Last week I encountered pure vicious hate from a student. Under other circumstances this would be more unsettling, but he was in one of my online courses. Maybe his physical presence is intimidating and aggressive- I have no idea- but his intellectual one is not, and that’s a deciding factor when your relationship is entirely via email. Also, I’ve been visualizing him as a madly barking chihuahua who I pick up gently and deposit outdoors so I don’t have to listen to him.
This all started when I notified students in my courses that they should address me as Dr. Panchuk. Previously they had been using my first name, with my permission. Sometimes after posting a communication like this one, students contact me to be sure that they haven’t offended in some way. The worried ones are never the ones who caused me to issue the communication. This time I only received an email from “Terrence” (not his real name). I realize now that Terrence was exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior in his email. He opined on whether my communication was appropriate, and suggested alternative verbiage. On two occasions within the email he used what he mistook to be my first name.
I’m used to sub-par emails from students, so I applied the usual method of addressing Terrence’s concern by explaining carefully and politely that Terrence would have to suck it up. Then I noticed the signature on his email. It consisted of statements that don’t belong in a professional communication. Most people would find them in bad taste at best, and offensive and crude at worst. This included a statement that, remarkably, managed to ridicule academics and recommend a violent treatment of the poor all in one go.
The statement most problematic for me was a joke with the punch line that women should be seen but not heard. The whole point of being Dr. Panchuk was to make students understand what standard of behavior was required, and this was not it. I’ve never called anyone on a sexist statement before, because generally there isn’t much point in attempting to educate the proudly politically incorrect. But in this case I would be working with Terrence for some time, so that was definitely not on. I told Terrence that if he preferred women to be silent, he had registered in the wrong course. I also attempted to explain the impact such a statement would have on a woman who had been mistreated.
I expected Terrence to send an apologetic email, acknowledging that the jokes were in bad taste, that he had forgotten they were there, and so forth. Not so. I received an email from Terrence the chihuahua. The email was a baffling combination of juvenile posturing, and detailed personal insults. (Not that those are chihuahua characteristics- sorry chihuahuas.) The insults were bizarre because they seemed to come from a well developed but fictional picture of me that he had constructed for himself. He exhibited an unhinged blind rage. I read the first sentence or so, skimmed another paragraph, and left the rest. It went on for some way. Terrence had clearly spent time to tell me what was what.
The remarkable thing about Terrence is that he was Bob all over again. “Bob” was a person with whom I attempted to have a thoughtful conversation in the comment section of a news story, and who erupted in a similarly nonsensical way. My husband, concerned for Bob’s health, suggested that I disengage from the conversation. “You don’t want to give him a heart attack.”
At no point did my side of the conversation with Bob decay into personal insults, but he indulged liberally. All I did was try explain my point of view carefully, and without discouraging Bob, just as I would to a student who wasn’t getting a difficult problem. And that might have been the issue.
Both Bob and Terrence are men retired from positions of considerable authority. One would think that someone having been in authority would have a certain respect for the power structure in other contexts. Not these two. My husband explained that they may have achieved their positions through aggression, and had likely never been called on their behavior- certainly not by someone they viewed as their subordinate, such as a younger female. This younger female was demonstrating an expectation that they would behave appropriately, and in one case acknowledge her authority- intolerable!
The fact that I didn’t buckle after the first go round with Bob, and tried to sort things out probably made things worse rather than better. Bob didn’t want to be explained to. I didn’t even try with Terrence. He referred to me as pompous (no doubt a sting for an earlier generation), so I pointed out that generally it wasn’t considered pompous to request that people call one by a title that one has earned. Then I told him that his behavior was inappropriate, his comments abusive, and I would be referring the matter to the course coordinator. I would not be communicating with him further.
Terrence sent another angry email which I didn’t read, aside from the first few words as they appeared in the notification in the corner of my screen. (Those made it clear he was angry.) He sent another in which he attempted to one-up me by forwarding the conversation to the acting president of the university. Given Terrence’s derogatory comments about academics, that seemed ill-considered.
The course coordinator responded to Terrence in that special way academics have of displaying calm reason and professionalism while at the same time implying “you’re an ass” between each and every line. It’s the kind of email after which one can only say, “Oh, burn!” I will be eternally grateful for the support. The course coordinator outlined Terrence’s options as shaping up or facing a formal inquiry.
A few days later Terrence emailed to say he would take a third option: shipping out. It was another long email, but the first sentence and a half made it clear that he was taking a last poke at me, so that’s where I stopped reading. I forwarded the email to the course coordinator. I didn’t respond to Terrence. Have you tried reasoning with a frenzied chihuahua?
The point is, knowing only my gender, Terrence was vehemently opposed to respecting me. Because individuals like Terrence exist, it’s all the more important to claim my title. Not because of a vain wish to hear myself referred to in that way, but as an acknowledgement of work I did, and skills and competence gained. To the Terrences of the world, not claiming it confirms their belief that I can’t possibly have earned it. Further, if I don’t claim it, students in my class will have that as an example. It would be particularly damaging if female students opted to follow my example of not using earned titles, making it seem acceptable for the Bobs and Terrences of the world to treat them as unworthy of being acknowledged for their accomplishments, by virtue of their gender.
Judging by Terrence’s responses, his ego won’t permit him to feel that he came out the loser. He did lose, though. He avoided calling me Dr. Panchuk, but at the cost of dropping the course. He encountered another male (the course coordinator) who told him that I should be addressed as Dr. Panchuk. He also lost a rather one-sided battle of wills to have me defer to him. Any venom he unleashes in a course evaluation will be a mix of hate and ridicule so over the top as to make him look unhinged rather than reflecting badly on me.
In contrast, this is a big win for me. I realized for the first time how important it is to be Dr. Panchuk.