Editor's note: The following article first appeared in the February 2009 print issue of The Teaching Professor. Maryellen Weimer responds to it here.
Like birthdays, anniversaries are occasions for reflection, and as I approach the fifth anniversary of my teaching career, I find that my thoughts are drawn to the things that I did badly. Here’s a list of five teaching mistakes I have made. I share them in the hope that they will cause others to reflect and perhaps help new professors avoid making these same mistakes.
It’s curious: as a graduate student in history, I was trained to maintain the highest evidentiary standards in my scholarship, to situate my research in a body of existing literature, and to scrutinize every claim I made for any possible error. And yet, when it came to teaching, I went entirely on instinct, teaching the way I was taught, assuming that was good enough. It wasn’t. Nearly a year passed before it occurred to me that there might be scholars in the field of pedagogy, too, and that maybe they’d written useful material about how to teach! Was I in for a surprise. Keeping up with that field is a major scholarly undertaking. So I limit myself to two journals specific to teaching in my field, and over the years I’ve attended workshops and compiled a modest collection of books on teaching. I’m glad to say that my instincts weren’t entirely off, but I also know that I’m a much better professor now for having learned from the pedagogical literature.
We all get exasperated at times, and the temptation to let a whole class have it is sometimes hard to resist. In my third year as a professor, though, I had a eureka moment in the midst of bawling out a class for its poor attendance. It suddenly occurred to me, “I’m talking to the people who are here.” I was making them resentful—and doing nothing to reach the people who were the source of the problem. Ever since then, I’ve dealt with problems on a one-to-one basis, except in cases where nearly everyone is doing something wrong.
Yes, there is something presumptuous about undergraduates, who are often still teenagers, griping about their professors. Have they taught? Studied pedagogy? Don’t they realize how good they have it? More and more, however, I remind myself that, since I’m training them to critically assess every reading and, indeed, every truth claim placed before them, I can hardly object when students turn those very faculties of critical inquiry on me. Instead, I’ve moved towards greater transparency in my teaching methods. I also took the advice of Gerald Graff’s book Clueless in Academe (2003) and have made my own pedagogy part of the discussion.
I’m considered a “student friendly” professor, one who is always willing to lend a hand. Last year, however, I inserted a passage in my course outlines stating that I would answer student email only during regular business hours: Monday–Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. I think one of the damaging ideas conveyed by various inspirational books and movies about teachers "who make a difference" is the idea teachers are not entitled to private lives, that they must be on-call for their students at all times. If the purpose of education is, as the ancients believed, to help us lead “the good life,” what kind of example am I setting if I live entirely to serve my students? A corollary: I no longer answer emails that ask me questions that students can answer for themselves using the course outline and other resources (e.g. “What is the final exam worth?”). Some students complain that I’m “slow to respond to email,” but I remind them in a good-natured way that students somehow muddled by for thousands of years without email at all.
At some point in the past year I decided that my initial belief that I could “reach” all students, and that all teaching problems could be resolved through correct pedagogy, wasn’t optimism, it was egotism. Some students, I have come to understand, just aren't that into me. I give all students the same benefit of my time and experience, and I tell those who are slipping that they can stand upright. But I realize that some of them choose not to, and I have decided to respect that choice even if I believe that it’s the wrong one.
Above all, I have come to realize that the division between teacher and scholar is an artificial one. Over the past five years, my teaching has improved by leaps and bounds whenever I have applied the same standards of critical scrutiny to my pedagogy that I have always applied in my research. I can only assume that, in another five years, I’ll be shaking my head at some of the methods I’m employing now.
Graham Broad, PhD, is an associate professor of history at King’s University College, University of Western Ontario.