On (Not) Being a Scary Professor

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It’s the first day of your college composition class.  You aren’t sure how you got into this, exactly, except you know that getting a college degree will open doors, so here you are.

You grip your schedule in a sweaty hand and wander the campus, searching for the right building. Having located that, you wander the hallways next, looking for your classroom. Everyone seems to know where they are going except for you. They all belong here except for you. You can’t even find your class, let alone succeed in it. What the hell are you doing here?  You think how there is just enough time to find your car and drive home. Say class was canceled. Go to work. Forget this school stuff.

But you don’t. You find your class.  You sit down.  Everyone has a notebook or a computer. Why didn’t you at least bring a notebook?  No one told you you might need a notebook the first day, but duh, of course you should. Maybe you should leave.  The professor isn’t here yet.  You can still make it.

Just as you decide to get up and head to the door to consider your options in the restroom (if you can find it), the door opens and your professor walks in.  You settle back into your seat. Too late to bail.

She asks everyone to get out a piece of paper and you feel like an idiot. Why hadn’t you thought to bring a notebook?  You look around and the girl sitting next to you asks you if you want one of hers.  You nod. And a pen?  She hands you a paper and a pen and you say thanks, feeling both grateful and embarrassed and then, the professor begins.

She tells everyone that there is never an excuse to come to class unprepared–even the first day–and if you didn’t plan to participate fully by being prepared, sharing ideas, and caring about your own education, then you might as well just drop now.

You look down at the blue lines on the notebook paper in front of you. You aren’t prepared today, so this just solidifies what you already thought about your future in this class.  You will absolutely go home and find a notebook to bring next time and you can show up prepared in the future, but you know she will already remember this first day and how you don’t really belong here.  And what’s this about sharing ideas? Does she mean talking?  In front of all of these other students, who clearly belong here more than you do? For that matter, what does it mean to care about your education.? Didn’t you come to class today?  You did care. But obviously not enough.

Again, you consider dropping this class. This college thing isn’t working out. When the professor calls roll a few days later, you aren’t there anymore.

How different would your experience have been if your professor had been just a little more empathetic?  Just a little more welcoming? If your professor had given you the message that you did belong here, that she thought you were capable, that she thought you did care? Would you have stayed in the class?

Maybe not, but the chances would have been greater, I believe.

Today’s blog post doesn’t have to do so much with writing, but teaching writing–teaching period, no matter the subject–and the gentle suggestion at how much more effective a warm, encouraging approach can be for so many students.  The phrase “you catch more bees with honey” applies here.  Those early days of a class set the tone for the entire semester and the tone we want to set for our students is, “I agree this is going to be tough, but I know you can rise to the occasion if you work hard.  I will help you.”

Oh, I know, I know, us academics have all had a hard-ass professor in our pasts whom we have greatly admired. As academics, though, we tended to excel at school, and largely, we knew how to roll when we got a “mean” professor now and again because we already felt competent in school to begin with. In fact, some of us enjoyed a good meany-pants now and then because mean professors make for a good story. With a mean professor,  we wouldn’t dare show up without doing the readings, wouldn’t dare show up looking inept. They were motivating to us–those already good at school–and they reinforced our accountability because they represented the real world, they made it clear that NOT everyone is a winner and as competitive people, we wanted to win.

I had a few professors of that type.

The roughest was my dissertation chair. When I took his class for the first time, he would ask the class a question and when one of us gave the answer—an answer we all agreed on, more or less—he’d growl, “NO! That is NOT even remotely correct. Who wants to give me the CORRECT answer?? Who actually READ this book?”

He’d roll his eyes to let us know he wasn’t sure how he ended up teaching a bunch of morons like us, but alas…

Silence. Most of us well into our professional lives by then and we had read and prepared for class, we wouldn’t dream of showing up without having read the text for the day.

Yet we stared at each other, stymied.

He’d wipe his brow and take a sip of his Diet Dr. Pepper. Then he’d sigh.

“Ah, well, now I went and yelled at you and now none of you will talk….I’m SORRY. And your answer wasn’t terrible—it just wasn’t really very good. Let’s talk about the correct answer….”

And we were back on track.

The few of us insane individuals who dared ask this man to chair our committees? We’d wish each other luck going into a meeting with him via text.

“Remember, he’ll hate everything….but he just wants you to think.”

“He just wants you to know what you’re doing.”

Sure enough, after reading our fourth chapters, he’d say, “So….what is this crap? Tell me what you’re trying to do??”

We’d stammer our defenses for our crap, our professional selves melting into the chair right there in his office.

But in the end? We’d be able to defend our studies. We knew our “crap,” inside and out. As adults with some life experience under our belts, we knew his crankiness came from a deeper place, from a kinder place, so this style worked for us.

So yes, roughness can motivate the right person, and possibly this works for some people in graduate school, but for new and fledgling undergraduate students? Students who feel as if they are imposters, who don’t feel as if they belong in college? Students who feel like they are stupid, or “bad writers,” or so very, very far from their goals they can hardly see them on the horizon? Not so much.

I am not suggesting lowering standards or being a doormat for students who truly don’t try in the classroom.  You’ll always have those in your classes and you can deal with them on a case-by-case basis.  You can lead a horse to water and all that.  For most students, however, there is no reason to paint a wide swath of “you will have a hard time in this class!” on the very first day of class.  They already know that.

After all, the people we teach in our classes are human beings, on the same level as us with regard to humanity.  Each of our students has a fascinating story, each has dreams and hopes and complexities. The main difference between us in our roles as student and professor is that as professors, we happen to be more skilled when it comes to teaching whatever it is we teach–in this case, writing and possibly critical thinking–and it is our job to do that. Sure, we may shape their lives in other ways, ideally in positive ways, but our job is to teach them to write.

Instead, tell them that yes, the class is not easy, but you know they can do it. Yes, they belong here. You are honored to teach them.

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