Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Mad Men: WWJD, What Would Joan Do?

Earlier this week, I almost lost it in the world literature class I was teaching. I wanted to give my students advice on how to improve their oral presentations. The first thing I told them was that they needed to give me a written version of their report right after they finished presenting it. This led a student to state that I hadn't made that clear in the syllabus. So I showed them where I stated that requirement in the syllabus. The student wouldn't give up; she said it wasn't clear that I wanted an essay and that's why she thought she could hand in her notecards as a "written form." I was exasperated because I had explained what I meant by written form the first day of class, the day I had students sign up for topics, and I have office hours, an mail address and an office phone number so they can contact me if they have any questions about an assignment before turning it in. Even after stating this, I had another student ask, "Do you mean a printout of our PowerPoint slides?" No. Another student griped, "So you want us to do another paper." No, I want you to transcribe your presentation into an essay form, not to write on a new topic or do new research. The student who started this kerfluffle still persisted in saying that the directions still weren't clear and that I hadn't stated there would be a penalty for turning in the written form late. Good God, I was this close to calling them all idiots. These weren't first-year students. They are sophomores and juniors, in the honors program at our university, no less. One student did state that he felt my instructions were clear, and that as young adults and honors students, they had a responsibility to pay attention, read the syllabus, and ask for clarification before completing work. But he was the only one. I cut class short because I was about to get loud and sarcastic. Later, after I vented with a couple of colleagues, I cooled down, wrote some very clear instructions that I posted on our class's web page, and still felt uneasy. That's when I asked myself: What would Joan have done?

I thought about how authoritatively Joan Holloway moves throughout the office. She not only has control of the secretaries, but she also keeps the men in line. Think back to the recent storyline involving her and Don Draper's new secretary, Jane. Joan has no problem informing Jane to dress more appropriately, and she tartly informs the ogling men "to pitch their tents elsewhere." Then I think of how well she handled Jane after she and the men had snuck into Bertram's office to see the painting. Jane lies twice (badly) and Joan doesn't back down. She makes it very clear that Jane has crossed a line. The closest she comes to losing it is when she suddenly decides to fire Jane, but even then her anger is controlled. Her decision was emotional, spontaneous and questionable, but she delivered it with icy control.

Then there's the great confrontation scene between Jane and Joan, when Jane has returned back on Monday, despite being fired. Again, cold, controlled anger as Joan asks Jane what she is doing there. Jane starts off terrified, but gains confidence as she not only implies Roger saved her job but he has confided in Jane that Joan is known for emotional outbursts. A nasty little dig. Fortunately, Joan does not lose it (thus falling into Jane's trap and proving her exagerration of Roger's statement to be true), but coolly lets Jane know she knows what the situation is. On some message boards, people thought Joan was going to give Roger an earful, but I don't think so. First, their relationship has been over for almost two years; Joan doesn't have that hold over Roger anymore, so he won't listen. Also, Joan is the model of discretion and self-sufficiency. Unlike Jane, she won't run to somebody to fix the problem.

So what could I have learned from Joan?

First, stay cool. When that student brought up all the legalistic squirming about the syllabus, I should have not engaged in extended rationalization and explanation. I should have said it was on the syllabus, if she had had questions she should have brought them up before her presentation, and if she still had a problem she could see me after class about it.

Stay on track and control the conversation. When the instigator tried to make it sound as if she were speaking for the class, I should have reminded them I already described what I wanted, it was their responsibility to pay attention and read the syllabus, and they had ways of contacting me if they had questions. Then I should have shut that line of discussion down, and moved on to the next piece of advice (which I never got to). Instead, I felt blindsided, exasperated and I talked too long and too much, which leads to

Keep it short, sweetie. A nonacademic friend had to remind me of this. As an English professor and writer who delights in language, I can pile it on. I make metaphors, try three different rephrases of the same statement, invent insults, etc. I needed to keep it short and simple and stop repeating myself. If they didn't get it the first and second time, there's little reason to believe they'd get it the third and fourth.

Don't let them see you sweat. Sometimes a calculated display of anger works, but in this case I hadn't planned on getting angry. I should have stayed calm and cool. I could feel my heart racing, I could hear my voice getting louder and tighter, and I knew I needed to leave or I would get nasty. Bad idea.

Show them who is boss. This can make me uncomfortable because sometimes students do raise legitimate concerns and sometimes professors do act tyranically and unfairly. But as a general rule, I do think I am a fair and accomodating professor. If I make a mistake, I admit it, fix it and move on. But I have to remember that this is my classroom; I have proven myself throughout my undergraduate and graduate courses, my job interviews, my tenure process, and my conference and publishing record. These students have to prove to me that they are worthy of being called honors students, and that they are capable of doing the work.
Make them sweat. Remember how terrified Jane looked when Joan came right at her? She knew she would have to explain her presence to her. Joan was furious at seeing her, but she didn't lose control. I need to keep calm and turn the tables on these students. Generally, I don't call on students in class; I let them volunteer to speak. But only two or three students in this course speak up regularly, so I think I'm going to call on the quieter ones. If anyone complains about the "unfairness" of this, I'll state that it is perfectly fair for me to assume that they have read the material andthey are prepared to answer a question about it. After all, they are honors students, aren't they?
Do you find yourself wondering what certain characters from Mad Men would do in real-life situations? Do you find yourself using them as models for how(not) to behave? Let me know!


LoraSara said...

In the time your students spent arguing about the assignment, they could have done it.

enlightenmentgirl said...

Good point. Lorasara. This was about oral presentations, so they couldn't have done the presentation durng the time they argued about it, but that time in class could have been used learning some other tips to make their presentations more successful. Joan would have shut that first whiner down and moved on to the next point.