April 7th, 2010

Dealing with Difficult Students: the Narcissist


Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the whitepaper Coping with Seven Disruptive Personality Types in the Classroom. This post deals with the narcissistic student.

Students with a narcissistic personality style are apt to challenge instructors on relatively minor matters, as well as cast scathing aspersions on their professors’ characters and their very qualifications to teach.

For example, one rather young, unmarried, and childless psychology instructor at a Midwestern college once complained about how some of her older students who were parents would blister her with complaints that she did not know enough about the psychology of children because she didn’t have any.

A pertinent question here is how they even knew that she had no children. In this particular case, she had shared this personal information with them when they pressured her to disclose it. Clearly, there was no reason for her to share this information with her students, and they were crossing personal boundaries by pressuring her to disclose it. Had she remained tight-lipped about her personal life, she might have averted this particular form of attempted denigration and devaluation.

This struggling instructor merely needed to be reminded that there are many people with children who have poorly understood and atrociously raised them. Conversely, there are many people who do not have their own children but who, like she does, understand the psychology of children exceptionally well. In other words, having children does not necessarily qualify a person to teach child psychology, and not having children is not a disqualifying factor for this assignment.

How to Respond
This type of student can be very hard on an instructor’s confidence and sense of self-worth. When confronted with a student who challenges your worth, remind yourself that you were hired to do your job based upon the strength of your qualifications.

Keep in mind, for your own protection, that self-entitled students do not respect personal boundaries or privacy especially well. They may attempt to intrude on your privacy by asking inappropriate questions. Try to refrain from answering personal questions asked by students with personal self-disclosures unless you are absolutely certain that your disclosures provide an absolutely relevant and positive contribution to the topic under discussion.

A short, straightforward comment to inappropriate inquiries is all that is required, such as, “I’m sorry, but information about my personal life is neither relevant nor essential to the topic under discussion, and therefore I prefer to maintain my personal privacy here and will do all I can to respect and protect yours.” That should suffice.

There is some indication that this current generation of college students includes more people who exhibit self-entitled behavior. Assuming this is correct, we can expect to have to deal with more narcissistic traits than we might have seen a mere generation ago. In the past, students seemed to be somewhat more deferential, more conforming, and more self-sacrificing than are some of the students we are seeing on campuses today. If this is the case, then instructors will have to adjust their behavior accordingly to accommodate the growing presence of certain narcissistic characteristics among their students.

  • dave

    I appreciate the difficulty that narcissistic students can pose. However, encouraging faculty members to become even more authoritarian and narcissist themselves hardly seems like a good solution. The adjacent article in this week’s Faculty Focus contains ten gems for good teaching. The suggested solution in this whitepaper to say to students who ask personal questions: “I’m sorry, but information about my personal life is neither relevant nor essential to the topic under discussion, and therefore I prefer to maintain my personal privacy here and will do all I can to respect and protect yours.” From my perspective, a question from students concerning a faculty member’s actual experience with raising children is directly relevant to lessons about child development. While such experience clearly is not a prerequisite to being able to teach childhood development, it is neither irrelevant nor is the question impertinent. In fact, the kind of classroom in which students are chastised for asking such question is not the kind of classroom where much learning is going to take place. Solving the “problem” of the narcissistic student should not diminish the quality of the learning environment for everyone else.

    • sue

      Sounds like another narcissistic comment to me but some students think they are always correct – i.e. narcissism

  • Todd

    Dave you misrepresent the students that challenge the instructor. I think you have a point if the students were questioning with true inquiry, but based on the tone of this article and through my own personal experience these students were not looking for inquiry, but were looking to belittle the instructor. They are basically creating an environment in which they do not need to perform. Classic sign of someone with the feeling of self-entitlement. I honestly don't even understand why these students go to school.

    • tom

      Exactly. I'm in charge, the teacher is nothing, and although I have always been an average student, I expect a "A" in college because I am paying for my degree but no one will pay someone for doing nothing.