Perhaps. But it also
indicates that I was willing to work hard to see Kael dead, even if it
meant catching some flack. For them, it was a game, and when it stopped
being fun they lost interest.

What I learned that night was that I believe in the power of fear
and humiliation as teaching methods. Obviously, I don’t think they are
teaching methods that should be used often, or be at the heart of our
pedagogy. But I do think that there are occasions when it is
appropriate to let people know that there is no safety net. There are
times — not all the time, or most of the time, but occasionally and
inevitably — when you have to tell people to shut up and do their job.
I’m not happy to discover that I believe this, and in some ways I wish
I didn’t. But Warcraft has taught me that I there is a place for “sink
or swim” methods in teaching. (Alex Golub, Inside Higher Ed)

The headline immediately caught my attention.  I went to Catholic high
school, and while most of my teachers were laypeople (that is, not nuns
or priests), my freshman year I had an octogenarian Latin teacher (a priest) who
would threaten to throw erasers at us — but always with a twinkle in
his eye.  He was actually very patient and charming, but he used the
eraser threat as if he were parodying the stereotype of a strict

My Algebra II / Trigonometry teacher was not a parody, she was serious.
Usually, the only praise she ever gave was moving on to the next
student after you’d survived your grilling. After a quiz, she would say
“Everyone who got an A, bring your paper up.  Now everyone who got a B,
bring your paper up.  Now, all the rest of you.”  That was a sort of
reverse humiliation, since the rest of us saw that someone was able to
earn an A. She called us “Sir Jerz” or “Lady Ryan,” which I suppose was
vaguely appropriate, since our mascot was a knight, but I’m sure her
goal was to take us down a peg or two and remind us who was really in
charge.  If we answered her question with a “yes,” she’d say “Yes,
what?” And we’d say, “Yes, sister.” 

I’ve had plenty of other
teachers who were more personable, and made me feel happier while I was in the
classroom, but she really stands out in my memory. But boy, she really made me want to study.

I usually start my basic comp class with a brief lecture to introduce
an upcoming assignment and/or introduce a new topic.  If we have time,
I’ll try to do some writing activity, and then I end the class with an
open workshop, during which I move around the room so I can have a
quick one-on-one conversation with each student. 

We’re in a
computer classroom, so the students have to look past their computer
screens to see me; often, the temptation for them to check their
Facebook, or look up new hairstyles on the internet, or do homework for
other classes, is just too strong. 

Today a student had his headphones
on, and was fiddling with his iPod during the lecture, and I just had to say something.

I simply
asked him whether he’d join us today, and without any fuss, he did.

Several times I’ve noticed two particular students in the in that class talking to each other.  The first couple of times, I simply called on one or the other of them, or I’ve moved to stand near them.  But a few weeks ago, they were talking and laughing while another student was speaking, and I asked everyone to stop for a moment while I explained the difference between not paying attention and being actively disruptive. 

“It won’t happen again,” said one of the gigglers, and to her credit, it hasn’t.

Back to the music-loving student. At
the time, I was discussing an upcoming persuasive essay, and I was
trying to model the thought process that one would undergo when testing
to see whether a topic was worth arguing.  Because the headphone incident happened as I was reaching for a random sample topic, I ended up choosing “Why students should
pay attention in class.” 

Instead of fleshing out that example myself,
I gave my music-loving student a chance to redeem himself. Without hesitation, he contributed an excellent reason —  “Because you won’t understand the
assignment if you don’t pay attention when the teacher tells you what he wants.”  Another student said, “Because you’re in class in order to
learn.”   I then characterized the supporting point as practical, and
the second as idealistic, and I mentioned that I might — if I were
writing this paper — choose an example designed to draw on
student-loan fears: “There are many less expensive ways to listen to
music.”   And I mentioned how that last claim would be calculated to hit
a little below the belt, making eye contact with and sharing a smile with the student who knew the whole example was for his benefit. 

The next time someone in that class wears headphones during a lecture, I’ll be less cutesy and meta and abstract.  I don’t lecture all the time.  I try to move around the room, becuase that makes people look up to take in the change in their surroundings.  Even when I pause in mid-sentence, eyes will flick up from the
screens to my face.  Most of them are multi-tasking, not completely ignoring me, since they’re capable of giving me a few more cycles of their internal processing time if they feel it’s necessary. 

So, like the Enterprise-D battling the borg, I have to keep remodulating my phaser frequencies to penetrate their shields. 

The self-reflexive “pay attention in class” example
seemed to work, so I tried to continue that by writing down a horribly
garbled sentence that had just tumbled off of my lips, and
demonstrating for them the process of moving from the transcription of
a stream of consciousness, to the crafting of finely-honed prose.  I
wanted to show them that I was as critical of my own language as I am
of theirs.  And since I’ve asked them to do some personal introspetion, at one point as I was conjuring up a long string of sample arguments, “Why teachers who wear fanny packs deserve no respect.”  (“I
can’t believe you just called yourself out like that!” one student
blurted. I took the opportunity to reinforce the lesson that you can strengthen your own argument if you actively seek out the best arguemnts in favor of an opposing or alternate view, because when you study the extremes you have more opportunities to find common ground.)

I recall a scene in the book White Fang, in which the titular protagonist (a dog) has tried running away from his master, a Native
American (possibly the chief?) who never has a kind word for him. 
After returning to his master, White Fang whimpers and crawls, expecting a
beating. But his master breaks off some of his bread, and throws it on
the ground for the dog. 

I’m not planning to build fear and humiliation into my pedagogical strategy.  The “guide on the side” approach to teaching simply doesn’t give you many opportunities to make public judgment calls.  So I focus on praising in public, and giving criticism in private. The only exception is when the point of the criticism is formative — that is, I’ve asked a student to read a thesis statement or demo a web page, and the point of the exercise is to help the whole class develop the ability to spot and correct common problems. 

In White Fang, the master’s rare
act of kindness underscores that the man knows that his dog could leave
him at any time; the reward is calculated to reward the dog’s decision
to come back to the tribe.  The reward isn’t meant to secure the
personal relationship between the man and the dog — the man isn’t
really interested in the dog as a companion, but the tribe as a whole
is better off with the dog than without the dog.

While I’m not anyone’s master, and I’m not the chief of the tribe, I hope my students don’t think of me as the level boss, standing between them and the successful completion of a four-year quest. Through my knowledge of the subject matter and my position on the facutly, I can comfortably say I’ve earned a position as village elder. So, it’s damn frustrating to be standing up there, saying
the things that I know the students need to learn, giving them the
rubric I’ll use for evaluating their next major paper, and first having
to ask them to make eye contact with me, and second, pointing out that
they should probably write down what I’m saying.  (A few of them
continued to type into their keyboards, suggesting they at least had a
note-taking file open in one of their windows, but most sheepishly
reached into their backpacks to pull out their notebooks.)  And that’s as close to a “Git offa mah lawn!” rant that I plan to come today.

It may be something about the layout of the room.  I prefer to teach in
computer classrooms that have the computers around the outside edges of
the room, and tables on the inside, so that there’s a distinct break
between eye-contact time and keyboard time. I’ve recently taught basic
comp in a room that has monitors embedded in the desks, so that
students have to sort of lean forward and look down in order to see
their screens. But in the room where I’m teaching now, the students
look at me over the tops of their monitors, and the flickering shadows are too hard to resist.

At one point, a few years ago, I experimented with adding a small bonus
to the grades of papers that were turned in on time and in the right
format, so that I wouldn’t feel so bad about taking points off for
students who didn’t staple their papers or didn’t write their names on
every page. (I hate the hassle of dealing with stacks of papers so much
that now I have stuents submit almost everything electronically. Oddly enough, lately I’ve been longing for a tablet computer so I can scribble proofreading
marks instead of having to type out everything in words.) 

A recent
Seton Hill graduate informed me that he thought I had a habit
of enthusing too much over mediocre work.  Of course, sometimes it’s
not the work itself that makes me excited, but the fact that a student
who is usually quiet has contributed something — anything
to the class discussion.  I’d like to think that I am, perhaps, somewhat generous with my
praise for such things as good effort, positive attitude, etc., while I reserve my praise of product
for only the exceptional cases.

From what I remember of the book, White Fang’s function (at that point
in the story) is
practical — he’s a guard dog, a hunting dog, a working dog. The chief
wouldn’t reward him just for doing his function, any more than I would
reward my computer for not crashing. The chief’s action comes from a
lofty place that is
completely secure, such that he can choose to be magnanimous. 

When my wayward music-loving student took off his headphones and
rejoined the tribe, I didn’t praise him simply for ceasing to be rude. 
Instead, I expected him to demonstrate his willingness to contribute,
and I rewarded him for a good response, working it into the example I
spun with the rest of the class. 

A basic comp class is a collaborative, constructive
environment, and SHU expects its faculty to emply a student-centered
pedagogy.  Of course, I also need to be able to manage the classroom
time, so that certain students don’t dominate the dicussion, the
kinetic learners and the peer-to-peer learners and the textual learners
and the verbal learners all get regular stimulation.

I’ve recently asked students in my
“Writing for the Internet” class to spend just an hour interating wth
a specific electronic text, but most students realized they had only
scratched the surface; some have chosen to invest more
than the hour, but they do so with the knowledge that they’re going
above and beyond what I asked. That’s a process-related commitment
that’s easy to quanitfy. I just ask students to raise their hand if
they kept exploring the text after the required hour was up.

It’s really much
easier just to deliver a lecture than to teach in a student-centered classroom.  Sometimes it’s very tempting just to
say, “They can listen to it or they can waste their time. It’s up to
them.”  But I didn’t join this profession so that I could deliver
lectures to the tops of people’s heads… my job is to teach, and I
have an obligation to find a way to reach the students who find their
way into my classrom.