How to be a bastard: crowd control in the academy

When I had my first academic job, new staff spent a couple of days of induction learning about how to teach. On the afternoon of the last day, which was the Friday before teaching started, the course tutor asked if there was anything he hadn’t covered which we would like to learn about.

A colleague said he had 150 first year engineering students on Monday. I laughed. The course tutor laughed. Nobody else laughed. The tutor explained to the other academics, mainly from the humanities, that engineering students, at least in Ireland, are a notorious shower of animals, liable to throw things at the lecturer, including, on one occasion, a frozen chicken.

“So you want to know how to be a bastard?”

My colleague from civil engineering allowed as this was exactly what he wanted.

We got a short lesson on how to be a bastard. Learn these methods and apply them and you can control any mob by pure force of personality. Just be careful: when I applied the methods first, there was toilet graffiti about what a bastard I was. This counts as success of a sort.

First, do not speak until you have silence. If you have to wait for the class to calm down, wait. The first time, it might take minutes. This will feel like a very long time. Hang in there. Eventually the room will begin to fall silent, and the students who are interested in the lecture will shush their colleagues.

A few pockets of resistance will remain to be mopped up, little knots of students talking to each other. Stare at them. At some point, one of them will lift his (it will be a his) head and find you staring him in the face. He will shrivel, and you will feel the brute power of the psychopath coursing through your veins. If there are any remaining pockets of chattering youth, as you stare at them, the rest of the class will laugh at them, and they will fall in line.

You now have a silent class, cowed into submission where necessary, and you can do as you please.

Some of them will not take the hint. When they break into chat, stop talking and look at them. If they notice you, they will wither and fall silent. If not, the rest of the class will bring them in line.

Now you have control, you can relax, invite questions, and generally be a nice person. If you do not take control at the start, you will never get it. What you have to say is worth hearing: make sure the interested get the chance to listen to it.

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