Now that there is a couple weeks’ distance between now and a certain incident, I feel comfortable sharing.

So, there was a student…Let’s call him “Barney.” Barney is not a major in my department, and has been a pain in my ass the whole semester. Sits in the back, doesn’t participate, flirts with the cute girl next to him, makes dumb comments, etc.

A couple of weeks ago, we were talking about Maslow’s hierarchy and motivation. I asked for an example of a primary reinforcer that I as their professor would give to reinforce good classroom behavior. From the back of the room, Barney clearly said, “SEX!”

The room got dead quiet. The look of shock on many of my students’ faces was priceless. In my half-second of utter shock and paralysis (it felt like a much longer time, dear readers), millions of snarky, withering comebacks spun through my brain. I then said, “No, don’t think so. I believe that is clearly against the rules.” After that, we continued on with business as usual.

After class, in my office, I felt like I could push my fist through a wall. I was angry. Angry that I had not been harsher with him earlier in the semester, when he first showed signs of being a problem. Angry at the fact that no matter what progress we think we’ve made, all someone has to do is insinuate that I’m only a sex object, and the power balance shifts. Angry knowing that had I been older and/or male, this would have never happened.

I could barely talk about it for days. I told no one in my department, and honestly had no idea what to do. I mentioned it in a new faculty meeting a few days later, and that’s when things got interesting.

An older faculty member came to my office a day after the new faculty meeting, and said that she’d heard about the incident. She expressed her shock and disappointment, and wanted to help me deal with it. At that point, I just lost it. Such a small comment had done so much to kill my confidence, at a time when my confidence is already in short supply. Not my finest moment. She suggested some people to talk to and helped me develop a plan for addressing the issue to make sure things didn’t accelerate.

I finally e-mailed my department chair, and we talked about the incident. She encouraged me to confront him myself, to show him that I do indeed have power and that I would (and could) make his life miserable if he fails to change. It was absolutely terrifying, but as I began to talk, I felt better. It was nice to feel a sense of regained control after days of being so off-kilter. Barney realized quite quickly that he had to change his ways or face a host of consequences. I informed him that shenanigans like that in his working life would get him fired and open up his employer to liability. The message was, “I’m doing you a favor here, pal.”

Since then, things in my class have actually gone much better. As much as I really don’t care to repeat that incident ever again, it was a valuable reminder that I have to recognize and use my authority in the classroom. I’m not much for hierarchy, but someone has to be the adult in there. It may as well be me.

Also, as my chair pointed out, this will likely not be a problem for me in 15 years or so. Until then, I have to figure out how to make all of this work.