Every year, I open my first-year seminar by explaining to my students the ground-rules of my classroom.
There are very few, I tell them. Show up. On-time. Do your work. Stay off your phone in my class. Yes, I can see you holding it under your desk. Participate. Answer questions.
Do these things, and earning an A is likely. Don’t do these things, and earning an F is possible. Your choice.
They nod along as I run through this list — they hear some variation of the same speech in every first lecture they attend.
I tell them: “This seminar is designed to enable you to learn about yourselves — your personal values, your strengths, and your interests. I’ll entertain any comment or question, no matter how silly you feel that it is, so long as it’s respectful to me, to your classmates, and to yourself.”
Then, I tell them: “There’s little I won’t tolerate or forgive. I’m not big on calling out bad behavior in front of a group. If I catch you doing something I don’t like, I’ll pull you aside after class. However, if you say something mean or disrespectful to, or about, another student in this classroom, I reserve the right to call you out immediately and humiliate you for your cruelty beyond the confines of your deepest imagination.”
They giggle. The majority of my students are far more imposing than I am — I’m short and small, I wear dangly earrings, and I smile a lot; I’m not physically intimidating. Even this remark I make with a smile; I don’t look like someone who specializes in embarrassment tactics. I look like I’m kidding when I make this comment — I’m not.
Still, in my years of teaching, I’ve never exercised this right. I’ve shut down comments or rants that are veering toward a bad road; I’ve re-directed comments that have the shadows of deeper negativity.
I’ve said, “Whoa, not cool,” and changed the subject. But I’ve never had to lay into anyone. Yesterday, however, I came close.
My teaching assistant likes to lead the opening conversation each week.
In class, she asked the students, “Now that you’re in your third week of college, what’s the most ‘adult’ thing you’ve done?”
“I opened a new bank account,” said one.
“I scheduled my own doctor’s appointment,” said another.
The class laughed in a self-deprecating manner, chuckling at these “adult” tasks that their parents were no longer handling.
“I cleaned a bathroom,” said Julianna.
“Ugh,” said another in response. “I hate cleaning bathrooms.”
“Me too,” said Julianna, “But my roommates are filthy.”
“Yikes,” I said. “That’s an unfortunate side-effect of learning to live with roommates.” I started to look toward the other students but Julianna continued.
“If you know my roommates,” she said, “don’t tell them I said this. But I hope you don’t know them. Because they’re horrible. They’re horrible people and they’re disgusting. I’m not disgusting, but they are. And they like to live in filth. Honestly, I waited to see how long it would take them to clean the bathroom because they are so disgusting. I hate them. They’re pigs. Complete pigs. One of them, my roommate Caroline Andrews, she left a wad of hair in — ”
“Oh no!” I said cutting her off. “Has anyone else had a similar experience with their roommates so far?”
After class, I pulled Julianna aside.
“Sounds like you’re having a rough time with your roommates,” I said to her.
“I hate them,” she said.
“Have you spoken to them about what’s going on?” I asked her.
“No, because I hate them,” she said.
“Okay. Well, I’m wondering if you know why I stopped you from continuing your story about cleaning the bathroom.”
She stared at me. “I don’t know,” she said. “Because I didn’t say anything wrong.”
“Wellll,” I said. “I completely understand that you were venting. Living with roommates is hard. But. You called them filthy and disgusting, in a room full of their peers. They’re not here to defend themselves, and you called one of them by name, preparing to tell of something that happened within the privacy of her bathroom.”
“I’m just saying what I think,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “And I appreciate that and want you to keep doing it. You can tell the class that you cleaned the bathroom and that your roommates aren’t helping you with that chore. But, you don’t have to say everything about the incident. You do also need to think about the way you frame comments about other people.”
“Well it’s part of the story,” she said.
“Yes and overall, the story was incredibly relatable to your classmates. It’s the comments about your roommates directly that I want you to reflect on. Were the indictments on their characters necessary? Were they helpful? What was your true intention with those remarks?”
This conversation made me think about the people in my own life.
I’m frequently frustrated with my friends and their inability to stand up to one another, or for each other.
“Oh my god just say something!” I yelled at one of them yesterday when she complained about something her own roommate had done. “Stop bitching about it to me and speak up!”
On more than one occasion, my directness has gotten me into trouble, and I’d do well to take my own advice to Julianna and apply it to myself. But I’ve gotten better — and the more time I spend with college students, listening to their running strings of verbal diarrhea, the more I realize, we don’t need to say everything we think.
As a woman, I constantly feel the need to assert myself. I feel the need to take up space and make myself heard. I constantly want people to know, I am a person on this planet with thoughts and opinions that are worthy of being heard, the same as any man.
Still, in my excitement to speak, I sometimes forget the proper framing for my comments.
“Were the indictments on their characters necessary?”
It’s easy to get wrapped up while ranting. More than once I’ve caught myself venting about a situation — much like Julianna was — only to find myself suddenly ranting about another person.
Venting is a useful exercise, but I don’t always find ranting about someone’s character to be quite as helpful. For example, I clash often with my sister. When I’m mad at her for saying something I find obnoxious, this doesn’t mean that my sister herself is obnoxious — even though that’s the ruling I reign down on her person. Her comment was obnoxious. Framing her as an obnoxious person is unfair — and untrue.
“Were they helpful?”
Julianna’s story about cleaning her bathroom because her roommates hadn’t done so was relatable to her classmates. They’re all navigating the nuances of roommate-living. However, the remarks about her roommates being “filthy” and “disgusting” added nothing to the story but dramatic effect.
Julianna was not likely going to launch into a detailed litany of ways that one could clean wads of hair out of the drain. She was just going to drag her roommate (Caroline Andrews, as she named her), through the mud for leaving hair in the drain.
This detail might have helped Julianna momentarily to feel better, but it wouldn’t help her classmates clean their own bathrooms. It wouldn’t help her roommate navigate her own first year living with other people. It wouldn’t help Julianna, later, when the story inevitably got back to Caroline.
Despite undergoing the ramifications of this lesson time and time again, as people, we almost never learn — but talking shit behind someone’s back is rarely beneficial.
“What were your intentions with those remarks?”
This requires a good, hard look at yourself — and it might be the hardest step in deciding whether to speak your thoughts.
On the surface, Julianna might have thought that her intentions were to get frustrations off of her chest. But she could have done so without slandering others. Her intentions were likely to knock them down to the level she felt knocked down to by cleaning up their mess.
If one’s intentions are good, then finding a kinder way to approach the comment should be a priority. If one’s intentions are mean, though, taking a moment to sit on the comment rather than speak it is a useful practice. When my intentions are mean — which they sometimes are — I find that nine times out of ten, I won’t make the comment if I sit on it for a minute first.
Julianna’s counselor sits in an office near mine.
When I came back from class, I told her what happened in class, and I told her how I had handled the situation.
“Yeah,” her counselor told me. “I meet with her regularly about this; she’s having a bit of difficulty making friends here. She’s extremely abrasive in the things she says. I keep trying to explain to her that she doesn’t have to say everything she thinks.”
Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that can be hard-learned.
*All names have been changed.*