Chapter 142: If Looks Could Kill– “Hello, I’m Dr. Pepper and just like my counterpart here…. I’m so misunderstood”.
Strutting into the classroom for the first time, I knew that I was dead meat. This was the first graduate school class that I taught and I wanted to make a good impression. Recalling my father’s advice from many years ago, when he said: “Before any public speaking event, make a joke”. I had the idea of starting with a prop and a quip. Little did I know just how ironic my joke would be.
Holding up an unopened bottle of ‘Dr. Pepper’, I began the class with an ice-breaker (pun intended) gag line: “Hello, I’m Dr. Pepper and like my counterpart…. I’m so misunderstood”. I waited a beat and added : “I have a brother who’s also a Dr. Pepper but he’s skinner than I am. We call him—‘ Diet Dr. Pepper.’ No one even smiled. Maybe it wasn’t funny. I couldn’t understand why the class just glared at me. Maybe it was the cowboy boots that set them off; I’ll never know. But at the time, I did think I was all that. Whatever it was, a large subgroup of twelve female students, from a class of twenty social work graduate students at Hunter College, scowled at me as I stood in front of the black board – I broke into a cold-sweat and thought: “ If looks could kill”.
The course title was: ‘Social Research in Social Work’. It occurred to me that perhaps the chilly reception was related to the topic, not the most interesting subject and a required course at that, certainly a losing combination, a sure generator of student displeasure. I had taught similar courses on an undergraduate level at Queens College, having developed an appealing manner to present the dry material to the class; the courses were well received more often than not. The structure was simple. After introducing the basic concepts of the hypothesis, variables and theory, frequency distributions, test of significance, Chi square, measures of validity and reliability and the like, the class was divided into small groups that were required to conduct field research on topics of interest to them and then present their findings to the class. Sounds straightforward—right? Not so with this class. The subgroup of women argued with me every step of the way. Most of it seemed to be aimed at just being contrary. Much of their arguments were pitched in feminist political rhetoric which would have been appropriate if presented in the context of the course material:– hypothesis, variables, theory. A research class could have been an excellent forum for discussing political arguments approached from the perspective of the class’s structure. My goal was to teach students how to objectively judge the validity of what they hear and read from a scientific framework. But the class wouldn’t have it. From day one, there was an anti-intellectual undercurrent of hostility that laced every attempt to divert the discussion away from research and toward political diatribes that made no sense in the context of the class. Then it got personal, with name-calling and character assassination. Some of the subgroup told me, to my face, that I was an incompetent, male chauvinistic and that they had reported me to the Dean that I should be fired. Needless to say, I dreaded going to that class. I was determined not to act intimidated even though I felt it. I knew I needed help to get through the semester.
Around that time, in addition to working as a College Professor, I began training as group therapist. Toward that goal, I had joined a training group of the distinguished group leader, Dr. Louis R. Ormont. I decided to present my problem with this class to Lou’s group. His supervision was invaluable and I still remember it to this day.
Ormont told me to only address the students that were receptive to me. Since the subgroup sat together in a corner of the room, following that piece of advice was easy. Literally standing as far as away from the sub group as possible, I only spoke to the part of the class that liked me. Ormont also told me to politely accept, without challenge, anything the subgroup said, no matter how preposterous or insulting. He said:”The best way to defang an attack is to go along with it”. Back in class, when their attacks were once again personal, and my courage began to falter, I thought to myself: “My mother loved me.”: But I said: “The door is open. If you don’t like what’s going on here, you are free to leave at any time.” When any one of the misandrists piped up and presented their opinion as if it were a statement of fact, I simply said:” Good point. But without any data to back up your argument we’ll have to take your word for it.” Then I turned back to the friendly subgroup and asked: “Does anyone have a comment about what Ms. X just said?’ The ‘other class’ then discussed how Ms. X could go about scientifically finding out if her point of view were valid. Ormont’s last piece of advice was positively brilliant. He told me in front of the training group, that the best way to break-up a subgroup is to meet individually with each member. I did and the results were fascinating.
In individual meetings, each one of the members of the subgroup were charming, engaging, even friendly toward me. It was an amazing and surprising experience; but once back in class, there was little change in the subgroup’s attitude and behavior toward me. In fact, the Dean called me to his office and practically demanded that I accept tutoring for college teaching. At semester’s end, the final papers of the subgroup were all awful. None of the members addressed the research material that had been presented throughout the semester. It was clear that they hadn’t taken in anything during the class; and I could have failed them all but decided against it, remembering a line from a James Bond movie: ”When seeking revenge dig two graves”. I chose not to launch a whole scale uprising against me in the college administration that seemed to curry favor with my antagonists.
When reporting back to Ormont’s group that his advice was life-saving, I asked: ”Will this help me get re-hired for next semester?” Ormont replied: “No guarantees about that. I gave you advice so that you’d survive this semester.”
Post-script: While not asked back to teach at Hunter College School of Social Work, I learned a valuable lesson about subgroups. I also learned that the best way to gain control is to give it up.