teaching and being taught

Thursday night I talked on the phone for nearly two hours with one of my former students, who is now a professor in Texas and is vacationing in New Mexico. It was good to talk, colleague to colleague, about our experiences and expectations of academic life, as well as life in general.

Yesterday I emailed another former student, who is wrapping up fellowships in Israel and Italy, preparing to become a visiting professor in New York this fall. Having served as a teaching assistant but not run his own course, he had asked my advice on teaching. Because this is a deep issue, it took me a while to respond. After all, there is no single way to teach, even considering only one educator and topic, and my own approach has changed over the years. Different schools and universities have distinct cultures; teaching chemistry is different from teaching philosophy or Ancient Greek; my implicit role over the years has migrated from older brother to older parent. Recognizing the vulnerability and trust it took to ask me, I replied:

This is such an open-ended question — someone could (and people have) written entire books on the issue of how to teach effectively. Instead, here are some quick, disordered, sometimes contradictory, observations.

1) Every class is different.
The age of the students, whether they are non-majors or potential majors or grad students or whatever, the size of the class (3 students is very different from 8, 14, 20, 60), how they will be evaluated, how well they know each other, how well they interact with each other, etc.

2) Understand why students are taking your course.
This allows you to modulate your own expectations and tailor what you will present.

3) Challenge students
Respect their intelligence and their humanity. Don’t waste their time and yours with insufficient or useless challenges.

4) Nerd out
You are the expert in the room. They came here to learn from an expert (note: does not necessarily apply to edge cases like St. John’s).

5) Be nervous
It’s okay to be a little nervous before each semester, even before each class. It’s a sign that you care, that you embrace the import of what you are doing.

6) Be humble
Don’t overestimate your importance. Students are taking multiple classes. They have very individual and personal concerns outside of your class.

7) Do no harm
Don’t turn them off to a subject.

8) Believe in the students
Teaching is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor. We must believe that the students will be “better” (at whatever you choose to evaluate) by the end of the semester, and that — in fits and starts — they can be better every day.

9) Keep in mind what they will remember
In the end, years later, most of them won’t remember the details of every conversation or fact that you present. They will remember how they felt when they were in your class. Teach them how to think, how to disagree and agree, how others (who are more expert) think and why.

10) Model yourself after teachers and professors you admire.

11) Be willing to experiment and find your own path.

12) Have fun
In the large scheme of things, you have to enjoy what you’re doing too. Maybe not everything (I hate grading — is there anyone who enjoys it?), but overall the journey has to be good for you too.

I don’t know if these platitudes are useful, but hopefully they’re a start.

Being rushed, this spill list is incomplete, although it captures the spirit of my main concerns when I teach. If you notice anything missing, that reveals places where I am less attentive. For example, adapting a class to student interests as they evolve means course assignments and deadlines can change during a semester. Students might prefer firmer deadlines and more definitive outcomes.

Nevertheless, as I detailed in my phone conversation earlier on Thursday, I am keenly aware of how far I fall short of the ideals even on this incomplete list.

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