I hear a number of professors talk about the idea of reputation and how it affects various parts of their jobs. Some argue that it affects their class sizes (either their reputation or someone else’s, usually when that other person’s class is more popular), evaluations (see what I said about that last week, if you’re curious), or even simply how students perceive them. Thus, I’ve been thinking about our reputations, why they might matter, why they might not, and what we can do about that, if we care.First, let me make one point about (what I think about) reputations clear: we are largely in control of them. I hear professors complain about their reputations on campus, and my first thought is, “Well, do something to change it.” For example, when I was first hired, there was a professor on campus who was known for not being a strong professor. She tended to lecture, but was not good at it, often digressing from the important material; however, she then included that important material on the exam. Students complained about her on a regular basis, and that was clearly her reputation. However, before I was hired, she had won a teaching award on campus, and her reputation was quite different. Once her behavior changed, though, so did her reputation.
I had a similar problem early in my career. My first few years, I tended to coast by on whatever natural abilities I had as a teacher. There was one class (junior-level major course) that met for an hour and fifteen minutes. I knew I didn’t have enough material to fill up that time, and I wasn’t willing to work hard enough to create that material, so I spent the first few minutes of class (“few minutes” here sometimes stretched into thirty) talking about a wide variety of subjects, including whatever movie I had seen over the weekend.
Even when I improved from that class, students still saw me as the “funny” professor, as I do tend to tell a good number of jokes, and puns make numerous appearances in my class. In fact, I was once introduced to the parent of a graduate as the “funniest” professor, just before the student set out to find the professor he respected.
That moment is actually what made me decide to change my reputation. I decided that I wanted to be known as the professor who challenged students, but who helped them meet that challenge, and I made the changes necessary to become that professor. I spent some of each year reading books on teaching; I attended a teaching conference; I focused on making sure each class meeting and each assignment had a clear goal, then conveyed those goals to the students and helped them meet them.
Not only did my scores on evaluations change, so did my reputation. I became one of the professors students knew they could take if they wanted a class that would push them, but that they could succeed in, if they were willing to work hard enough and had the intellectual ability to do so. Not surprisingly, my requests for recommendation letters for graduate school also increased.
I changed my reputation by changing my behavior. Any professor can do the same, though it takes time and effort to do so. Then we have to keep working at our classes to make sure we live up to that new reputation. We all have to ask ourselves how we want to be known on campus, then do the work to make that happen. I wouldn’t mind being known for that, either.