Choosing Who To Be

After last week’s post where I referenced the student who said I was the funniest professor he had studied with, I’ve been thinking about who we are as professors, especially the interaction between personality and pedagogy.  At times, we let our personalities dictate who we will be in the classroom, something I think is only partly true.  I have colleagues who have quite different personalities than I do, but whom I agree with almost across the board pedagogically.  The way we get to those goals just manifests itself differently in each of our classes.

I’m not suggesting, then, that anyone change personality in order to teach better or differently.  I’m not a fan of the entertainment model of teaching, though I think every professor should be focused on finding ways to engage students.  We should simply let our personalities shape the way we do that engaging.

There are five different types of professors I can see, four of which have particular problems associated with them.  In each of these cases, professors can choose which one they’ll be, regardless of personality differences.  I’ll end with the one I think we should all strive for.

Students’ friend.  This type of professor is usually young and almost always grows out of it.  I was certainly this professor when I was first hired, just over thirty years old.  This professor wants students to see him or her on their side, so you’ll often hear this professor talking negatively about the administration (to the students).  In an attempt to be cool (or whatever word is cool these days), the professor will try to relate to students, not to encourage students to learn, but to be liked.  The challenge this professor faces is the lack of respect that can often come with such an approach.  As one of my colleagues once said, “It’s better to be respected than to be liked.”  It took me a long time to learn that lesson, and I’ll admit I’m still learning it.

Hard for hard’s sake.  Most of us came into this profession really wanting to challenge students, to push them beyond where they can go.  That’s a great goal.  However, for too many professors, the goal of wanting to be seen as difficult becomes more important than the goal of student learning that the challenging work is supposed to get them to.  These professors typically design exams that focus on minutiae, exams where students study for hours just to remember details they will forget as soon as they walk out the door.  They might also grade papers with random guidelines or extreme grading rules (five points off for each use of the word things, for example).  They teach students to fear them, the opposite of the professor who wants to be their friend, but they don’t teach much else.

The genius.  These professors want to be seen as brilliant and might very well be so.  However, they care more about having students perceive them as a genius than they do about the students’ learning.  In class, they will often talk about their research or publications, not to further class discussion or help illustrate ideas in lectures, but to simply reinforce the persona they’re trying to create.  They can also present material in a way that is above students’ comprehension levels, not in an attempt to help them reach that level, but to show how smart the professor is (and how not smart the students are).  They usually have a small group of acolytes who almost worship them, but most students endure them when they have to, not understanding much of what is covered in class.  The smartest students learn to simply parrot back terms and ideas from the genius’s work on exams and in papers.

The absent-minded professor.  I know some people will take issue with my using this type, as they will make the argument that this comes from personality.  That’s certainly partly true.  Some people are simply more organized than others.  However, all professors can take steps to make their classes more organized.  When I first started teaching, even though my classes focused on discussion, I had a typed sheet of notes that had the subjects I wanted to cover with page numbers for appropriate quotes (to this day, I’m awful at finding quotes in books in the middle of class, which is why I still take a list of quotes with page numbers to class).  We can plan out syllabi and stick to them, not changing them every other week, leaving the students guessing on when assignments (and exams and papers) are due.  Unfortunately, some people cultivate this persona because it’s so closely identified with being a genius.

Fair, but challenging.  This is the goal for most of us, and I think it should be.  While those professors who are hard for hard’s sake say that uphold standards, these professors truly do, in that they also help students reach those goals in a meaningful way.  These professors push their students quite hard, but they also provide the support needed to get there.  I often hear the complaint that professors who are challenging get poor course evaluations.  A few years ago, though, there was a study done with community college students.  The professors who scored the highest on course evaluations were those who challenged their students throughout the course, but who also made it clear that they would help them in any way they could.  The grades in those courses were lower than the average, but students did better in the class than they often would.  These professors aren’t concerned about how students perceive them, save for how it impacts the students’ learning.  They want to be their professors first, then friends (perhaps) through that teaching.  They don’t care if students think they’re a genius or not; they plan and run courses in an organized fashion to help students learn.  They only have that one goal: help students learn.

We can work on our teaching and our classroom persona to find ways to use our personalities to reach the pedagogical goals we have for our students.  We simply need to choose which of these professors we want to be, then work to become them.


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