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06/08/2021

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Jeffrey Kaplan

Similar to Marcus, my approach to these students has always been to decisively demonstrate to them that they do, indeed, overestimate their own knowledge or abilities. You might think that their over-confidence forms an impenetrable barrier preventing them from seeing that they are ever mistaken or misguided, but in my experience this is almost never the case.

When a student says something arrogant and misguided in class, I explain--in a non-cruel, loving way--why it is misguided. If they still fail to see the point, I provide more evidence and more explanation. I don't give up. If need be, I will correct them several times. And the tone in which I do this is important. The tone isn't one that conveys that I am bothered or annoyed by them. But the tone also isn't one that conveys this is a pleasant disagreement wherein both sides are equally plausible. No. I try to make both the tone and the content of what I say so as to convey that they are wrong, they are the starting point guard for their high school basketball team and I am LeBron James, but that they shouldn't be embarrassed about this because they are just learning.

Or, in the case of a student who comes to my office hours to complain about a grade on a paper, as soon as I identify their intention in coming to my office, my goal becomes to get the student to *really and truly see* what was wrong with their paper. They need to be *genuinely persuaded* that they do not deserve a higher grade. They should not be taking it on my authority that their paper is not brilliant. I need to actually convince them that it is not brilliant.

If they leave thinking, “That professor won’t increase my grade! What’s their problem?!”, then I have failed. I want them to leave thinking, “Wow, I really handed in a bad paper. My thesis wasn’t clear at all. I am really lucky that my professor didn’t give me a failing grade!”

The way I achieve this is just by going through the paper and clearly — not cruelly — pointing out the problems. I don't just say that the thesis isn’t clear or that the whole third paragraph is irrelevant. I try to show them that the thesis isn’t clear and that the whole third paragraph is irrelevant.

I know it sounds like this won't work, but it does work. It has worked on me when I was a student. I was never so arrogant as to think that I knew more than the professor. But I remember one specific occasion, many years ago, when I went to talk to a professor about a grade on a written exam, where I thought the brilliance of my writing had gone unappreciated. He walked through the text of my exam script and I left thinking "I thought I understood this topic. But, in fact, I did not. I have a lot to learn."

david

I totally get where the OP is coming from with this,
but keep in mind that there are a great many professors and academics that overestimate themselves as well.
There is clearly no shortage of arrogance and pomposity in our field! Intellectual humility is an interesting topic that has received a lot of attention lately. And it applies in many different directions....

Evan

I’ll provide more proactive and not reactive explanations and solutions since there is a lot to be said on the latter anyways. As such, there are some causes to such over-confidence.

1. Over-confidence is a result of a culture that rarely gives students feedback on their work until much later in life (if at all). The omission of adequate feedback in our primary schooling can bring about over-confident students and people in the future. Solution: Encourage primary teachers to give feedback (positive and negative) to students. I’ve written about some feedback methods somewhere on this blog before.

2. Lack of adequate models of rational excellences to show students. Indeed, philosophy papers themselves can come across as over-confident. If you’re new to philosophy, you can be “brainwashed” into thinking you should write and think like these philosophers who are not as impartial and self-critical in their own articles or works. This is more common within the canons unfortunately. I became more impartial and self-critical because I saw an excellent and honest example of it. It triggered something in me that I never knew. Solution: Students should be given models of rational excellences to witness and emulate.

3. Lack of the ability to adequately self-dialogue. Thinking is not easy. Thinking to oneself with oneself is not easy. Lack of adequate critical thinking can be a cause of overconfidence. Bertrand Russell once said, “People would rather die than think.” There is some truth to that statement since many students may not know-how to examine their own beliefs. Solution: Employ some meta-cognitive strategies and generate good questions to stimulate reflection.

4. Ignorance. Most students (over-confident or not) are ignorant people in many areas. As such, they’ll often cling to their own views. They lack lots of alternative viewpoints or frames of references. Solution: Encourage students to read about ideas that conflict with their own or provide students with conflicting stances/view-points.

5. Personal entitlement and pride. This is more of a personality issue rather than an epistemic one. In fact, philosophy classes tend to breed these kinds of students as well. These over-confident students may become future professors and end up intimidating their future students. Or they may end up with their own podcasts, Youtube channels, or become politicians and take their overconfidence with them in the future. I don’t know how to resolve this issue per se. Maybe keep them surprised.

Rosa

I think the strategies already suggested are good ones, and I'd add to them generally explaining your assignments, grading practices, class activities, etc, and why you do things the way you do. Helping students to see in advance where folks often struggle, what folks often need practice with, or how a particular assignment or whatever challenges them in a particular way, can really help to get them on board in advance.

But I also think there is a different dimension of this for women, disabled faculty, faculty of color, etc - it's often not just that students are overconfident, but rather that they are clearly underestimating their professor, and are likely trying to undermine them. If you've been in this kind of position you probably already know the difference between these kinds of students and the kinds who just overestimate their own abilities. In those cases my practice has been to publicly shut down a student in class early in the semester, and I've never had to do it twice. I obviously don't insult the student or demean them, but I also don't do it in a remotely loving way - I really don't care if they leave the exchange embarrassed or questioning themselves or feeling stupid. Some people might think that's bad pedagogy or serves those students poorly, but I think it serves both me and the rest of my students much more poorly to have to deal with that bullshit for the rest of the semester. (And FWIW, something that comes up over and over again in my TEVALs is how comfortable students feel taking chances and being wrong in my classes, so I don't think that this strategy has a chilling effect more generally.)

Politically Incorrect

I disagree with the advice given by Marcus and others here, which I think panders too much to the disruptive student. If the student's arrogance is disrupting the learning environment in the classroom (e.g., they are regularly interjecting themselves into classroom discussions to arrogantly dismiss what other students are saying) then the best way to deal with them is the "politically incorrect" way. Wait until they say something that you are especially well positioned to "tear down" and then give a harsh intellectual critique of it making them seem a bit silly for confidently asserting it in front of the class. The embarrassment and humiliation they feel in this moment will stop them from making arrogant interjections again in your class. They will either become disgruntled and disengage for the rest of the class, or (in the best case scenario) the experience will prompt some self-realization and they will start making more modest contributions. If the former, don't worry about it, better that one disruptive student disengages then that the rest of the class suffer through their disruptions (this is certainty how the rest of the class will see it, and many of them will even express appreciation to you for getting the situation under control).

I think that many academics are weary of this approach because they think that harshly critiquing, and thereby publicly embarrassing, a student models the wrong intellectual values to the class. But this is not true. The students in your class are adults, not small children. They are socially sophisticated and understand that something that is inappropriate in most social contexts may be reasonable in special circumstances. If, throughout the term, you model intellectual humility and openness to your students, showing them that you are willing to consider various contrary-viewpoints, change your stance in light of reasons given by others, and that you are kind and gentle when correcting mistakes, then you will have no problems. The students will "get" why you deviated from your general practice in this particular instance. Indeed, they will respect you more for doing so.

Evan

Politically Incorrect: First, if the student is being rude then it there should be university procedures in place to handle them. I think professors take for granted and assume that most or all students are and will be mature and respectful. I don’t know what kind of university procedures are in place to handle these students. Perhaps talking to your department head or administrators. You want to make sure what you’re doing is procedurally appropriate to your school so that you don’t end up getting in trouble. There are negative unintended consequences that may arise. This is a prudential advice.

Second, your argument assumes that all professors are well equipped to handle these rude students in the first place, which is false. I’ve had professors who were very timid and I highly doubt that these professors were emotionally and mentally prepared to challenge the students or “put them in their place”.

Third, this bring me to another proactive solution: Know what is procedurally appropriate to handle such students and explicitly convey your moral expectations to your students at the beginning of class. Tell them you will not tolerate rudeness, impoliteness, and disruptions because these behaviors will impede on the learning experience of other students and undermine respect for all.

Anca Gheaus

This is a great thread - and more generally a wonderful platform, thanks Marcus!

I really like Evan's diagnoses and solutions. As a remedy to the first and last (I don't think the last can be fully remedied in the classroom) I plan to include the following assignment: ask students to prepare a short essay in anonymised form and shuffle the essays between students. Each student will evaluate a colleague's essay, anonymously, with some criteria from me as to what are the features of good work. Then everybody gets their essay back with comments. I expect both the giving and the getting of feedback to be generally instructive and, in particular, help students calibrate self-confidence to actual accomplishments.

Rannie Agustin

I am not sure how can we measure uniformly the over-confidence and arrogance of students. They are relative and contextual to teachers' wisdom in judging the personality- or belief-driven behaviour of students.

I appreciate the analysis of Evan posted in this comment section. However, they (over-confidence and arrogance) could be by-products of cultural tolerance constructed by Aristotle's democracy.

Politically Incorrect

Thanks Evan, let me reply. In my experience universities don't have official procedures for these kinds of things, but maybe that is changing. If it is changing that is bad news; administrators who aren't themselves any good at teaching or research trying to micromanage how academics do their jobs is one of the worrying recent trends in academia. If you are at a university where administrators are making all kinds of arbitrary rules on these kinds of things, and will punish faculty who don't follow their rules, then you are in a bad situation. But you have to make the best of it, so I agree that you shouldn't get yourself in trouble. Instead, it is best to just "do the bare minimum" (as Joe says) and focus your efforts on those areas of your job where the meddling hands of administrators are not present.

Evan

Rannie Agustin: I doubt it has anything to do with politics. The Buddha confronted over-confident and arrogant people and students despite not having lived in a democracy during his time. These are universal human traits. In fact, when asked about how to deal with rude and arrogant students, the Buddha said to just ignore them, and they’ll go away on their own or be quiet. A lot of them just want attention. You’re only feeding their desire by engaging with them constantly.

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