This week has been an exercise in detachment.
I’ve been grading very long and sometimes very difficult final papers, and in a moment of hair-tearing frustration, wrote the post 10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment. When it went up here and, especially, on my Open Salon blog, there was an outpouring of hilarity, with a spattering of negative comments (“Huh? Who cares if a paper is double-spaced?”).
It all died down within a couple of days, but then, when I included the post in this week’s Carnival of Education, it went viral on StumbleUpon. It received almost 4,000 hits – twice as many as my whole blog has ever received in one day – and comments began pouring in. Many of them weren’t nice. In fact, some of them were truly vitriolic, mostly from students (presumably) who had taken the “you” in the title personally, and decided to respond in kind.
It was a bit of a shock. This blog has always felt like a safe and protected space – the comments have been overwhelmingly positive. My OpenSalon blog has been more lively, and sometimes contentious, but the commenters have almost always been respectful and articulate.
This was my first experience with trolls. It was rattling, but I was prepared – I’d read about trolls, and read trolls on other people’s blogs, and my minimal experience with them on OpenSalon meant that I knew that the best way to deal with them was to ignore them.
Now, not all the negative comments came from trolls, although it might have at first appeared so. One of the early, incensed responses is from Xannax. It’s pretty over-the-top. But some other commenters take her, gently and not-so-gently, to task, and Xannax responds by writing,
“I have to confess I ranted without really thinking there was room for constructive criticism, so let me apologize for the tone and explain what I meant.”
What follows is a discussion in which Xannax blows my mind. She carefully reads and responds to other people’s comments. She asks questions in order to understand their positions (and, by extension, mine, although I just sat back and watched it all happen.) And, in the end, she writes,
“Ok. I am convinced… I guess I was a bit arrogant trying to tell you how to teach without having any kind of field experience. I will keep what you said in mind when I’ll confront my first students…Thanks”
Yes, Xannax is going to be a teacher. And if this exchange is any indication, she is going to be a fine one. If she can model this kind of communication – modifying our first, impulsive reactions by listening respectfully and with curiosity – for her students, then they are going to learn a LOT just by watching her.
I, in the meantime, learned a lot by watching myself. A few years ago, the enraged, hate-filled responses to this post would have crushed me. I would have lost my will to blog, perhaps permanently. I feel much more even-keeled about it all now, much like I feel more even-keeled in the classroom.
When RateMyTeacher first appeared online, and I read my first negative comment (which was much less diplomatic than anything I’d ever read on a course evaluation), it really messed me up. Now, years later, I still read comments on RateMyTeacher – mine and others’ – and I don’t like getting critical ones, but I think about them, especially if they hit close to home. Sometimes they lead to important discoveries.
For example, years ago, there was a comment about how I was “very intelligent” but “not very pleasant.” That one really got to me. It stayed on my mind for weeks. And it was one of my first clues that maybe I was getting burnt out, and it set in motion a whole series of steps in which I tried to deal with that.
In Buddhism, the people who trigger negative emotions for us – like difficult peers, belligerent students, or blog trolls – are often called “enemies”, but they are also referred to as “gurus.” We can learn from the people who cause us pain, if we are able to detach, and examine our emotions instead of acting them out and escalating the situation.
I think Xannax’s exchange with other commenters was an example of this. It’s also the way I try to deal with my anger, frustration and hurt feelings in the classroom: thinking of my most irritating students as “gurus” has brought me peace during some very difficult times.
As a teacher (if you are one), what have you learned from the students who have caused you the most trouble? What about as a blogger (if you are one) or in your life in general – have your enemies been your gurus?