Thursday, August 19, 2010

Selling Short

Not long ago, I was in a dining establishment with a certain colleague. We were not particularly close to campus, but current and former students are everywhere, so it was not surprising when a young man walked over to our table and informed my colleague that he had taken my colleague's large Science 101 class 5 years ago.

The young man went on to enthuse about what a great class it had been and how much he'd learned. Nice!

When I have been in similar situations, I just say thanks, I'm glad you liked it, it's a fun class to teach, and I ask what they are up to these days etc. My colleague said some of those things, but then he went on to muse about how he really knew very little about the topic he'd been teaching and in fact had had to do a huge amount of work to get up to speed on the material in order to be able to teach it.

This was mostly true. The department chair at the time had a penchant for giving this colleague rather onerous teaching assignments, including several new courses and this particular course, which was outside my colleague's research expertise. [For more on the general topic of teaching outside one's expertise, see an old post about whether faculty can/should be able to teach any course in their general field]

My colleague did a huge amount of preparation work when teaching this course. When he thinks about teaching that course, that is what he remembers. So he shared that with his former student.

I have absolutely no problem admitting to a student or an entire class that I don't know something or that I am not the world's #1 authority on a topic. There are various ways to admit to lack of knowledge; e.g., "I don't know but let's see if we can figure it out", "I don't know but here are some possible ideas/explanations", or "I don't know but I know how we can find out [explain]".

I don't think, however, that I would say or imply to a class or student, even after the fact, that I was just one step ahead of them in terms of the subject material. Although that's how my colleague felt at times, that perception ignores the fact that he had a lot of expertise in related fields, and this broad knowledge allowed him to learn what he needed in order to teach the class well. Giving the impression that he just read ahead in the textbook so he could teach the next set of facts or concepts misrepresented his level of expertise.

In fact, the student looked a bit startled when informed that his professor actually felt like he didn't know what he was talking about some/much of the time.

We don't have to pretend to be all-knowing infallible Science Gods, but at the same time, we shouldn't sell ourselves short in terms of what we know. It might be kind of interesting for some students to know what goes into teaching a course -- i.e., most of us don't just stand up there with little or no preparation and empty our brains on the topic o' the day, even in our field of expertise -- but we also should recognize that our years of experience do count for something and help us when asked to teach something a bit outside our research specialty.


Anonymous said...

This exact thing happened to me past semester. I was teaching like your colleague, and afterwards when somebody (colleagues or students) starts talking about that course I would say (did say) similar things as your colleague. I realized later that it wasn't a good idea to undermine myself, especially when I am with gossiper colleagues in my department. Your advice is late for me, but hopefully for others they will not do this mistake.

Anonymous said...

Urgh. Brings back memories of grading an upper-level undergrad class in a subject I'd never even taken a single course in. Without help from the prof--no key, and don't bug me kid; I've got work to do.

It's just like taking the class, without attending lecture, and having to be entirely right on the homework (no partial credit when you're the grader!).

Anonymous said...

They say the best way to learn something is to teach it:)

Margaret said...

I have seen some profs teach who can be extremely self-deprecating and yet it only seems to make them more popular and reinforce their godlike status with the students. Other profs who admit to not knowing stuff seem to be treated much more punitively.

If the students are convinced you are a star, then admitting a lack of knowledge doesn't hurt and often helps because it makes you more human.

There seem to be lots of bias/perception issues wound up in this. Professors of a certain age, gender, manner of dress, etc etc. are more likely to be viewed as the rockstars who can admit they don't know everything.

Kim said...

I can think of one situation in which I would want to be honest about my experience teaching the course: when the student had gone on to grad school, and was likely to go through the same thing in the future. That's different from this story (I assume, at least, because your colleague didn't remember the former student's name). But in the case of a former student who's in the process of turning into a colleague, I think it's valuable to let them know that we're not all-knowing gods, so that they've got those stories to help them get through their first uncertain times teaching.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is often-self deprecating in a similar fashion I would say that it mostly reinforces the good opinion that students have of you. It is a way of making a connection with your students, and in reality it has little to do with how well you really understand the subject. Whether it's ethical/correct to do or not is another question.

EliRabett said...

Eli is with Anon 6:17 when he said Urgh. Brings back memories of grading an upper-level undergrad class in a subject I'd never even taken a single course in. Without help from the prof--no key, and don't bug me kid; I've got work to do.

OTOH, try doing it in a language you are just learning and it becomes a real learning experience. You do, however, finish up with a real sense of accomplishment if you do it right. That, and a hell of a sleep deficit.

Maybe the right sort of way to put what your colleague went through to the student is something like: yeah, I was not very familiar with that material myself, it is out of my field of research, but it was an incredible learning experience for me, applying my general understanding to this area and you students made it a very enjoyable time.

engineering girl said...

I think there's a difference between admitting that you're not a god in your field, and selling yourself short and being self-deprecating. I had an instructor once who was very confident, always asking for feedback on her course, and overall a very great instructor. When I told her I really enjoyed her class, she said it was fun to teach, and some things that she wished had gone better. She then asked me what I thought about those things, and we had a nice discussion. She thanked me for my input and said she'd consider it. I thought it was very nice of her to discuss this with me, made me feel like she valued student opinions, and made her seem much more human. But of course, she didn't say things like "oh, I had no clue what I was doing or I really struggled with the class," it was just specific things she felt needed improvement. She also did a lot of things well with the class - and she knew it.