Tuesday, September 06, 2011


At various times during this past summer, I had the opportunity to "teach teachers" (mostly professors) -- in both teaching (pedagogy) and research settings. These were mostly very positive experiences, but whenever I do this type of activity, I am reminded of something important:

When we professors are put in the role of "student", we display most of the characteristics and behaviors that annoy us most in our own students.

It is good for me to be reminded of this from time to time because I think it is important to re-learn that certain annoying "student" behavior is actually just human behavior, and not necessarily a sign of immaturity or a lack of motivation, commitment, or intelligence.

A few examples:

When professors are in the role of students, they don't absorb every single bit of information they are told, no matter how clearly and well that information is presented (according to the professor). [note: I write 'they' here, but I could also write 'we'; this summer, I was mostly in the role of professor to professors this summer, but I don't think I would be all that different if the roles were reversed.]

Even if you are teaching a highly intelligent and motivated class of professor-students, some are going to ask you to repeat things that you think were quite clear the first time you said them; maybe you even wrote these things on the board. Can't they take notes? Aren't they listening?

Some are going to ask stupid questions.

Some are going to be checking their e-mail while you are telling them important information -- and/or some are going to arrive late -- and then they are going to be confused and wonder why you didn't tell them what they need to know.

Some are going to have 'issues' that could have been easily solved had they communicated with you in advance, but that become much more complicated to deal with at the last-minute.

And so on.

But, just as with most classes, the truly high-maintenance students are few in number (even if they suck up a lot of your emotional and other energy), the positive interactions vastly outnumber the annoying incidents, and the business of teaching and learning (about teaching or research) somehow gets done, and fun is had by many, if not most.


Christie Rowe said...

at least, i hope, nobody will ask you what will be on the exam.

ps. thanks for all your good work. i bought your book for my incoming students.

Anonymous said...

this kind of perspective is useful in research too. I sometimes find myself getting impatient with collaborators who (1) don't seem to pay attention when I'm telling them things, or to carefully read my very detailed emails, (2) ask me to repeat things I thought were very clearly presented the first time round. Aren't they listening?

I've learned through painful experience that neither fact reflects on the person's motivation or intelligence :), and that I probably display these characteristics as well.

nordicTT said...

I think this mechanism is well known also in early stages: undergrad and grad students should be very motivated since they picked that particular field, but as you described, there is always somebody checking emails, not paying attention, being late, etc etc.
Like at conferences! that's simply human behaviour...

Anonymous said...

Isn't this the bigger lesson of trying to remember/learn/experience what it feels like to be on the other side of an experience? There's a Piers Anthony book in which a character experiences the same scene three times, as a driver, a biker, and a walker. It's a lovely description of how the interactions seem significantly different when you are in different roles in the scenario.

John Vidale said...

I suspect it is a misconception that if a class stared silently and still at the teacher the entire lecture, they would absorb appreciably more of the material.

Too much disruption can be a problem, but more than a teacher likes can still be an amount that keeps a class from dozing off.

It's rare that a teacher is so logical and uniformly understandable that some questions from the peanut gallery, even though apparently due to not paying attention, are not helpful in understanding the material.

Or maybe I'm worried that it was me that disrupted FSP's lecture.

Anonymous said...

I'm sitting in on a couple of classes this fall while I'm on sabbatical and I am an *awesome* student! At least so far ...

(It's such a treat to be on the other side of the podium.)

Aubergine Squirrel said...

I hope it's not inappropriate for me to post here, but I am co-organizing an interdisciplinary conference on Bodies, Gender and Technology which will take place in April 2012 in Southwestern Virginia. Abstracts are due September 15th, and I'd love to circulate the CFP to interested feminist academics. May I send the link?

PhyPhoFu said...

I was the computer tech person at a local conference (a job given to PhD students in exchange for free passes to the conference) a few years ago encompassing both researchers and high school teachers in my field. I sat in a few teacher-specific sessions and I was shocked by the behaviour of the teachers in the audience! They chatted to each other during the talks. One guy even took a phone call during a talk!

Bryan Sanctuary (Dr.) said...

At the university level, these issues do not exist. Freshman chem means I teach 1300 odd students in two classes MWF and TTh. My task is to motivate them and explain clearly, but you are right that it is hard to put the ideas across. That is the challenge. There are no high maintenance students in my class. There are never problems in the classroom, and since all admin material is on the Internet, I am left with the pleasant job of answering students questions.