I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘what kind of professor’ I am. I think a lot of this had to do with my scenario from last semester, where students were upset over my teaching style, and that caused an intervention with the chair of my department. This wasn’t overall a bad thing (although, I admit, I felt like a child throughout it) as it caused me to think about what kind of instructor I was, and what I want to be. I’ve found certain evolutions have occurred in my life:
The Cool Prof/The Pal
I think this was my first foray into teaching, thinking I was going to be the professor who wasn’t “that much older” than my students, who every so often would roll into class in jeans and a shirt showing off the body I go to the gym to keep slightly above average, proving that I am “hip” and understand fashion and music. I fancied myself, in my strange imagination, as a sort of “John Stewart as a professor”, provocative, contemporary, and totally funny. I wanted to be a friend and ally, someone the students would talk about to their fellow students (especially since I was teaching either really early or really late classes).
Why this didn’t work: I didn’t know it at the time, but I wasn’t White enough (or really, male enough) to be this professor. Marginalized individuals can’t be this person without being seen as sloppy, lazy, or just inappropriate in the teaching arena. A White, straight guy can get away with being ‘Dave’ instead of ‘professor’ and be some type of near-Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society. A Black guy named Steven (or a gay guy named Steven, or any woman…ever) can’t do this without being seen as eccentric. This is wonderful from the point of view of getting great reviews on RateMyProfessor.com , but you always walk out of the semester wondering….did I teach them anything?
The Font of Knowledge
This is where you just comb over statistics and current events to essentially know..well…everything. Suddenly you can answer _so_ many of your students’ questions, and you can call off statistics without any problems whatsoever. Your lectures are filled with so much information, and you keep many students engaged. You exemplify what a professor is: brilliant.
Why this didn’t work: You can’t maintain this without a lot of energy drinks, and eventually, you conk out. It’s just too taxing to try to fill your head with so much knowledge, and sometimes your lectures turn into nothing but data (and so much of it, not even in the textbook). It becomes difficult to remember what you talked about hours after you’ve done it (because you really cannot teach this way with any sense of accurate notes), so any assessments become either crapshoots, or directly out of the book (making your lectures informative, but pointless to the class). Lastly, while you come off as brilliant, you also come off as very, very arrogant, and that turns students off. Further it seems like you live, eat, and breathe sociology, and the students who don’t love your field take their anger out on you (in evals).
The persona that got me into the most trouble was this one, because in this place, you see the classroom as your fiefdom. Teaching is very exact and stressed, so notes and PowerPoints become key. It’s a cross between an 18th century professor and a 20th century dictator. You get annoyed when people aren’t reading, and make exams “hard but fair” (like the AP exam). You teach to task, and enrichment takes a second chair to recognizing that people understand…at any cost.
Why this didn’t work: You’re essentially a jerk, so focused on people participating and orthodoxy that you forget why you’re even teaching. You start to be seen as a hardass, not only by students, but by fellow staff. You are perceived as inflexible and threatening, and in the helicopter parent world, that makes you the enemy. And when you’re a marginalized professor, suddenly your are “unnecessarily uppity”. And your evaluations are complete crap. 20% of your students get it, the other 80% think you’re Satan.
The Public Academic
This is my current persona…the evolved ‘me’. How long this will stick around? I don’t know. But in this teaching style I am human and approachable like “the cool guy”, but I’m not trying to be a pal. I use real world terminology to explain, and I attempt to engage with current events, but sensibly. I appreciate the rules, and expect adherence to them, but I’m not inflexible. I recognize, in the Helicopter Parent world, that we aren’t dealing with Puritan Style ‘little adults’ here; these are kids. In many ways, I treat them like adults (if you have an opinion…fine; just be prepared to explain it and defend it), while in some ways I recognize they are kids (talking during a lecture or texting during a lecture is rude…and you’ll be called out for that). I have information, it’s relevant, it’s current, but it’s accessible, not overwhelming, not dominating. Oh, and I’m doing more ‘short small group’ things, where they pair up with each other for a few minutes and process together, rather than letting me do it.
Will it work? Who knows…..